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A Tale of Two Bullpens

The Royals actually have a average bullpen overall, its construction is very divided--which is why Brandon Finnegan's call-up was a good idea

Angry Crow
Angry Crow
Ed Zurga

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.

Ok, mandatory Charles Dickens reference over. Sorry.

Real intro: April 7, 2012.  Location: Palermo, Italy.  Time: 4 AM.  My friend Travis and I were traveling mainland Europe, as we were both studying abroad in Oxford and Cambridge, respectively, and had a sizable break between terms at the same time.  We had an early flight back to London that day, but decided to get up extra-early for a good reason.  At the same moment (but eight time zones away) on April 6, 2012, in Los Angeles at 7 PM, the Royals kicked off their season in the house of the Angels.

Travis and I watched through MLB.TV, as Italy is very much out of market, for most of the game until we had to leave for our flight.  Bruce Chen, Opening Day Starter and Jered Weaver, Legitimate Opening Day Starter battled through six innings, pacifying the opponent lineups completely.  It was 0-0 when the Royals went to the bullpen in the seventh inning, and we knew that the Royals had the edge, for they had the Super Bullpen.

Yes, the Super Bullpen.  This bullpen included Jonathan Broxton, Greg Holland, Aaron Crow, Tim Collins, Kelvin Herrera, Louis Coleman, and Mitch Maier, all of whom would go on to have good years--ERAs for that group ranged from 0.00 to a whopping 3.71.  Indeed, the Royals would go on to have the top bullpen in the league in fWAR and the sixth-best in ERA.

Crow promptly gave up 3 runs in his 1.1 innings that night.  Holland gave up another 2, and the Royals didn't score any runs and lost 5-0.

Bullpens are a fickle thing, as that opening game showed.  Even with a bullpen with half a dozen pitchers who could be closers for most teams in the league, sometimes you just lose.  And then, sometimes, everything comes together in a given year.  In 2013, the bullpen was second in the league in fWAR and had a collective ERA of 2.55. For reference, that is the second-best performance by any bullpen by any American League team since 1973.

This year, regression hit--hard.  Though the Royals' 2014 bullpen is currently 6th in fWAR, it stands 16th in ERA, a decidedly average squad performance.  However, the particular way that the Royals are doing this is quite fascinating.

Here are the top three bullpen arms and their performances this year: closer Holland, Wade Davis, and Herrera:

Greg Holland 1-2 54.1 1.66 12.59 2.98 1.9
Kelvin Herrera 3-2 58.1 1.39 8.02 3.55 1.2
Wade Davis 8-2 60.1 0.75 13.43 3.13 2.5
Total 12-6 173.0 1.25 11.34 3.23 4.6

Those three, who ought to have a nickname, have done the heavy lifting for the bullpen this year.  Not only are they the top three in innings pitched, but they do so in the highest-leverage situations; Holland has 40 saves, and Davis/Herrera often pitch in tie games and/or the seventh and eigtht innings in close games.

The Royals bullpen has featured 18 names this year.  For the rest of the bullpen arms, I will put all the players who have pitched 10+ innings individually on this list in their own row.  The rest of those who have contributed but have pitched less than 10 innings I will put as 'other'; these players are Danny Duffy, Casey Coleman, Wilking Rodriguez, Justin Marks, Aaron Brooks, Yordano Ventura, and Donnie Joseph.  Here is the rest of the bullpen:

Aaron Crow 6-1 51.1 3.86 5.08 3.51 -0.8
Francisely Bueno 0-0 30.0 4.50 5.70 1.80 0.0
Michael Mariot 1-0 25.0 6.48 7.56 4.32 0.0
Louis Coleman 1-0 22.2 7.15 6.35 5.56 -0.5
Tim Collins 0-3 17.1 4.15 5.19 5.19 -0.2
Bruce Chen 0-1 13.2 9.98 8.56 3.29 0.0
Scott Downs 0-2 11.1 3.97 2.38 3.97 -0.1
Jason Frasor 2-0 10.2 1.69 8.44 1.69 0.1
Other 2-1 20.2 7.84 9.15 7.84 0.1
Total 12-7 203 5.36 6.30 3.68 -1.4

This group of relievers has been, um, decidedly less effective than the trio of Holland/Davis/Herrera.  Though they essentially have the same win-loss record, their actual performance is hugely different--this is a good illustration of why win-loss record is mostly useless.

The primary difference between the two groups is a collective inability to strike people out.  Crow and Collins, in particular, suddenly can't strike anybody out, which is a stark difference from their career norms.  Interestingly, the bullpen doesn't have a terrible problem walking people, but that doesn't matter if they can't get anybody out.

The biggest problem in this bullpen is lefty depth.  Bueno has been solid as a LOOGY this year, posting a .229 wOBA against his kindred spirits.  However, he's also allowing a .388 wOBA against righties this year, and Ned being Ned has used him against righties more often than against lefties.  Figures.

Brandon Finnegan, of all people, might be the savior the Royals need.  If effective, he immediately becomes the best left-handed option out of the pen and, depending on how well he performs, might become the fourth-best option overall behind The Big Three.

Will Finnegan do so?  I don't know.  It's possible he will be effective, as he has thoroughly dominated in his brief professional career.  In 27 minor league innings split between A+ and AA, he struck out 26 while walking 4, giving up only 4 earned runs.  The 6.5 K/BB ratio is fantastic; but he's only played in all of 13 games.  He has appeared for short stints at a time just in case this possibility arose.  It has, and Finnegan is in Kansas City mere months after being drafted*.

*If this reminds you of Chris Sale, then that's probably a good thing.  Sale barely pitched double digit innings in the minors before being called up to the 2010 White Sox, where he proceeded to be an extremely effective reliever. After putting up another sensational season as a reliever in 2011, he became a starter in 2012 and became CHRIS SALE. If Finnegan becomes half of what Sale has been he would be a fantastic pick. I see him going to AAA next year as a starter rather than spending 2015 as a bullpen arm, though.

The Royals' bullpen is starkly split between those who deserve a good nickname and those who deserve a bad nickname--that's why the Royals sought bullpen help in Finnegan's call-up.  At the moment, the overall squad is roughly average, but focus on either one of these subgroups and the story shifts dramatically from amazing to, well, Royal.