After doing their best over the last generation to send me to an early grave, the Royals are now trying to kill my professional reputation. Almost immediately after I buried them in the Kansas City Star and put the front office on double-secret probation, the Royals went on their longest winning streak in 20 years. When that streak had concluded and the Royals were atop the AL Central at the 70-game mark since before the AL Central even existed, I had no choice but to start the embarrassing yet exhilarating process of taking back all the mean things I had written about the team over the past two years.
Naturally, they then got swept at home by the Mariners, beginning a stretch in which they went 8-13, and lost six straight against the two teams they need to beat most, the Mariners (for the Wild Card) and the Tigers (for the AL Central) before winning yesterday. So I think it’s safe to say that I have no idea what’s going on with this team, and I should stop making any kind of predictions about them.
If you want to be pessimistic, you can focus on the fact that as bad as it has been for the Royals recently, it could be – should be – a lot worse. The Royals have won more than a few games this year either because their opponents gave the game away or through sheer dumb luck. The quintessential example of this is the opening game in Toronto on May 29th, when Salvador Perez hit a routine ground ball to shortstop Jose Reyes with the Royals losing and two out in the ninth. But Reyes bounced a routine throw to first base, Jarrod Dyson motored around from second base to tie the game, and the Royals won in extra innings.
Exactly one month later, the Royals won the rubber game at home against the Angels when in the sixth inning Albert Pujols was thrown out stretching a single into a double – no, that’s not accurate, he was thrown out sauntering a single into a double, because he apparently confused Alex Gordon with Alex Trebek and couldn’t be bothered to even slide into second base. It was the kind of Little League baserunning that would have caused a riot in the press box if, say, Yasiel Puig had done it, but because it was St. Albert, it was pretty much ignored even though Erick Aybar hit a home run two batters later. This meant the game was tied in the ninth instead of an Angels lead, and then Howie Kendrick muffed the pivot on a potential inning-ending double play ball by Perez, and Omar Infante hit the walk-off single one batter later.
And then there was Wednesday’s game in Tampa Bay, in which the Royals had stranded a hundred baserunners and appeared doomed to lose the rubber game just ahead of the crucial four-game series against Detroit. With two on and one out in the ninth, Perez skied a high fly ball that managed to travel 338 feet – into Crawford’s Corner down the left field line, where the fence at Tropicana Field juts in sharply, and turned a ball that would have been an out in 13 other American League parks (I’m guessing it would have hit off the Green Monster in Boston) into a game-winning home run. It might be the shortest over-the-fence home run of such import in Royals history. (It was only the 27th home run in team history that turned a deficit into a lead in the ninth inning or later, so that statement isn’t as outlandish as it sounds.)
And proving once again that the notion of momentum in sports is an absurd fallacy that should have been abandoned generations ago, the Royals followed up their biggest win of the season by coming home and getting spanked by Detroit, 16-4, their most lopsided loss of the year.
That’s what the pessimists will say. An optimist will point to the Royals' 10-18 record in one-run games and make the convincing argument that the Royals have simply been very unlucky in close games, and given that they have maybe the best one-two relief combo in baseball, there’s no reason why their luck can’t turn around in a heartbeat.
There’s validity in both arguments, which is why they cancel each other out. The Royals have outscored their opponents by five runs all season, which leads to an expected record of 48-46. They are 48-46.
The bottom line is that the Royals have not played well enough to make the playoffs, not even the Mediocrity Parade that is the second Wild Card race in the American League. If they continue to trend downward, they aren’t that far away from restoring the narrative that it’s time to blow everything up, including the front office – they are merely four games ahead of the White Sox and Twins, who are tied for last place in the division. But let’s assume that they’re still in it for this season, which is reasonable given that 1) they’re only 2.5 games behind the Mariners, who hold the final Wild Card spot right now, and 2) this front office is all-in for 2014, so unless and until they get fired, the Royals will be buyers, not sellers, at the deadline.
But with the All-Star Break upon us, it’s time to take an unflinching look at where the Royals are, how they can get better, and whether they can be good enough to win. Let’s start with the bullpen.
A year after posting the lowest bullpen ERA (2.55) by any AL team since 1990, the Royals’ bullpen ranks a mediocre 7th in the league with a 3.62 ERA. No position in baseball regresses as fast as relievers do, and we can’t be surprised by this.
What is surprising is that the two guys the Royals were most counting on haven’t regressed at all; they might even be better than expected. Greg Holland hasn’t been quite as good as last year; he’s given up more walks, hits, and home runs per inning than last year, and his ERA has jumped over 50%. Of course, it’s “jumped” from 1.21 to 1.82, and he’s surrendered fewer than one baserunner per inning. Last year, Holland had the highest strikeout rate (40.4%) in Royals history (min: 30 innings). This year, he has the third-highest strikeout rate (39.3%) in Royals history.
And the second-highest rate in Royals history (40.3%) is currently occupied by his set-up man, Wade Davis. Davis replaced Luke Hochevar, who was outstanding last year (1.92 ERA, batters hit .169/.227/.306 against him), and has been even better, with a 1.13 ERA and an opponent’s line of .112/.221/.112. Going back to last September, when he moved back to the bullpen, Davis has not allowed an extra-base hit in 39 straight games covering 43.2 innings.
