Once the game starts, it seems managers have very little impact. They can call on bits and pieces of strategy – a stolen base, a sacrifice bunt, etc. – or they can move personnel incrementally with a pinch hitter or a pinch runner. The area where all managers make their mark is with the bullpen. As we’ve seen, bullpens are fickle creatures. One year, they’re lights out and leading a team to October glory. The next, they’re merely pedestrian. Still, it’s the manager’s job to get the matchups correct. Using a bullpen is about setting up the situation so the pitchers succeed.
You know from following the Royals all season that Ned Yost kept his starters on a short leash. Gone were the days where the goal for the rotation to net 1,000 innings. It was replaced by a realpolitik style of management that was instead about survival. Getting through nine innings isn’t always so easy. Especially when your starting pitching is a crapshoot from night to night.
The stats back up the eye test. According to The Bill James Handbook, Yost was the most likely manager to get his starters out of the game before high pitch counts impacted his pitcher. Last year, Yost only allowed two of his pitchers to go more than 110 pitches in an outing. Ian Kennedy threw 111 pitches in a start against the Angels on April 16. In that outing, he allowed just two hits and two walks while whiffing 10 and going eight innings. He didn’t get the pitcher win, though. That went to Kelvin Herrera as Royals won 1-0, on an Alcides Escobar walkoff single.
The other start where a Royals pitcher threw more than 110 pitches was on September 6 when Jason Hammel got through six innings of work, allowing just two runs. Like Kennedy five months prior, he required 111 pitches while allowing nine hits and six strikeouts.
And that’s it. A total of two games where the Royals starters threw more than 110 pitches. The sweet spot for Yost seemed to be at the arbitrary century mark. His starters tallied more than 100 pitches in a start 36 times. Again, only twice did those pitchers extend beyond the Bill James defined “Long Outing” of 110 pitches. It’s a different game.
If Yost is keeping his starters on a short leash, it makes sense to discover he’s leaning on his bullpen more than ever. Indeed, Yost summoned a fresh bullpen arm 538 times last year. That’s a ton, but it wasn’t the most in baseball (Don Mattingly led the way in Miami going to his bullpen 580 times), although it was the most Yost had ever done it in his 14 year managerial career.
Of those, Yost went to a reliever who had pitched the day before 120 times. That was the most in the majors. Here’s how they fared.
The Royals 4.18 ERA when pitching on no rest was third worst in the AL, ahead of only Houston and Detroit. When those are the only teams you’re better than in a particular split, I’m not sure there are any sound conclusions to draw. Baseball happens, man.
Examining the table above, maybe in retrospect it wasn’t such a great idea throwing Peter Moylan and Kelvin Herrera when they had pitched the previous day. Both found outs more difficult to come by and were more likely to surrender the home run when working on no rest. On the other hand, the target of your bullpen ire, Joakim Soria, could more than hold his own when pitching without rest.
Certainly, the Royals bullpen of 2017 was a shadow of its former dominant self, and if the starters are unable to get deep into games (both in innings and as seen above on pitch count), it’s going to expose a shallow pool of relievers. Yost may not have wanted to go to Moylan or Herrera so frequently when they hadn’t had a proper amount of rest. Circumstances may have said otherwise.
(Quick aside: One of Moylan’s outings with no rest was easily my favorite relief appearance by a Royal this year. On September 23 against the White Sox, Yost summoned Moylan to face Tim Anderson with two runners on base and no one out. He threw exactly one pitch and hit Anderson. He then gave way to Scott Alexander. Somehow, it was the fourth time last year a reliever was brought into a game, threw one pitch, hit a batter and was removed.)
The Royals were the only team in baseball that didn’t record a save where the reliever pitched for more than an inning. Obviously, it’s not a common occurrence these days, but the average team had five outings where a reliever went more than an inning to collect the save. Even with noted Cyborg Wade Davis in the bullpen, Yost has been reticent about leaning too hard on his Saveman. The Royals had five outings where the save was earned with more than an inning of work in 2015 and 2016 combined. Some of that likely had to do with the fact the Royals suspected Greg Holland was pitching on borrowed time for most of 2015. Then again, when you have a three inning plan to cover the final nine outs, it’s not like you’re going to lean heavily on one particular pitcher.
In the larger picture, none of the above is a signal as to how Yost will manage his bullpen in 2018. There will be some new arms to go with the old guard and again, it will take some time to mix and match and figure out roles. Still, it can be interesting to see how it worked (or didn’t) in the past. The 2018 Royals will need more innings out of their starters and more reliability out of their bullpen if they’re to push above the .500 mark.