The KC Royals continue to lead the baseball world in the trend toward increased emphasis on the bullpen. On Tuesday night, the manager Ned Yost deployed a four-headed bullpen monster to preserve a one-run lead.
Over the last two pennant-winning seasons, the Kansas City Royals became famous for three strong relievers that effectively turned games into six inning contests. In 2014, the “HDH” trio of Kelvin Herrera, Wade Davis, and Greg Holland made headlines as they propelled the KC Royals through the playoffs. In 2015, Holland’s September injury forced Yost to promote Wade Davis to closer and add Ryan Madson as the set-up man.
In 2016, the KC Royals appear to have FOUR dominant relievers that Ned Yost can deploy to turn games into five-inning affairs. This season, the return of Luke Hochevar to full strength after his 2014 Tommy John surgery creates a bullpen quartet of Luke Hochevar, Kelvin Herrera, Joakim Soria (signed in free-agency to replace Madson), and Wade Davis.
On Tuesday night, the HHSD quartet held a one run lead over the last four innings to help the Kansas City Royals defeat the Houston Astros 3-2. Yost had called upon the same four pitchers to preserve the Royals opening day victory, but he used them in the last three innings because Hochevar had to bail out a struggling Soria in the eighth inning after he gave up three runs to pull the Mets within one score.
Thus, Tuesday marked what I expect will become a four headed monster in games where the KC Royals starting pitcher can only go five innings.
The difference is significant because numerous studies have shown that offensive numbers jump significantly on the third time a pitcher faces the same batting order. Typically, that third-time-through-the-order problem occurs during the sixth inning—making the sixth a key pitching management puzzle.
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With a four-headed bullpen monster, Yost’s sixth-inning decision making becomes much easier.
If anything, the 2016 Kansas City Royals bullpen might be even stronger than the group that led the American League—and finished second overall to the Cardinals—in bullpen ERA in 2015. Along with the Hochevar, Herrera, Soria, and Davis quartet, the KC Royals have three former starters as long relievers in Danny Duffy, former Cy Young runner up Chien-Ming Wang, and Dillon Gee.
With three guys who regularly started games as recently as last year (if you include Wang’s AAA performance), the Kansas City Royals bullpen figures to be better able to eat innings than any other relief staff in baseball. That’s on top of their dominant quartet.
In 2016, KC Royals opponents have to believe they will need to seize the lead before the sixth inning to stand a chance at beating them.