When pressed about what has made the Royals so good the last couple seasons, there are a lot of answers people can give. You can mention the aggressiveness, both in the batter’s box and on the bases. You can talk about the amazing defense. You can talk about the never-say-die attitude. But, to me, what has allowed the Royals to be two-time AL pennant winners and the defending World Series champions is that they’ve had an elite, dominant bullpen. Very few teams have had the ability to know that if a game is simply close in the late innings, they have a real chance to win every one of them because you expect the bullpen to be essentially flawless.
This year was poised to be no different. They had Wade Davis, Kelvin Herrera, Joakim Soria and Luke Hochevar as the front men, along with a solid supporting cost for the games that didn’t require such tension. Before the season, I wondered if this bullpen could actually be better than last year’s, which was actually better than 2014’s bullpen. And the early returns were pretty darn good.
In April, the bullpen posted a 2.50 ERA. They allowed a .658 OPS and were just generally fantastic. In May, the ERA dropped to 2.38 with a .611 OPS allowed. June wasn’t quite so forgiving with a 3.29 ERA and an OPS of .693 allowed, but then the bottom dropped out in July and the Royals bullpen looked like it had been inhabited by aliens. The ERA skyrocketed to 5.96 with an OPS allowed of .865. Yikes
Some of it is pretty easy to figure out. Davis was hurt, Hochevar was pitching hurt and then finally put on the disabled list and Soria had a brutally bad month. Add in Chien-Ming Wang coming back to earth and a couple garbage time relief appearances gone bad and you can see how the bullpen was a complete disaster in July. It coincided with the team being a complete disaster, of course.
Then on July 30, the Royals sent Davis home for an MRI that ultimately sent him to the disabled list. So now Davis was out. Hochevar was already out. People wished Soria would be out, but he wasn’t. At least Brian Flynn was throwing the ball well?
So the Royals called up Matt Strahm to fill a spot in the bullpen. It sure seemed like they were in an evaluation period at this point.
But a funny thing happened. The bullpen got it together. Slowly but surely, things started to look up for the bullpen. Strahm turned out to be an impressive weapon the Royals could utilize, and within a couple of appearances, he was put into the late inning shuffle. Herrera overcame a couple tough performances (in August, mind you) to get back to dominating and now closing out games. Oh, and Soria clicked and is now pitching as well as he has all season long. Add to that strong contributions from Flynn, Wang and Chris Young, and you have a revitalized bullpen ready to hopefully carry the Royals in the postseason.
How did they get it together? Truthfully, a big reason the bullpen is so much better now is because the starters are pitching fantastic games. The Royals have played 20 games in August. Their starters have failed to get through five innings just one time. Their starters have failed to get through six innings just four times. That means a reliever has had to pitch before the seventh just four times this month. They’ve even gotten six starts of at least seven innings with six other starts getting outs recorded in the seventh.
Back when the Royals rotation was on pace for some insanely low number of innings, I argued that the depth of the bullpen meant it wasn’t as big of a deal as it would be to other teams. Many talked about the Royals bullpen being overworked, and I argued it wasn’t because so few Royals were near the top of the leaderboard for innings pitched and games pitched. And I still believe that. But even with that, it’s no secret that a bullpen with the kind of talent the Royals have is even better when they don’t have to give four innings every single night.
And now, here we are. The last time the Royals bullpen gave up a run was on August 10. It was the top of the 11th inning. It looked like the Royals were headed to a loss, but they scored one in the bottom of the 11th to tie it and then got three more innings of scoreless relief. Since and including those three innings, they’ve thrown 29 innings. In that time, they’ve allowed six hits while striking out 32 and walking six.
Let me put that in a chart to highlight the awesomeness.
You want to know how they’ve all done it, don’t you? Fine. Here you go.
In all, it’s been a very nice month for the Royals bullpen, with the re-emergence of Soria’s effectiveness being a big driver along with Strahm’s ability to stay cool in big situations and make big time hitters look silly. I think the Royals are in a position to even improve on this bullpen moving forward. If and when Davis returns, that’s another weapon that’s even bigger than making a waiver acquisition. I also like what the Royals have in Triple-A in Scott Alexander, even though he wasn’t great when he was up earlier this season. Maybe even Kris Medlen can contribute in the bullpen in September, you never know.
Boy, what a relief.