As I write this, as Saturday afternoon’s ballgame gets underway, the Royals rank 5th in the American League in runs allowed.
That may be somewhat deceptive. The Royals have allowed 263 runs, just two fewer than the Rangers and seven fewer than the White Sox. (The Rays have allowed 262 runs; if I had written this yesterday, the Royals would have ranked 4th in the league in runs allowed.) All three teams have played 64 or 65 games, while the Royals have played only 62 – if we lined teams up by runs allowed per game, the Royals would rank 7th.
But the point here isn’t whether the Royals rank 4th or 5th or 7th. The point here is that the Kansas City Royals, who were widely assumed to have one of the worst rotations in the league before the season – and whose rotation has played to form and then some – are better than average when it comes to run prevention.
Before the season, I said that while I didn’t expect the Royals to contend, that I also didn’t think their rotation automatically disqualified them from consideration. If the Royals could just get mediocre production from their starting five, the rest of the team was good enough to vault the Royals into contention. Basically, the rotation was to the Royals what Matt Cassel is to the Chiefs.
As I saw it, the Royals looked like they had an above-average offense, an above-average defense, and a well-above-average bullpen. With starting pitchers throwing fewer and fewer innings every year throughout baseball, their relevance was also declining with each season, and the Royals were strong enough in other areas to compensate.
As it turns out, the offense hasn’t been above-average or anywhere close, an issue which I hope to address later. But the rest of that argument has held up well.
The Royals’ starters have combined for a 4.87 ERA, which is next-to-last in the AL. They are in no danger of falling to dead last – the Twins have a remarkable 6.09 ERA from their rotation. It’s almost as if putting a bunch of finesse pitchers in front of a bad defense isn’t a good idea. But still, the Royals are 13th in the league, which is about where we’d expect them to be.
The Royals’ bullpen has a 2.87 ERA, the fourth-best in the AL.
So far, so good. But here’s the thing: as Sam Mellinger pointed out a few days ago, the bullpen isn’t only effective – it’s also prolific. The Royals are on pace to get more innings from relief pitchers than any other team in baseball history.
Royals starters have thrown 316 innings in 62 games. That’s 5.10 innings per start. Think about that for a moment. We’re in the middle of June, and the Royals are getting basically five innings from their starter every single day. (Late update: after Bruce Chen got knocked out in the second inning, the Royals are now averaging 5.04 innings a start.) The Twins have 329 innings from their rotation, while EVERY OTHER TEAM IN THE LEAGUE has at least 366.
To compensate, the bullpen has thrown 239 innings in 62 games. Let’s compare the Royals to the Oakland A’s, who rank just ahead of the Royals with a 2.80 ERA from their bullpen:
Oakland: 196.1 innings, 61 earned runs, 2.80 ERA.
Kansas City: 238.2 innings, 76 earned runs, 2.87 ERA.
The Royals’ pen is slightly worse on a per-inning basis – but they’ve thrown 22% more innings. If you subtract out the A’s numbers from the Royals, you get:
42.1 innings, 15 earned runs, 3.19 ERA.
Kansas City’s bullpen has basically matched what the A’s have done – and then thrown another 42 innings with a well-above-average league ERA.
If you do this with the Yankees, who rank second in the league with a 2.71 ERA – but in only 170 innings – here’s what you get:
69 innings, 25 earned runs, 3.26 ERA.
The Royals can’t touch the Orioles, whose bullpen not only has a 2.38 ERA, but thanks to a ton of extra-inning games, have thrown 219 innings as well. But a strong case can be made that given the extra work that’s been asked out of them, the Royals have the second-best bullpen in the league.
Another way to look at it is this: the Royals essentially have three types of pitchers on their roster. They have starting pitchers, they have relievers, and they have “shadow starters”, pitchers who are trained to be starters but who are stashed away in the pen, waiting for the inevitable call in the third inning. Some of these guys have made starts of their own. Nate Adcock. Everett Teaford. Vinny Mazzaro. Luis Mendoza.
Those four pitchers have made 13 starts, in which they’ve thrown 61 innings. But they’ve also made 13 relief appearances, in which they’ve thrown 44.1 innings. In essence, those are the extra innings that the Royals have gotten from their bullpen. In those 44.1 innings, they’ve allowed 17 earned runs.
So here’s a way to break down the performance of the Royals’ pitching staff:
Starters: 316 innings, 4.87 ERA
Shadow starters: 44 innings, 3.45 ERA
Relievers: 194 innings, 2.74 ERA
(To go on a tangent here, you can drop that ERA nine points if you take out Roman Colon’s appearance last night. I’m trying to stay positive here, but…I think Dayton Moore’s attachment to Roman Colon has now leapfrogged past Jeff Francoeur and even Yuniesky Betancourt as the most bizarre fetish of his career.
