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2015 Season in Review: Relievers

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The Royals must be a high school team, because a bullpen like this means they only have to play seven-inning games.

John Rieger-USA TODAY Sports

The Royals were able to endure what amounted to a fairly mediocre rotation in large part by relying on their bullpen. The Royals' relief corps continued to be one of the team's strongest components in 2015. The core of the group continued to be elite. Acquisitions like Ryan Madson and Franklin Morales plugged the remaining holes.

In a not-insignificant way, the bullpen is what allowed the Royals to complete so many comebacks throughout the postseason. The requisite number of runs never increased; the Royals didn't have to hit a moving target. And when the Royals did take the lead, they could be comfortable knowing that the bullpen would shut down the opposition no matter then situation.

Royals RP, 2015
Age IP W L SV ERA WHIP FIP HR/9 BB% K% fWAR
W. Davis 29 67.1 8 1 17 0.94 0.787 2.29 0.4 8.0 31.1 2.0
K. Herrera 25 69.2 4 3 0 2.71 1.120 3.44 0.6 8.8 24.3 0.6
R. Madson 34 63.1 1 2 3 2.13 0.963 3.09 0.7 5.7 23.4 0.9
F. Morales 29 62.1 4 2 0 3.18 1.155 3.52 0.6 5.4 15.9 0.4
L. Hochevar 31 50.2 1 1 1 3.73 1.283 4.00 1.2 7.5 22.9 0.1
G. Holland 29 44.2 3 2 32 3.83 1.455 3.27 0.4 13.5 25.4 0.8

*Minimum 40 innings pitched. All stats in this series compiled from Baseball Reference and FanGraphs.

Wade Davis

Remember when Davis struggled as a starter in 2013? Was that even the same person? Davis has been arguably the best reliever in the majors over the last two years. He had a 1.00 ERA in 2014, and somehow managed to push that lower in 2015 (0.94). Some of Davis' other statistics suggest that he experienced some slight regression in 2015 (his FIP increased by 1, he actually gave up a handful of home runs), but those statistics also suggest that Wade Davis is still really, really good. Davis went to the All-Star game, was sixth in Cy Young voting (and that still seems kind of low) and received MVP votes. What is there to say that hasn't been said?

The most exciting moment of Davis' season was probably his pennant-clinching victory in Game 6 of the ALCS. Did he get a little help from the umpire? Maybe. Would it have mattered? Probably not. Wade Davis is very good.

Grade: No question. A+.

What's next: Wade Davis version 2016 includes several minor bug fixes and improvements. Extremely minor. There isn't much to fix.

Kelvin Herrera

Kelvin Herrera pitched the most innings out of the bullpen for the 2015 Royals, but of the three main relievers at the end of the season (Davis, Madson and Herrera), Herrera was the most volatile. Well, "most volatile" in the sense that these numbers can be considered volatile:

Kelvin Herrera, 2015
ERA WHIP FIP HR/9 BB% K%
2.71 1.120 3.44 0.6 8.8 24.3

Herrera tied for the league lead in blown saves last year (with just seven), but that is less of an indictment on Herrera and more of an indicator that maybe blown saves aren't a great measure of reliever performance.  Like most of the bullpen, Herrera didn't reach the level he did in 2014, but he was still very good.

His fastball continues to be his greatest weapon — whoops, poor choice of words — his strongest pitch, and for good reason. It showed no signs of slowing down in 2015. Maybe he could stand to improve some of his secondary pitches, but when you can throw a fastball three-quarters of the time and still have success, you're doing just fine.

Grade: There's a little room for improvement, but any criticisms are only minor squabbles. B.

What's next: Forecasts for the Kansas City area call for at least three more years of heat.

Ryan Madson

For any other team, Madson's return to baseball would be one of the best storylines of the year. For the Royals, it was probably in the six-to-ten range. Still a great story, but buried underneath all the other great stories. The last time Madson had thrown a pitch in a major league game prior to this season was with the Phillies in 2011. He had retired in 2014, but the Royals offered him a minor-league contract in January 2015 and he pitched as if he hadn't spent the last three years out of MLB.

Madson's fastball hummed slightly above where it was in 2011, his secondary pitches were still effective, and he ended up as a solid set-up reliever for Wade Davis by the end of the regular season.

