What does any fan expect from their team's bullpen? Perfection.
After Greg Holland polished off his second save of the day last night, tell me a little part of you didn't say: 'If he only could have done that in Philadelphia, the Royals would be 11-6'. Right now, when you think if Kelvin Herrera, I would wager most of us remember four home runs surrendered as opposed to the 15 strikeouts in 9 innings of work.
That's life as a reliever: be perfect or move on.
The Royals' bullpen has been tagged with three losses so far this season and those hurt, but it hardly is a sign that this group is struggling. They have saved eight games and won three more. None of those wins were the bogus 'entered with a lead, gave it up and the offense saved us' type that relievers sometimes acquire. Only one of the wins and saves overlap. Thus, the relievers can squarely take credit for doing their jobs in all 10 of the Kansas City victories. If your bullpen comes through in 10 out of every 13 opportunities (not save opportunities, per se), I don't think you can complain.
While we rightfully scoff at pitcher wins and pitcher losses as a meaningful stat, there is no way for a bullpen to get tagged with the loss without, well, being less than perfect. The Cardinals' pen has four losses, the Reds' six and, in fact, ten teams' pens have accounted for more losses than the relievers for Kansas City. Only the Giants have more saves than the Royals. Losses and saves are crude stats, but in the pursuit of perfection, they have some relevance.
Now, let's dig deeper.
Dayton Moore is smirking at all of us right now and with good reason. Thanks to a revamped starting rotation that is, so far, pitching extremely well, Kansas City relievers have logged the fewest innings of any group in the majors. Some of that is due, obviously, to the fact that many teams have played a couple more games than Kansas City and the Royals have had more than their share of off-days. Still, the Royals pen has thrown three less innings than any other team in the majors. Five less than Tampa and 11 less than Boston, the next two low totals in the American League and two teams that have played just one more game than the Royals.
Strikeouts per nine innings? Second in baseball and tenth in strikeout to walk ratio. Kansas City relievers have struck out 30% of the batters they have faced (best in the game) and allowed opponents to bat just .199 against them (4th overall). They have made opposing batters swing and miss 14% of the time, which is easily the best in baseball.
In pitching the fewest innings, the Royals' bullpen has thrown just 691 pitches: 45 less than any other team. By contrast, the Detroit bullpen has thrown 1,078 pitches already this season.
Sure, the relievers four walks per nine innings is a rate that needs to come down. Especially since Herrera and Holland have accounted for 10 of the 18 free passes. They have allowed the fifth highest home run rate in the majors thus far with Herrera allowing two-thirds of all the dingers given up. Those numbers need to improve, because, well....perfection.
Yes, we would all like to have three games back that the bullpen lost. We can rationalize bad starts and clearly see that hitting a baseball is really, really hard for the guys on offense (and humans in general). Yet, when the bullpen blows a late lead, it is painful and memorable. We expect perfection.
The Royals' bullpen is not perfect, but that doesn't mean they are not getting the job done. In a perfect baseball world, the best pitching staffs have good bullpens that don't throw very much and when they do, it is the better pitchers throwing. So far, thanks to outstanding starting pitching, that exact recipe has propelled the Royals to a 10-7 start.
Not exactly perfection, but close enough.