When discussing the Kansas City Royals last two years (and more specifically their historic runs in the playoffs), a lot of their success seems to be derived from the stellar bullpens they have employed. In 2014, the team heavily relied on the three-headed monster of Kelvin Herrera, Wade Davis and Greg Holland. Last year started the same, but after Holland struggled(which we found out later was due to an injury), the coaching staff was able to also rely on Ryan Madson and Luke Hochevar late in the game. General Manager Dayton Moore has made a number of successful moves these last few years, but near the top of the list has been his ability to piece together one of the best(if not the best) bullpens in baseball. What is even odder about this isn’t the ability to put together a solid pen; we can trace the origins of bullpens filled with power arms back to the late 1980’s/early 1990 Cincinnati Reds’ teams that featured the ‘Nasty Boys’, Rob Dibble, Randy Myers and Norm Charlton. No, what is odd is the consistency the Royals bullpen has showed for years now.
Most major league bullpens show success for a year or two, but then start to be less efficient and eventually are re-tooled. The Royals have tinkered with their formula for a few years now and seem to continually find arms that contribute and keep their success going. Last year, the Royals were 4th in bullpen WAR in the American League at 5.0, but more importantly had the highest LOB(Left on Base) % in the league at 80.4, 4.5 % better than the next best bullpen in the league. In 2014, the Royals bullpen was second in league WAR(5.1 to the Yankees’ 5.5) while leading the league in HR/9(0.62). More of the same in 2013(or as I call it B.W., Before Wade), as the Royals had the second best bullpen WAR in the AL(6.2) while leading the league in LOB%(81.4), K/9(9.57),ERA(2.55) and FIP(3.21). Even going back to 2012 shows the Royals had the second best WAR(6.4), second in FIP(3.52), third in LOB%(77.8)and first in HR/9(0.71). What I find most fascinating about this is how while the Royals have been a model of consistency during that span, no other team in the league has been as consistent. One year the Rays are near the top, the next it’s the Orioles, then it’s the Yankees. The point being that it’s not just that the Royals bullpen is good; it’s also the fact that with new pitchers rolling in and out of the pen each year, the numbers stay near the top of the league.
So over the last four years, the Royals bullpen has been one of the best in the American League, all while shuffling pitchers around utilizing different players into different roles. With all that being said, the bullpen looks to be just as strong headed into the 2016 campaign. Wade Davis is still front and center as the closer and dominating force he has been the last two year, with Herrera and Hochevar helping setup again this year. But there are some new names in this year’s pen, and one of the primary relievers this year looks to be former Royals closer Joakim Soria. Soria was brought back into the fold this past offseason and will be one of the Royals main setup guys going into the season. Danny Duffy looks to be starting the year in the pen, which adds another power arm to this group while also giving them someone who will probably start at some point this season. Dillon Gee looks to be filling the role that Joe Blanton held for the Royals last year, as spot starter and long reliever if needed. Throw in Scott Alexander and Brian Flynn from the left side(with Tim Collins out for the year) and Chien-Ming Wang looking to be an option at some point this year, it looks to be another loaded pen.This is all without mentioning players coming up through the farm system, guys like Miguel Almonte, Alec Mills, and Matt Strahm, who could all see action at some point this season.
Every year I wonder if this is the year the bullpen comes back down to reality. So is this the year the bullpen finally stumbles? I wouldn’t count on it:
Sure, they are just Spring Training numbers, which are to be taken with a grain of salt, but they are impressive nonetheless. It’s hard to imagine this group of arms being the one to break the ‘Streak of Dominance’. Greg Holland is gone from this group, but he battled an unknown injury most of last year and his ‘replacement’, Soria, looks to be a notch up from 2015 Holland. Looking at the set of arms the Royals have and it’s hard to imagine much of anyone regressing, as most are still in their prime. It’s a testament to the knowledge and hard work that pitching coach Dave Eiland and bullpen coach Doug Henry have put in that have helped the Royals succeed with their bullpen. At some point the Royals pen will be normal again and we will fondly remember this time period. But I wouldn’t count on that happening anytime in the immediate future, especially if this group of high velocity arms have anything to say about it.