With the caveat that the Play Index only allows you to search for consecutive games, not consecutive innings, here are the longest streaks without allowing an extra-base hit by a reliever that I was able to find:
Pitcher Year IP
Greg Cadaret 1988-89 47.1
Frank Linzy 1967 46.2
Larry Andersen 1990 45.1
Terry Forster 1978-79 44.1
Frank Williams 1986-87 44.0
Wade Davis 2013-14 43.2
Larry Andersen’s stretch was so impressive that the impending free agent middle reliever was traded during it for a prospect named Jeff Bagwell.
It’s much more difficult to search for starting pitchers, so it’s possible that a starter has had a longer stretch. But I can’t rule out the possibility that, with another week of dominant pitching, Wade Davis will have gone longer without giving up an extra-base hit than any pitcher in major league history.
So the difference between this year’s bullpen and last year’s bullpen isn’t the 1-2 guys. It’s everyone else. What distinguished last year’s bullpen wasn’t simply that Holland and Hochevar were so good, it’s that literally no one was bad. And I mean literally no one: 13 pitchers made more than half their appearances out of the bullpen for the Royals last year, and every one of them had an ERA of under 4, all the way down to Everett Teaford, who threw two-thirds of an inning. This year, 13 pitchers have made more than half their appearances out of the pen, and six of them have ERAs above 4. (And that doesn’t include Aaron Brooks, who made one start and one relief appearance, and sucked both times.)
Louis Coleman had a 0.61 ERA last season. He has a 7.48 ERA this season. The Royals aren’t blowing leads in the 8th and 9th inning; they’ve lost just one game all year that they were leading after seven innings. But they’re getting killed in the middle innings, and in tie games. They’re 5-10 in games that are tied after six innings, and have a losing record in games that are tied at the end of every inning between the second and the seventh.
They have two other effective relievers besides Davis and Holland in Kelvin Herrera and Aaron Crow. My skepticism in Crow’s ability is well-documented, and he gave up two home runs to the Tigers Saturday night – he has a 2.75 ERA, but just 21 strikeouts in 39 innings, and that’s not sustainable. I have much more confidence in Herrera, and he has mostly justified it this year – he has a 2.08 ERA and hasn’t allowed a home run all season. He’s not pitching quite that well; his once pinpoint command is gone (16 walks in 39 innings), and while his fastball has lost a bit of velocity this year, he’s throwing his changeup a little harder, which isn’t a good combination. Still, he’s a very good seventh inning guy.
The problem is that in today’s game you really need two seventh inning guys, and you also need a lefty. Thanks to Tim Collins losing the strike zone this year, the Royals don’t have either. Collins is back in Triple-A, and while he’s dominating hitters down there, he continues to walk enough guys (six in 12 innings since his return engagement there started two weeks ago) that the Royals justifiably have no confidence that he can get hitters to chase his stuff if he returns to the majors. Collins’ absence means that a contending team is actually going with Francisley Bueno as its #1 left-hander out of the pen. The Royals claimed 38-year-old Scott Downs off waivers and have already given him important innings. Bruce Chen could have an important role as a lefty out of the pen, at least once Jason Vargas returns from his appendectomy.
But in the meantime, the Royals have a real need for one more good reliever in their bullpen, which is why they turned to Yordano Ventura in a key spot yesterday, a wise if unrepeatable decision. The lack of that extra reliever was glaring on Tuesday against Tampa Bay when the Royals entrusted Bueno to keep a 2-1 deficit from expanding in the eighth inning. (Kelvin Herrera was the obvious man to pitch there; afterwards the Royals claimed he had tightness in his shoulder and wasn’t unavailable.) A cynic would point out that they had the perfect guy for that role in Will Smith, who they traded to Milwaukee to get Nori Aoki for one season to fill the void in right field created by the…but we’re not going to go there. (And in fairness, after having a 1.36 ERA through the end of June, Smith gave up 9 runs in 2 innings in his first three appearances of July, taking the loss in two of those games and blowing a save in the other. I’d still love to have him on my team for the next five years.)
It seems kind of galling that the Royals, who had a historically good bullpen last year, would find themselves needing to trade for a reliever the very next season. But that’s the nature of bullpens, which are, after all, made up of relievers. The good news is that unless you’re trading for an elite closer-type guy, you can usually get a reliever of some utility at the trading deadline for a minor prospect. (We should know. The Royals have dealt many such relievers away over the years, and with rare exceptions – Collins himself in the Kyle Farnsworth/Rick Ankiel trade – haven’t gotten anything substantial in return.)
If the Royals have truly given up on Collins, you would think that he alone would bring back a highly useful reliever. Collins, keep in mind, is still just 24 years old – I mean, he’s younger than Michael Mariot. He’s under club control for three more years after this one, and even at arbitration-enhanced salaries, he’d be a heck of a guy to take a flyer on for a rebuilding team that’s looking to deal a quality reliever in his contract year.
Whether the Royals deal Collins – who I would miss, both for his unique physical characteristics and for his consistently above-average performance – or go the more conventional route of trading a second-tier prospect, I fully expect them to acquire a reliever sometime between now and the trading deadline. It’s almost de rigueur for a team that fashions itself a contender to make a deal for a reliever in July unless that team has a truly elite bullpen. Last year, the Royals had one. This year, they don’t. Last year, they won most of their close games. This year, they’re not. One more reliever might not change their fortunes, but the Royals can’t afford not to take the gamble that it will.