If the Kansas City Royals are serious about contending, they’re going to have to do something about the bullpen.
It’s not just Kelvin Herrera, although he has certainly failed to live up to the expectations of those who thought the back end of the Kansas City Royals bullpen wouldn’t miss a beat without Wade Davis. It’s simply not true. Check out some of these numbers:
- Royals relievers collectively strike out fewer than a batter per inning (8.44 K/9)
- They issue nearly four walks (3.93) per nine.
- Predictability is not a good trait, and Royals relievers throw fastballs nearly 60 percent of the time (13th in MLB)
- Zone contact (84.5 percent) and zone swing (67.5 percent) ranking in the top half of the league, and an O-Swing percentage (30.2 percent) ranking right in the middle. To simplify things, hitters see and hit strikes thrown by Kansas City Royals relievers and, for the most part, lay off stuff out of the zone.
- A 69.5 percent strand rate, third-worst in the American League.
- A .317 opponent batting average on balls in play (third-highest in baseball)
Wait a second. That last one doesn’t quite belong.
Despite line-drive and hard-hit ball rates that rank firmly in the middle of the MLB pack, the KC Royals have been snake bitten by bad luck. Some of the lowlights include:
- Joakim Soria — .390 BABIP
- Chris Young — .370 BABIP (yeah, he’s gone, but still… Neftali Feliz’s is .224 and his ERA is nearly 7.00)
- Travis Wood — .341 BABIP
- Peter Moylan — .338 BABIP
Combined, that quartet has thrown 106.2 innings this season—more than 11 full games where at least one out of every three batters were getting a base knock.
Tough to pick up many W’s that way.
This is probably why all four have FIP (Fielding Independent Pitching; basically, a fancy term for ERA that removes the variable of defensive quality) at least a full run lower than their individual ERA’s. And it certainly accounts for Kansas City Royals fans (and Ned Yost, to a lesser degree) lack of trust in the bullpen.
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Before you ask, Mike Minor’s BABIP allowed stands at .255. Hopefully a regression to the mean is not forthcoming. And Herrera’s ERA (4.35) and FIP (4.56) are almost identical. Maybe those numbers don’t mean anything in a vacuum, but they’re a gauge—for better and worse—of how they should be expected to perform over the long haul.
Mike Minor is overperforming. Joakim Soria is underperforming. If you’re reading this, chances are pretty good you watch games, aren’t stupid and could have told all that for yourself. You don’t need my help for the obvious.
You don’t need my help for the obvious.
What is less obvious is where things might progress from here. A one-season trend of bad luck can be bad luck—a multi-year trend of high line-drive rate and high BABIP typically means a pitcher has (literally) lost his fastball and isn’t likely to suddenly start blowing people away again.
There’s a very good chance Herrera’s simply not cut out for the closer’s role; no shame in that. There’s an equally good chance that Moylan was more cut out for the player-manager role he had in Braves rookie ball two years ago than he is for high-leverage MLB situations. Soria has never been as bad as he was last season during his 10 years in pro ball and he remains a vital piece of the bullpen.
Now that Young has shuffled off the roster—and let the record show that adding Neftali Feliz and his 6.75 ERA and calling it an upgrade is not good for morale—Wood has the most potential for a bounceback. He had a microscopic .215 opposing BABIP a year ago and is paying the piper this season (.341). However, his hard-hit ball rate (29.8 percent) is his lowest posting since 2013, no doubt at least partially because of his new-found love of the changeup—he’s throwing that pitch more than he has since his first three seasons in the league.
Now, if he could just stop walking 13.4 percent of the batters he faced, we’d be in business.
So what have I just spent the last 650 words explaining?
That in spite of the outward appearance—which, again, Neftali Feliz is an upgrade, so take it with several grains of salt—there are good signs for the KC Royals bullpen. Wood is going to pick it up a bit. Soria remains as solid as ever. Herrera may not be cut out for the final inning, but he’s still more than serviceable. Minor we’ve gone over at great length.
That’s four guys. Once you get to October, shorten the rotation and lean more heavily on the guys who spent 162 games proving their quality to you, there’s worse shape to be in.
Would a quality closer be great? Absolutely. And at present, the Kansas City Royals currently possess one of the market’s most desirable chips in Herrera—who nobody familiar with the day-to-day innerworkings of the Kansas City bullpen feels even remotely great about. There’s plenty of options ranging from lights-out closers (David Robertson) to high-level complementary pieces (Pat Neshek, Ryan Madson) to wild cards with massive potential (Sean Doolittle, Drew Storen).
And with a month until the deadline, anything can happen—the Giants could move a reportedly disgruntled Mark Melancon. Craig Kimbrel is due for his regularly scheduled franchise change. Hey, I could break my arm like Henry Rowengartner and suddenly hit triple digits!
Dayton Moore has some choices. But he must choose wisely—with few assets at his disposal, GMDM can’t afford to swing for the fences and miss, nor can he make cosmetic changes that ultimately don’t represent an upgrade (see Neftali Feliz and his 6.75 ERA). Fortune favors the wise, Mr. Moore.