The KC Royals feature a strong bullpen. It may be better than many think.
The trio was magnificent, three pitchers who for two magical seasons formed perhaps the most feared bullpen back-end combination ever. When the Royals led late, Kelvin Herrera in the seventh inning, Wade Davis in the eighth, and Greg Holland in the ninth meant one thing. A win was in the bag.
The magic ended, though, when the Royals non-tendered Holland after a UCL injury ruined his chance to pitch in the 2015 World Series. Davis took over as closer, then departed for free agency after 2016; the natural progression made Herrera the next closer, but he left in a 2018 trade to Washington.
The Royals turned well-paid but disappointing starter Ian Kennedy into a reliever and he saved 30 games in 2019, but Kansas City, looking for something else, signed struggling Trevor Rosenthal and brought back fellow struggler Greg Holland last season. Rosenthal became the lockdown closer he’d been in St. Louis until KC shipped him to the Padres in a trade deadline deal, and Holland made sure the bullpen didn’t lack for an equally effective closer when he inherited the job.
But Rosenthal, now in Oakland, and Holland, who returned to KC, weren’t the only relief success stories. Jesse Hahn went 1-0 with an 0.52 ERA in 18 games. Kyle Zimmer finally broke through at 1-0, 1.57 in 16 games. Josh Staumont’s 100 mph four-seamer and sinker propelled him to 2-1, 2.45. Scott Barlow and Jake Newberry had their moments.
All that good pitching made Kansas City’s one of the better bullpens, something the Royals hadn’t had for too long. KC’s 95 percent save rate led the majors; the pen saved all but one of its 20 save opportunities, the best record in the majors, and its 19 saves ranked third only because they had only 20 chances. Only 31 percent of inherited runners scored, which tied for the sixth best big league mark.
All but two regular relievers return—Rosenthal and Kennedy are gone—so the 2021 bullpen should be just as good. Holland proved he can still close and Kennedy, who was 0-2 with a 9.00 ERA, is easily replaceable. Staumont, Hahn, Barlow and Newberry should be as steady as they were last season, as should Zimmer if he stays healthy. And if Davis and Santana make the club, this season’s pen may be better than last year’s.
The relievers are a Royal key. Look for them to play a major role in avoiding the 100-loss mark.