This is the second in a series of postmortem articles on the 2017 Royals. The first – a look at Melky Cabrera’s return to the Royals – can be found here.
On Sunday, July 23, the Royals rallied against the White Sox. Down 4-3 in the eighth, Whit Merrifield homered to leadoff the inning and tie the game. In the next frame, Brandon Moss laced a double down the right field, scoring Lorenzo Cain from second to walk the Royals off to victory.
The win pushed the Royals to three games above .500. They were 1.5 games behind the Indians in the Central and were tied with the Rays for the second wild card spot, just a single game behind the Yankees. After stumbling out of the gate in April, the Royals were in the thick of the race as the trade deadline approached.
The next day the Royals announced their intent as buyers, making a trade with the San Diego Padres. General Manager Dayton Moore engineered a deal to send Matt Strahm, Travis Wood, Esteury Ruiz and cash to the Padres in exchange for three pitchers: Trevor Cahill, Ryan Buchter and Brandon Maurer.
It was a trade that made sense at the time. Lacking the killer bullpen that propelled them to the playoffs in 2014 and 2015, the team was looking to add relief arms with upside to the mix. They were also looking for some stability for the back end of the rotation. So the team added a rental starter with a pair of relievers with some team control beyond 2017. It wasn’t a sexy trade like the ones that brought Ben Zobrist and Johnny Cueto to Kansas City a couple of years earlier, but it seemed like a solid deal. One that helped shore up a couple of trouble spots on the pitching staff.
It couldn’t have gone much worse.
In Cahill, the Royals were taking on a pitcher who was working with a career best 12.6 percent whiff rate and a robust 10.6 SO/9. Although he had missed time earlier in the year with shoulder issues he had put up an impressive 1.1 WARP in 11 starts in San Diego. Extrapolated to a full season, that WARP would have been the second best of Cahill’s career.
Things completely imploded for Cahill upon his arrival. In his first three starts for the Royals he pitched a total of 11 innings, surrendering 18 hits, nine walks and 10 runs. The team shut him down after an abysmal start on August 9 with shoulder impingement.
By the time he returned in early September, the Royals playoff hopes were on life support and Cahill was exiled to the bullpen. He made seven more appearances, throwing 12 innings, allowing 11 runs and walking 12.
His limited numbers with the Royals were beyond awful. He finished with an 8.22 ERA, an 8.2 BB/9 and a 5.9 SO/9. Somehow, he landed on a positive WARP. Barely. It finished at 0.1.
The data from PITCHf/x suggests Cahill altered his release point just enough in Kansas City that his sinker flattened out and lost it’s drop. The results were devastating. He couldn’t buy a swing and miss on the sinker and batters punished it to the tune of a .636 slugging percentage against in August and a massive .783 SLG in September. Brutal.
Likewise, Maurer was a straight up nightmare working out of the bullpen. After navigating through three scoreless outings in his introduction to Kansas City at the end of July, he imploded in August and September. Over his final 17 innings covering 23 appearances, Maurer posted a 9.35 ERA with 10 walks and 17 striekouts.
Maurer was at his worst in high leverage situations. As defined by Baseball Reference, hitters teed off on Maurer to the tune of .476/.522/.762 in 23 high leverage plate appearances. That was 139 percent worse than the league average pitcher and the second worst performance in such situations on the Royals. Only Neftali Feliz was worse.
While he was still generating strikeouts, (a 9.4 SO/9 after the trade) his control abandoned him. With the Padres, Maurer had a 1.8 BB/9. That jumped to 5.0 BB/9 once he arrived in Kansas City. He posted a 6.48 DRA with the Royals and was worth -0.3 WARP.
Of the three, only Buchter had success. Searching for a workable solution in the bullpen pecking order, Ned Yost called on Buchter with great frequency over the season’s final two months. It’s understandable he lost a little heat off his fastball in August and September. His swing and miss rate on his four-seamer dropped from around 25 percent with the Padres to close to 20 percent in Kansas City. Still, he was able to find positive results on the back of a .173 BABIP. And yet, it didn’t seem like it was enough to earn the trust of Yost. He pitched in a couple of tie games early in his tenure, but was used mostly in blowouts in the first month and a half of his time with the team. It was only in mid September that he was consistently trusted to hold leads in close games.
While Buchter saw his walk rate drop after the trade (from 4.2 BB/9 to 2.7 BB/9) his strikeout rate saw a bizarre decrease. It went from 11.0 SO/9 with San Diego to just 6.0 SO/9 with the Royals. Despite limiting opposing batters to an impressive .216 TAv, Buchter saw his DRA jump to 4.76 after the trade. He posted just 0.1 WARP for the Royals.
The three players in the trade combined for a -0.1 WARP. None of the three contributed in ways the Royals likely imagined when they pulled the trigger on this deal. Cahill will hit free agency. Buchter and Maurer are slated to return to the Royals and may yet make something out of this deal. Maybe a new (as yet unnamed) pitching coach can unlock what appears to be some definite potential for both to emerge as decent options out of the bullpen. But as the team looks poised for another era of rebuilding, their successes will come too late to really matter.