You may recall Colon as the reliever the Royals acquired from the Tigers shortly after he had been suspended from his Triple-A team after punching a teammate in the face. In 2007, he had a 4.43 ERA in the minors. In 2008, he had a 4.74 ERA in the minors. But in 2009, he pitched reasonably well in 13 relief appearances, and got promoted to Kansas City, where he fashioned a 4.83 ERA in 50 innngs, with a strikeout-to-walk ratio of just 29 to 21.
But the next spring Colon reportedly had developed a new nuclear slider which was supposed to change the world, so he made the team out of spring training. In five appearances, he allowed 8 of 14 batters to reach base, and was sent packing with an 18.00 ERA. He was soon sold to a team in Korea, and even in Korea he didn’t pitch all that well.
In 2011, he was back stateside with the Albuquerque Isotopes in the Dodgers’ organization, where he fashioned a 4.85 ERA. This winter the Royals re-signed him, sent him to Omaha, and he was modestly effective. In 30 innings he had a 3.34 ERA, but he also had walked 14 batters and allowed 27 hits.
And Friday, they called him up. They did so despite the fact that Colon has never been effective at the major-league level, he’s never been dominant at the minor-league level, and he’s 32 years old. They did so even though it meant burning a spot on the 40-man roster. They did so even though they had sent down Louis Coleman THE DAY BEFORE. Coleman’s numbers IN THE MAJORS (20 innings, 3.15 ERA) were better than Colon’s numbers in the minors. They sent Coleman down so that they could keep Clint Robinson in the majors – and then sent Robinson down one day later. So in order to keep Clint Robinson on the roster FOR ONE MORE DAY, they replaced Coleman with Roman Freaking Colon. Who, naturally, coughed up two runs in two-thirds of an inning last night. If the rest of the staff hadn’t thrown 8.1 innings of shutout ball, this would have cost the Royals the game.
The Royals front office has a lot of smart guys and they’ve done a lot of smart things. But the blinders they have towards certain players are more than just aggravating – they are potentially destructive. End of rant.)
I don’t know if the bullpen can continue to maintain this level of excellence going forward. Some regression to the mean is likely even if you don’t think that they’re going to burn out from all the times they’ve been called on.
To the Royals credit, they’ve spread out all those innings as much as possible. Not only have they carried eight relievers most of the season, but they’ve worn out I-29 shuttling pitchers back and forth – Adcock, Mazzaro, Coleman, Teaford, and Tommy Hottovy have all gone back and forth. They essentially have had a nine-man bullpen, with the ninth man resting his arm for a few days in Omaha.
Here are the relievers on pace to throw the most innings for the Royals this year:
Kelvin Herrera: 88.2
Tim Collins: 81.0
Aaron Crow: 75.0
Jose Mijares: 68.0
Jonathan Broxton: 64.1
That’s not a particularly heavy workload – only two pitchers are on pace to throw 80 innings, and none are on pace to throw 90. But here’s a list of the relievers on pace to appear in the most games this year:
Jose Mijares: 84
Aaron Crow: 81
Tim Collins: 76
Kelvin Herrera: 76
Jonathan Broxton: 65
There’s some cause for concern there. The interaction between innings and appearances for relievers is complicated and not well-understood. But my belief is that it is risker to let a reliever throw 80 innings in 70 games than to throw 100 innings in 50 games. We never see the latter anymore; relievers rarely cross even 90 innings anymore, and yet they continue to get hurt, whereas someone like Goose Gossage could throw over 130 innings in a season three times in his career without a problem (but only once in his career did he pitch in more than 65 games).
I start to worry about a pitcher who makes 75 appearances in a season, and the Royals might wind up with four guys who fit that profile. The depth in the bullpen makes it tempting for Ned Yost to call on three or four different guys a night to throw an inning apiece, but my suspicion is that it would be better to ask guys like Herrera and Crow – who were both starters in the minors – to throw two innings at a time, but only use them twice a week.
It will be interesting to see if the bullpen can keep up this pace all season. It will also be interesting to see if the Royals learn from the mistakes of the past, recognize that even elite relievers are one pitch away from the DL, and sell high on some of these guys – not just the obvious pitcher in Broxton, but one or two of their young, club-controlled commodities like Crow or Herrera. That’s a topic for a later time.
But one thing is clear: a bullpen this strong and this deep can absolutely cover for a rotation this bad. The Royals are 27-34 with the lowest-scoring offense in the league. With even an average offense, they would be over .500 and fighting for first place in the AL Central even with a rotation of Bruce Chen, Luke Hochevar, Tweedle Dee, Tweedle Dum, and Eduardo Villacis.
Which makes it that much more frustrating that, for lack of an offense, they’re not doing just that.