KC Royals: Are lefties an endangered bullpen species?

(Photo by Steven Ryan/Getty Images)
(Photo by Steven Ryan/Getty Images) /
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Two of baseball’s new rules and the crowd of pitchers competing for relief jobs may leave little room for left-handers in the KC Royals’ bullpen.

Among the many problems facing new manager Mike Matheny, and which he needs to solve before his KC Royals leave Spring Training, is the crowded mess that constitutes the club’s bullpen. It’s been too long since the Royals had an adequate, much less stellar, relief corps, a roster flaw figuring prominently in the Royal regression that began too soon after the club won its second World Series in 2015. The club hasn’t recovered from the departures of Wade Davis, Greg Holland, Kelvin Herrera, Luke Hochevar, and others.

Holland, of course, is back, the beneficiary of an invitation to spring camp and a one-year deal, but isn’t the sure roster bet he used to be; although he was serviceable for Arizona last season, he hasn’t had a truly Hollandesque campaign since 2017 with Colorado, his first year back after Tommy John surgery and his departure from the Royals. Whether he recaptures enough of his former form to make the club remains to be seen.

Holland, though, is only one of many–perhaps too many–hurlers competing for the few bullpen jobs the Royals realistically have to offer. That crowd and two new rules may severely limit the relief spots available for left-handers.

The first of the new rules relevant here generally limits pitching staffs to 13 (although a player who meets certain criteria may be designated as a “two-way” player, capable of playing a position and pitching without violating the 13-pitcher limit; other position players can pitch in extra-inning games or if their club trails or leads by at least six runs). Assuming Matheny chooses a five-man rotation, the rule leaves room for eight relievers.

The second new rule requires pitchers to face at least three batters; excepted are situations in which the side is retired before three batters face the new pitcher, or the new pitcher is injured or becomes ill. Inevitably, the rule will further diminish (if not eliminate for all practical purposes) the role of the LOOGY–the so-called “lefty one-out guy” who exists almost exclusively to retire just one batter–a dangerous left-hander–in a tight situation.

Together, these two new rules complicate things for KC Royals’ lefties. No one on the club qualifies for two-way player status because none have pitched at least 20 big league innings, and played at least 20 games in the field or as DH in which they batted three times, during a specific period. So the 13-pitcher limit applies. Their roster spots secured by virtue of their 2019 performances, and taking three of eight bullpen spots, will be closer Ian Kennedy (righty) and short relievers Tim Hill (lefty) and Scott Barlow (righty).

That leaves room for five in the pen. Jorge Lopez, a righty with stellar but inconsistent stuff, will more than likely make the club–it would be shocking if he doesn’t–and Kevin McCarthy, another right-hander who worked regularly last season, is an excellent bet to do the same. By virtue of his status as a Rule 5 draftee, and barring a disastrous spring, righty Stephen Woods Jr. will probably at least break camp with the club, reducing the available relief jobs to two; if he doesn’t make the team, the spot will likely go to Kyle Zimmer or Glenn Sparkman, both right-handers.

If, as the Royals clearly hope, Holland and fellow former right-handed lock-down closer and Spring Training invitee Trevor Rosenthal make the club (the fact both pitched for Matheny in St. Louis doesn’t hurt), no room remains for any lefties other than Hill. But is that a bad thing considering the new three-batter rule? Maybe…maybe not.

Again, diminution of the LOOGY will be the rule’s most immediate impact–unless there are already two outs, or there’s one out with a double-play situation, or a lefty is on-deck, Matheny won’t have any true LOOGY opportunities because any LOOGY he might have must pitch to at least three batters, thus exposing such a specialist to a right-handed batter, the usual nemesis of the typical LOOGY.

Additionally, the utility of carrying a LOOGY seems to have decreased as the number of innings starters typically pitch has decreased–clubs need relievers who can pitch more than they used to, thus making the LOOGY less important. This, and the new three-batter rule, mean the days of the LOOGY, once a unique baseball species, may be drastically numbered.

The prospect of a KC Royals bullpen full of righties, then, may not be as troublesome as it once was, especially considering Kennedy, Holland and Rosenthal all historically fare better against left-handers than right-handers, and also pitch well against righties, thus reducing the need for a LOOGY or near-LOOGY. (Lefty Hill, always effective against left-handers, is available to face a left-handed threat and is decent against righties).

But is Matheny, prone to follow conventional baseball wisdom and strategy during his St. Louis managerial tenure, ready for a bullpen with only one lefty? He seems ready to embrace analytics, a new personal wrinkle that might make it easier to accept such a pen, and the prevalence of right-handers in baseball is an inescapable fact. Nevertheless, he may justifiably want another left-hander, but may not have room unless Holland or Rosenthal–or both–falter. But there are so many right-handers that left-handers may stand little chance to make the club.

Assuming Matheny wants another left-hander or two and can find room for at least one, Richard Lovelady is probably the most likely choice. The KC Royals have always been high on him, and justifiably so–in four minor league seasons and 133 relief appearances, Lovelady is 10-8 with a 2.17 ERA, 1.01 WHIP, 9.75 SO9 and 2.54 BB9. Probably big league ready in 2018, the Royals waited until last season to call him up, and then seemed reluctant to pitch him regularly; in 25 games, he was 0-3 with a 7.65 ERA and 1.900 WHIP.

Those numbers may be misleading, however, because Lovelady underwent knee surgery shortly after the season ended, suggesting injury may have contributed to his subpar performance. His minor league record proves he can pitch and makes him a viable bullpen candidate.

Like Lovelady, lefty Gabe Speier made an unimpressive KC Royals and major league debut last season, but possesses minor league numbers that probably warrant another big league look. Although he had a 7.36 ERA in nine games, his was a small 7.1 inning sample size; his 3.41 ERA in seven minor league campaigns is probably more indicative of his potential than his short stint in KC. Some of his peripherals have improved in each of the last four seasons and his stuff is good.

Randy Rosario is a left-handed short reliever who’s pitched for the Twins, Cubs and Royals in his three major league campaigns. He’s 6-0, with one win coming with the Royals after they obtained him on waivers from Chicago last September, and has a 4.83 ERA in 63.1 innings, an otherwise troublesome number tainted by his 13-game 5.91 ERA with the Cubs before they waived him. If he can improve his control a bit, he may catch Matheny’s eye; in any event, the club may want a longer look at him than they had last year.

And then there is lefty Eric Skoglund, a once-promising prospect who simply hasn’t distinguished himself and whose Kansas City career may be approaching its conclusion. He has two impressive major league victories–a scoreless, two-hit 6.1 inning performance in his 2017  big league debut and a two-hit, nine strikeout, seven-inning triumph in 2018. Unfortunately, those are his only wins in a 2-11, 6.61 ERA three-year span. Without significant improvement this spring, his chances to return to KC are slim.

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Tim Hill is the only left-handed reliever assured of a spot in the KC Royals’ bullpen. Baseball’s new 13-pitcher and three-batter rules, and the sheer number of pitchers competing for relief roles, will make it hard for any other lefty relievers to secure jobs with the club. In Kansas City, then, the left-handed relief pitcher may be an endangered species.

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