Bullpens get the Royal treatment
baltimore — In the summer of 2015, when the Kansas City Royals thought they had a championship-caliber club, anchored by one of the most brutally efficient bullpens in recent memory, they made a pair of splashy deadline trades designed to push them over the top. In came ace right-hander Johnny Cueto and super-utility man Ben Zobrist, who went on to become two of the heroes of the Royals’ march to their first World Series title in 30 years.
But times have changed in these past 24 months, both for the Royals and all of baseball.
Nowadays, and in no small part because of the example the 2014-15 Royals set in the science of shortening games, every contender seems to be looking for the same thing at the trade deadline: dominant bullpen arms. While only a handful of impact bats and front-line starting pitchers changed teams at this year’s deadline, nearly two dozen relievers did so.
Some teams, such as the New York Yankees, locked in a tight division race, needed bullpen help just to get themselves to the playoffs, while others, such as the Washington Nationals, were all but assured of a playoff spot but needed the beefed-up bullpen for October, when the game becomes even more bullpen-centered. That’s something for which the Royals, with some justification, claim credit.
“I think we kind of opened the door to all that in ’14 and ’15,” Royals Manager Ned Yost said in reference to the franchise’s back-to-back American League pennant-winners. “[Teams] saw how successful you could be building a pitching staff from the back end.”
This year, the Royals themselves, with a bullpen that has suffered bouts of inconsistency, were one of the contenders hoarding relief arms at the deadline. They emerged with two, getting righthander Brandon Maurer and left-hander Ryan Buchter from the San Diego Padres in a six-player trade on July 24 that also brought starter Trevor Cahill.
“Upgrading the bullpen,” Yost said, “was a big piece for us.”
The Royals have had the strangest of seasons in 2017, opening with a disastrous 7-16 April that ended on a nine-game losing streak and in which their offense scored only 63 runs all month. Well into May, when they bottomed out at 10-20, and even June, when they first clawed their way back to .500, the Royals looked like a franchise staggering to the end of an era.
Some of the last remaining core pieces of the 2014-15 World Series teams are approaching free agency at the end of this season — a group that includes Lorenzo Cain, Alcides Escobar, Eric Hosmer, Mike Moustakas and Jason Vargas — and other teams were beginning to circle the Royals like vultures in preparation for a potential fire sale ahead of the July 31 trade deadline.
“We just weren’t playing good baseball. There was nothing crazy about it,” said Royals left-hander Danny Duffy, now in his seventh season with the team. “Teams go through bad stretches all the time. But it was so dang early. It helped that it was early — you weren’t in a time of year when everyone was dragging. We went ahead and got our really bad stretch out of the way.”
But as a 17-9 June gave way to a 16-10 July — a two-month stretch in which only the Los Angeles Dodgers posted a better record — the Royals declared themselves all in on 2017. When the trade deadline came, the Royals were buyers instead of sellers. In two deals, General Manager Dayton Moore landed Maurer, Buchter and Cahill from San Diego and outfielder Melky Cabrera from the Chicago White Sox. Cabrera has been hitting in the third spot in the Royals’ lineup since his arrival.
“Everybody assumed after the way we played in April, that’s what this team was,” said second baseman Whit Merrifield, who has had a breakout season as the Royals’ primary leadoff hitter. “But we knew we were better than that. It was just a matter of time.”
The resurgent Royals reached a peak of seven games over .500, at 55-48, in late July, and entered Saturday 56-52 following a three-game sweep at the hands of the Baltimore Orioles, in which the Royals’ bullpen gave up seven runs in 82/ innings. Though they came tantalizingly close to first place in the American League Central a couple of times in July, entering Saturday they were 31/ games behind first-place Cleveland — which they play 10 times in the season’s final six weeks — and have seen their lead in the race for the second AL wild card shrink to a half-game over Tampa Bay.
The Royals’ bullpens of 2014-15 remain some sort of mythical ideal the rest of baseball — including 2017 Kansas City — has been chasing ever since. At their best, Kelvin Herrera, Wade Davis and Greg Holland combined to form a seamless, untouchable seventh-eighth-ninth combination — with additional contributions in the middle innings from a rotating cast of hard throwers — that helped usher in the current age of bullpen supremacy across the league. The trend may have found its ultimate expression with the 2016 Cleveland Indians, who acquired bullpen ace Andrew Miller at the trade deadline that July, but it started in Kansas City.
“When they had Kelvin in the seventh, Wade in the eighth and Holland in the ninth — it was just lights out,” said veteran reliever Peter Moylan, who came to the Royals in 2016. “What you’re seeing in the game now, the way teams are rethinking their bullpens and putting all their emphasis on building a great one, I think it all started with the Royals.”
But the Royals traded Davis to the Chicago Cubs at the end of 2016, and Holland, after missing all of 2016 following elbow surgery, signed with the Colorado Rockies as a free agent in January. Both are having excellent 2017 seasons as the closers for teams pointed toward the postseason. All that’s left of the Royals’ holy late-inning triumvirate is Herrera, who is now their closer but who hasn’t been the same dominant force he was the previous three years.
Piecing together the necessary outs to close out a game hasn’t been nearly so easy for Yost and the Royals since the heyday of Herrera/Davis/Holland came to an end. These days, the Royals’ bullpen is a parade of lefty-lefty and righty-righty matchups, instead of a three-man march through the seventh, eighth and ninth innings. It is quantity over quality.
“We just have to mix and match now,” Yost said of his bullpen, contrasting it to the ones he had in 2014-15. “It’s not so much a cut-and-dried scenario, where you go boom-boom-boom. We have arms down there that are quality arms, and the focus is on trying to keep everyone healthy and their workloads balanced going into September.”
More than ever, that’s what baseball is in 2017, with everybody hoarding relievers and piecing together late-inning outs with the weapons at hand. It’s great if you have a three-headed monster like Herrera-Davis-Holland, but for everybody else, including the 2017 Kansas City Royals, it’s much more complicated than that.
Kansas City acquired reliever Brandon Maurer last month in a trade with San Diego. The team’s bullpen hasn’t been as strong as it was in recent years.