How the Pieces Fit, Part 1: Kansas City Royals Bullpen


Mandatory Credit: Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

Teams have expanded rosters, giving teams that are out of the playoff race a chance to evaluate their minor league talent and it gives teams in the playoff race a way to bolster their weary rosters. Dayton Moore is oft criticized for moves he made before the trade deadline, acquiring what was largely considered second-tier talent, but, in truth, he has constructed an impressive compliment of players that will help the Royals in the home stretch. We want to start with the bullpen, because it is by far the most impressive asset the Kansas City Royals have.

A month ago, the Royals bullpen regained their rightful place atop the American League in ERA. Talent piled up in the minor leagues behind a sturdy group of flamethrowing Royals headliners. The expanded roster has given the team a chance to make permanent cast members of the many guest stars from this season–players who yo-yo’d from the minors to the majors, but probably would have been mainstays in many other bullpens around the league. Not only that, but the Royals A-listers keep churning out quality innings, making the bullpen effectively endless. This lets Yost keep starters on a short leash, which has been invaluable in the past week.

Greg Holland (Closer): Holland is one of the top three relievers in the American League. He has a 96 mph fastball that ticks up in speed as the season goes along. It occasionally touches 100 mph and is offset by a tough splitter and devastating slider that lives in the high 80s. Batters only have a .493 OPS against him and he averages 14 strikeouts per nine innings. Holland is the fixture that the rest of the staff hangs on. Get the ball to Holland and let him do the rest.

Kelvin Herrera (Set up): Herrera has his patented 99-100 mph fastball that has been known to touch 103. He left it up in the zone early in the year, which earned him a few trips to AAA, but since coming back after the All-Star Break, he has a 1.67 ERA and has struck out 12 batters per nine innings. As we saw last night, his extreme heat plays up even more when he comes into a game after Bruce Chen If Chen makes it through seven innings, expect Herrera to come in and face lefties or righties.

Mandatory Credit: John Rieger-USA TODAY Sports

Luke Hochevar (Middle Relief-Long Relief-Set Up): There was some speculation that Hochevar’s #1 draft pick “stuff ” could really ramp up in a relief role. It has. His fastball gained two miles per hour and has 1.74 ERA on the season. It has been good enough for Ned Yost to begin placing him in high-leverage situations.

Hochevar has a six pitch arsenal that makes it difficult for batters to predict what’s coming next, how fast and which way it will break.  His fastball breaks in and jams righties, his cutter breaks away, his two-seamer sinks, his curveball slows down bats and his slider puts ’em away. He has struck out 66 batters in 60 innings and has allowed less than one baserunner per inning. Right-handers have just a .412 OPS against him.

Tim Collins* (Set up): He’s another guy who has pitched well since the All-Star Break, posting a 1.08 ERA, striking out 16 in his last 16 2/3 IP. For the first two years of his career, he had a reverse-split, performing better against righties instead of the predicted lefties. That all changed this year, as he has been hammered by right-handed bats. Righties have a .380 OBP against Collins, but luckily haven’t been driving his sharp curve for extra bases (righties only have a .372 SLG). However, he has dominated lefties, who are hitting just .194 against him. Paired up with Luke Hochevar against right-handers in the eighth, teams aren’t likely to score any runs.

Aaron Crow (Middle Reliever): Crow is another pitcher with elite stuff, but got demoted from his set-up job after blowing a few leads. His two seam fastball is unstoppable when under command, but his secondary stuff, no matter how much movement it has, is only effective when he can keep it low in the zone. He has over a 1.500 WHIP, his strikeout rate is down and his walk rate is way up from last year. He has still managed to get timely strikeouts and maintain a 117 ERA+. If he can keep his stuff from riding up into the hot zone, he can be effective, especially against righties, but for now, he has been relegated to low-pressure middle relief. He would still be a setup man on other teams in the league.

All five of these guys could easily step into the closer role elsewhere. One could make a legitimate argument that between them, they have the best set of out pitches in the majors. Holland’s slider, Herrera’s 100 mph fastball, Hochevar’s sinking fastball, Collins’ curveball and Aaron Crow’s two-seam fastball. They’ve been as close to unstoppable as possible.

