While it took the bulk of a frustrating, ineffective season pitching to a literal breaking point, the snapping of Greg Holland's ulnar collateral ligament finally wrested Ned Yost from his inflexible bullpen comfort zone that put many Holland-closed games on the line while strictly adhering to the status quo.
Yost and the Royals knew Holland was pitching on borrowed time since last year, but in the face of near-constant struggles from an injured Dutchman, Yost stolidly stuck with the Herrera-Davis-Holland blueprint, even when it became evident that Holland's place in the pen was in lower leverage situations as his velocity evaporated into the ether.
With Holland's exit from the scene, Ned Yost's battle-proven formula for the implementation of his bullpen went out the window.
That is not to say Yost is without his options. One could reasonably argue that Yost is better off without the Greg Holland who threw baseballs this season, and the bullpen was significantly deeper this year than it had been in 2014.
Furthermore, with built-in rest in the form of travel days every three or four days in the playoffs, Yost has access to the full complement of his relief corps nearly every night.
As was evident before Greg Holland went down, Wade Davis is the Royals' best reliever. Hell, he's arguably the best reliever in baseball. Every game in which the Royals hold a lead that isn't ridiculously large should and will get closed out by Wade Davis.
After Davis, the next best options would appear to be drawn from the trio of Kelvin Herrera, Ryan Madson, and surprisingly Danny Duffy.
Duffy's stint in the pen has been brief but completely dominant. Without worry of spreading his energy out over five innings, Duffy's fastball pumps up to the high-90s coming out of the pen. He has only thrown 8.1 innings in relief, but his line is the stuff of dreams: 12.96 K/9, 2.16 BB/9, 6.00 K/BB, 0.00 ERA, 0.97 FIP, 2.21 xFIP, 1.70 SIERA. The standard small-sample size alert applies to these numbers, but aside from the walk rate being lower than one might expect (though not absurdly so, as he was a nibbler as a starter), these figures fall in line with how outstanding he has looked out of the pen.
Of course, Duffy's track record being as limited as it is probably puts him in the backseat in relation to the other two relievers in this trio. Despite it having happened more than four years ago, Ryan Madson possesses experience as a closer, and when Davis has not been available, Madson was the man Yost fingered to close out games. This likely means something coming from the traditionalist Ned Yost.
Perhaps more importantly than how Yost has used the pair in Holland's absence, Madson has pitched better than Kelvin Herrera by nearly every measure this season. For the purpose of comparison, here are Madson and Herrera's lines:
This quick comparison shows that Herrera is inferior to Madson. If incorporating a standard bullpen usage that is not built upon leverage dependency (which admittedly matters a lot less with a team as loaded in the pen as these Royals), it would make sense that Madson be the primary eighth-inning guy in a save situation. Herrera then becomes the seventh-inning guy.
Both Herrera and Madson rely upon the change-up as their primary secondary offerings, neither have a severe platoon split. In fact, both have modest reverse-platoon splits as their cambios give lefties fits. So with Davis, Madson, and Herrera, handedness is entirely irrelevant in the last three innings of any close ballgame.
Duffy certainly appears to be the next best reliever. He would presumably hold down the sixth inning should a reliever be needed at that juncture. In his career as a starter, Duffy did fare considerably better against lefties than righties, but it's hard to say how his platoon split will look in the pen with his stuff playing up. Duffy's exposure to righties could probably be limited, but it's hard to say that he should not face a right-handed hitter, especially given the fact that he hasn't been limited to facing just lefties in his scoreless run from the pen.
Given the quality of these four relievers, Yost has the luxury of not really being able to make a mistake if turning to them in a close game.
Adding Luke Hochevar and Franklin Morales to the mix certainly doesn't hurt Yost and the Royals. While not as dominant as the other four, Hochevar would slot in nicely to a fixed, late-inning slot in most other bullpens. Morales gives the Royals a second lefty in the pen, but his function is much more that of the situational lefty, as he has fairly significant traditional platoon splits in which right-handed hitters fare relatively well against him (.331 wOBA against) and lacks the overpowering stuff out of the pen that fellow southpaw Danny Duffy possesses.
With the short series and regular rest slotted into the schedule, the Royals really need just one more member to fill out the pen. This comes down to Kris Medlen and Chris Young, with the other getting the slot of fourth starter. For the series against Houston, the fourth starter gets to pitch in Houston--should the series go to a fourth game--so it makes much more sense to have Medlen start at Minute Maid Park, a bandbox that could treat Young quite poorly. This would mean Chris Young pitches from the pen in the ALDS, serving as the emergency long-reliever.
In a five-game series, Yost will never have his relievers going more than two straight nights, so every reliever is at his avail every game, assuming health. In a seven-game series, should games three and four both be close games in which his best relievers are needed, Yost would probably be best served trying to hold out a combination of Danny Duffy (who could semi-reasonably be expected to go multiple innings in a game five if necessary) and one of the righties from the pen for usage in a Game Five. This would be the only scenario in which Yost would need to deviate from the script.
To say Yost has it made would be an understatement. The bullpen is deeper than it was last year, even with the loss of Holland. Turning to any combination of Duffy, Herrera, and Madson for the sixth through eighth innings cannot ever be qualified as a mistake. In the event of an implosion from any of his top four relievers, the blame cannot be laid at his feet.
There are worse places for a manager to be than coming out of the Royals' dugout in late innings of a close game and getting to point to the pen to summon one of their number of shut-down relievers.