KC Royals Bullpen Most Dominant Late-Inning Force In MLB History


If the 2015 KC Royals finish the season at—or below—their current 60 ERA- (40% better than league average), it will be the most dominant bullpen performance in the last 88 years*. But, if we dig into the numbers, I think there’s a strong case the Kansas City Royals bullpen might be the most dominant late-inning force in baseball history.

[Note: I chose 1920 as the beginning point of my search since that was Babe Ruth’s debut season in New York. The Babe pretty much invented modern offense by slamming 54 home runs that season, shattering his own previous record of 29. I think home runs make late-inning comebacks much more likely.]

I used ERA- for this study, because I am mostly concerned with run prevention, rather than trying to tease out the bullpen’s “true talent level”, or how much overall value that a bullpen provided to their team. Thus, I didn’t use Fielding Independent Pitching or WAR (because those measures include park factors. WAR is also a counting stat).

Ultimately, I wanted to know how good bullpens were at shutting the door on other teams.

You can see the top 10 bullpens since 1920, rated by ERA-, in the chart below:

[table id=28 /]

[Note: data for table courtesy of Fangraphs.com]

The only better relative performances than the 2015 KC Royals are the 1920 Braves, the 1927 Chicago Cubs, and the 1922 St. Louis Browns. And, let’s be honest, bullpens in the 20’s were mere afterthoughts, rather than the significant force that the KC Royals bullpen is today.

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Despite the relatively “modern” game in the era, NONE of those 20’s bullpens were anything like the current Royals. The 1920 Braves relief staff only posted a 0.29 strikeouts per nine innings, compared to 8.31 for the 2015 KC Royals. Neither the ’27 Cubs, (3.98 K/9) or the ’22 Browns (5.11 K/9), could miss bats anywhere close to the Royals pen either.

The closest modern comparable is the 2003 Dodgers, who boasted 55 saves—in 55 chances—from closer Eric Gagne. That bullpen only managed a 61 ERA-. Checking in at number six, is the 2015 Cardinals pen with a 63 ERA-.

These historically great pens are almost impossible to beat if they hold a late-inning lead, with the possible exception of the 20’s teams (for whom we don’t have data). We can see that fact in the following chart:

[table id=29 /]

[Note: data for table courtesy of Baseball-reference.com]

The outlier here is the 2013 KC Royals, who blew a lot of late leads. One wonders that if manager Ned Yost had figured out that Wade Davis was a set-up man, rather than a starter, could the Royals Revival happened one year earlier?

Aside from the 2013 Royals, the great historical pens are almost uniformly dominant when leading in the late innings. However, where the 2015 Kansas City Royals separate themselves is when they are tied in the late innings:

[table id=31 /]

[Note: data for table courtesy of Baseball-reference.com]

The only top historical bullpen that is even close to the 2015 KC Royals when tied in the late innings is Oakland’s 1990 pen. All of the others are much more likely to lose when tied past the fifth inning. Heck, the 2003 Dodgers were little better than a coin flip when tied late.

The bottom line is opponents need to have a LEAD going into the 6th inning if they expect to beat the 2015 Kansas City Royals. If you’re trailing, or tied, the KC Royals bullpen will outlast you.

The Kansas City Royals late-inning prowess is bad enough during the regular season, but it becomes positively ominous for playoff rivals. In the post-season, Ned Yost will have both more options and a better-rested pen. In the end, they’ll face a monumental task.


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