The postseason, however, is where he struggled. Madson couldn't keep the ball in the park, allowing five runs (and four homers) in 8.1 innings. He nearly doomed the Royals in Game 4 of the ALDS, allowing back-to-back home runs that gave Houston a 6-2 lead heading into the eighth. Fun fact: Madson was the winning pitcher in that game.

Grade: Despite his disappointing October, Madson still managed to turn a minor league contract into a second Major League stint, and he played his way into high-leverage innings. B+.

What's next: Madson signed a three-year deal with the A's, so Royals fans will get to see him again when he jogs in from the bullpen after the benches clear in their first matchup of the year.

Franklin Morales

Franklin Morales was another case of a minor-league signing converted into an important bullpen piece. Brought on for one year, Morales pitched adequately as the main (and often only) lefty in the Royals' bullpen. He turned in one of the best seasons of his career, excelling in the bullpen after a failed run as a starter with the Rockies.

He did have a rough postseason — worse than Madson — yielding nearly as many runs (five) as outs (seven). But then, Morales was never the type of pitcher you'd want on the mound in high-leverage situations. There's not a whole lot to say about Franklin Morales: He came to the Royals for a year. For the most part, he did his job. He moved on after the season. And he's one of two active major league players named Franklin.

Grade: C.

What's next: Morales recently signed a minor-league deal with the Brewers.

Luke Hochevar

Luke Hochevar underwent the Wade Davis experience before Wade Davis himself. Originally a starter, Hochevar eventually earned a demotion to the bullpen, where he shined. However, Hochevar required Tommy John surgery and missed 2014, opening the door for Wade Davis to become the Wade Davis we know and love today.

Hochevar returned in 2015, but wasn't quite the same. His sub-2 ERA and sub-3 FIP jumped to 3.73 and 4.00, respectively. His BABIP underwent some serious regression, and his strikeout rate dropped. His fastball slowed down a little, and opponents connected more frequently than they did in 2013.

It was a rough return for Hochevar, but he was fortunate enough to be supported by the rest of the bullpen. Had he returned to the eighth-inning role he earned in 2013, things might have turned out differently. Maybe Hochevar will rebound in 2016, but the Joakim Soria signing suggests the Royals aren't optimistic enough to hand Hoch the keys to higher-leverage situations just yet.

Grade: Hochevar has a ways to go to return to his 2013 form. D+.

What's next: Hochevar will attempt to rebuild his stock in the last year of his contract.

Greg Holland

It is fitting that we end this series with the man tasked with ended games for the Royals — until he could no longer ignore the pain in his right elbow.

Greg Holland was a dominant closer for the Royals, but something seemed off about him in 2015. The most obvious red flag was his rapidly-decelerating fastball. It dropped over 2 mph between 2014 and 2015. He walked more batters and struck out fewer.

And yet, Holland kept getting the job done. He blew a couple more saves than usual, but for the most part, he kept the ninth inning locked down. It wasn't as comfortable as it used to be — at times, it was downright terrifying — but he got the job done.

The above video was Holland's last save of the season — and maybe as a Royal. He would blow a save the next night in his final appearance before missing the rest of the year and succumbing to Tommy John surgery. In a way, it's amazing that Holland was able to play at a high level all the way until September 18. He had initially felt discomfort in that elbow as early as August of 2014.

Maybe playing through the pain only made the end result worse. Regardless, his work for the Royals was nothing short of heroic and I think most fans hope that Holland is able to return to the mound, either for the Royals or for another team.

Grade: He put up poor numbers this year, but how much leeway should be given for pitching through injury? I'll split the difference. C.

What's next: The Royals non-tendered Holland in the offseason, and he remains a free agent.

Other appearances:

  • Brandon Finnegan yo-yoed between Omaha and Kansas City until he was traded to the Reds. He wasn't terrible as a reliever, but never got a chance to develop as a starter. Grade: C+.
  • Jason Frasor put up good numbers but always seemed to be teetering on the edge of competence, threatening to fall apart completely. He was released in July and wound up with the Braves. Grade: B.
  • Yohan Pino gave up one earned run in six relief appearances, then collapsed in his lone start (in June) and was never seen or heard from again. Grade: C.
  • Miguel Almonte made nine relief appearances as a September call-up. Sometimes, he pitched well. Other times, he gave up walk-off winners to the Cubs. Grade: Incomplete
  • Scott Alexander gave up three runs in four relief appearances as a September call-up. Grade: Incomplete
  • Joba Chamberlain probably wasn't as bad as we all remember, but his was still an experience we'd all like to forget. Grade: F