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May 8, 2013

Thoughts on the Royals' sudden bullpen problems

Sam Mellinger says that there is no great and obvious fix for the Royals' recent bullpen issues. They have the right guys in the pen -- it’s just a matter of those guys performing as well as they’re capable.

More proof that I don’t know anything, but the Royals of last night remind me of a conversation with a forever baseball man during spring training. We were talking about the Royals, specifically the starting rotation makeover, and I mentioned that a hidden benefit is that it should make an already strong bullpen even better.

My thinking was that the relievers were so overworked last year, it wasn’t entirely fair. Now, when they’re asked to go two or three innings instead of four or five every night, we should be able to see their talent even more. Less Nate Adcock going three innings, and more Kelvin Herrera going 100 mph.

“I know what you mean,” I remember the man saying, “but I think you’ll see some hiccups because those guys are all still figuring out their roles.”

His point was that bullpens really settle in when there’s a clear closer, a clear eighth inning guy or two, and others can fill in around them. The Royals, for all the talent in that bullpen, don’t quite have that. At least not yet.

Honestly, I didn’t put much into what he was saying because of the talent. How many teams in baseball wouldn’t like to have Herrera, Greg Holland, Aaron Crow AND Tim Collins?

But I’ve been thinking more about what the man was saying lately, especially last night, when the bullpen lost another game. Holland and Herrera were unavailable after losing the Monday game, so this time it was Tim Collins walking the leadoff batter in the eighth and Luke Hochevar^ (after letting the runner to second on a bad pickoff attempt) giving up the game-winning double on a ball that was inches from being foul. On Sunday, Collins and Crow blew a two-run lead in the seventh.

^ I’ve been as hard as anyone on Hoch, but I did like the idea of moving him to the bullpen, and he’s so far exceeded everyone’s expectations. He’s given up one earned run in 11 1/3 innings. The next step is working him into higher leverage situations, and last night wasn’t a good start, but I’m still interested to see more.

The raw numbers aren’t bad at all. Royals relievers are fifth in WHIP (1.22), fifth in ERA (3.07), and seventh in batting average against (.233) among 15 American League teams.

One of the accentuating factors here is that they’ve thrown the fewest innings (76 1/3) in the league, which means you’d expect well-rested guys throwing their best, and the problems have been poorly timed, especially in the last three days.

There is no great and obvious fix here. The Royals have the right guys in the bullpen, it’s just a matter of those guys performing as well as they’re capable. A big chunk of that, like the old baseball man tried to tell me two months ago, will be those relievers finding and becoming comfortable in their roles.

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