HOUSTON — On Sunday morning, before the Royals’ bullpen imploded once more, pitching coach Dave Eiland attempted to put its early-season travails in perspective.
“It hasn’t been as bad as publicized,” Eiland said. “It’s just that this bullpen set the bar so high for themselves. It seems that everybody expects those guys to be perfect. They are going to give up hits. They are going to give up runs. And they’re going to blow a game every now and then.”
A few hours later, the bullpen did just that. Aaron Crow ignited the fuse due to his lack of command. Wade Davis brought on the explosion with a fielding error and a mental lapse, and the Royals were swept by Minnesota and fell to 4-7. It was yet another black eye for the group that was considered baseball’s best in 2013.
Only 11 games have concluded thus far, a mere sliver of the 162-game marathon, with a three-game series starting Tuesday night in Houston. But the bullpen’s performance has been troubling thus far, already having lost Luke Hochevar for the season and Tim Collins for as long as a month. Manager Ned Yost still seeks the personnel to construct a bridge to All-Star closer Greg Holland.
Heading into Monday’s games, the Royals bullpen’s 5.13 collective ERA ranked 27th in the majors. Just as troubling was their 5.81 walks per nine innings (28th) and their 54.8 percent strand rate (the worst in the majors). The relievers are committing a pair of cardinal sins: They are not throwing strikes, and they are not holding runners.
Almost all relievers are failed starters. They deal with inherent flaws. Some struggle to throw strikes. Some aren’t efficient. Some can’t hold runners or field their position or perform any of the endless critical tasks that make pitching so difficult.
Thus, bullpens are unpredictable. It is hard to trust them from season to season. The Royals managed to buck this trend during the last few seasons. But during this season’s first two weeks, the club’s relievers have been undone by injuries, curious roster management, inconsistent deployment and the general sort of volatility that plagues all bullpens.
The first domino fell on the first Monday in March. Hochevar tore his ulnar collateral ligament and underwent Tommy John surgery. The injury robbed the team of its setup man and upset its plans.
Like most managers, Yost believes a successful bullpen requires defined roles. The Royals initially intended to pair Hochevar and Davis as the primary setup men. With Hochevar out, Yost found himself still searching for a competent complement for Davis.
“If you’ve got somebody else you can trust in there,” Yost said on Saturday afternoon, “that helps the whole picture, in terms of health and production.”
On Sunday, Yost followed that logic. Kelvin Herrera had looked shaky in mop-up duty Friday night. So Yost inserted Crow into the eighth, rather than Davis. Crow responded with a pair of walks, which set the stage for Davis’ eventual undoing.
The scenario reminded of one that unfolded in the season’s first game. That afternoon in Detroit, Yost asked Davis to pitch a second inning, rather than utilizing Holland on the road in a tie game. When Davis created a jam, Yost changed course and inserted Holland. He gave up a game-winning hit on his fourth pitch.
This last weekend in Minnesota, Yost called upon Louis Coleman, who had not pitched against big-league competition in 18 games, to prevent a game from spinning out of control. Coleman had rejoined the club without completing a rehab assignment in the minor leagues. His rustiness was obvious: He flung a pair of wild pitches and allowed two inherited runners to score.
Meanwhile, with both Collins (flexor strain) and Francisley Bueno (bone bruise on pinky) on the disabled list, the team lacked a left-handed reliever. The team did not trust Donnie Joseph, who was briefly recalled, to throw strikes. On Saturday they promoted Danny Duffy, one of their top starting pitching prospects, to fill the need.
Duffy pitched well enough in an emergency appearance that afternoon. He will be kept around, even if his role, like so many others in the bullpen, has yet to be determined.
“We want these guys to be perfect from the first day to the last day,” Eiland said. “But realistically, that’s not going to happen. They’re going to have their issues just like starters can have their issues.”