But wait…there’s more.

The Royals have called up and sent down several relievers who would have remained on other rosters all year, the team was just too loaded with pitching to keep them around. With the September expanded rosters, they’re here to stay, adding incredible pitching depth.

Will Smith* (Long Relief): Smith’s slider has become unhittable, generating a swing and miss 38.5% of the time as it busts perfectly sideways (That number breaches 40% with two strikes). Batters are hitting just .065 against it and slugging .022. Last season, Smith was a decent fifth starter who threw strikes, so his control was never a problem. From the bullpen, his 9.5 K/BB is approaching peak Bret Saberhagen territory. Lefties have a .480 OPS against him this season. (He’s someone who should get a shot at the rotation next year.)

Louis Coleman (Middle Relief): Coleman’s 0.36 ERA is heavily luck-driven, but his 9.1 K/9 is not. The guy misses bats. When he doesn’t, though, he has allowed an unacceptable line drive rate of 29% this year. The liners have miraculously found leather all season. His delivery is deceptive and works well in short bursts, but if a batter gets a good look at him, he’s very hittable. Good thing for the Royals that they never have to leave him in long. They have plenty of arms.

Francisely Bueno (Middle Relief): Bueno’s stuff isn’t overpowering  (90 mph fastball). He can’t strike anyone out (3.8 K/9 in 24 career innings), he always throws strikes (1.1 BB/9), but no one makes hard contact against him. Batters only hit 13% line drives against him. In part, it’s because all of his pitches have a downward break, generating many goundball outs. Whatever the case, it’s hard to argue with results. He has a 1.25 ERA in his 21 2/3 IP with the Royals.

Donnie Joseph* (Middle Relief): Joseph beat up on left-handed batters in the minors and was promoted as a loogy. Lefties have a .151 average against him in the minors this season and a .625 OPS. Righties aren’t much better with a .669 OPS. If we combined minor and major league stats, he’s struck out 87 batters in 58 2/3 IP and has shown the ability to miss bats at the highest level. Like Collins, he has more to offer than just a left-handed specialty, but down the stretch, he can certainly provide that.

Luis Mendoza (Long Relief): He’s shown flashes of brilliance in the past and developed an unhittable slider that drops like a power-curve on good days. This year, he’s been terrible. His fastball velocity has fallen in the last month and he hasn’t shown any feel for the strike zone. Many have speculated that he’s fatigued after pitching in winter ball and the World Baseball Classic, which may or may not have had an effect. It appears that Ned Yost believes Mendoza is tired, because he has only used him six times in the last 40 days. He hasn’t been designated for assignment mainly because he’s under team control for years to come. Next year, he will provide starting depth on the cheap. If he gets rested up, he can still mop up in games with wide run margins, but for the most part, he’s the only dead weight pitcher on the roster.

Wade Davis (Middle Relief-Long Relief): Davis showed promise from the bullpen in 2012, where he could let loose his fastball. It only averages around 92 mph when he’s in the rotation and 95 from in relief. It has a late sinking movement that has missed bats this season. He hasn’t been able to control his curveball all season, but doesn’t need to in relief appearances if he can keep his fastball low in the zone.  He reintroduced a slider into his repertoire, but it hasn’t been any more effective than his curveball in the past. In short bursts, his sinking fastball and curveball feed each other and disrupt batter timing. The rest of Davis’s secondary stuff hasn’t fooled anyone in a long time. In his career, batters hit over .500 against his changeup, which he should never ever EVER throw again as long as he lives. It might be the worst changeup in baseball. The Royals probably shouldn’t give up on him as a starter, but that’s a problem for the off-season. Right now, he’ll provide additional long relief. The Royals can use Davis and Danny Duffy as tandem starters when the Duffman can’t control his fastball. They both throw around 20 pitches per inning and get knocked out of ballgames early, so Davis is handy to have right now.

Next, we’ll take a look at the Royals outfield pieces and how they fit together.