Ask a casual baseball fan about what makes the Royals good, and they would probably answer the defense or the bullpen. Those are both correct answers, and are backed up by the eye test and stats.
Last year, 13 players pitched at least 10 innings in relief: Kelvin Herrera, Wade Davis, Ryan Madson, Franklin Morales, Luke Hochevar, Greg Holland, Chris Young, Brandon Finnegan, Jason Frasor, Joe Blanton, Jeremy Guthrie, Kris Medlen, and Yohan Pino. Of those 13, only six remain in the organization, and three of those are either in the starting rotation or Omaha.
That's a lot of innings to fill. Of course, there will be a small collection of minor leaguers making appearances filling in for an injury or in September with expanded rosters, and it's entirely possible that Young and Medlen return to the bullpen at some point, but at the moment there is a lot of potential.
So who is in the bullpen?
Opening Day Bullpen
Wade Davis, Danny Duffy, Dillon Gee, Kelvin Herrera, Luke Hochevar, Joakim Soria, Chien-Ming Wang
The new names here are Gee, Soria, and Wang. Gee and Wang look toward the Ryan Madson Memorial Chair for Valuable Bargains, as both signed minor league deals and both offer interesting skillsets. Gee in particular looks like a steal; the odd man out in the Mets' rotation last year, Gee was a decent starter for a few years and only turns 30 at the end of April. This will be his first time as a full-time bullpen member. Wang, 36, has 126 starts under his belt and has reportedly regained his 95 MPH fastball velocity. He has not pitched in the big leagues since 2013.
Soria is another of the 'new names,' but we all know about Soria. Soria is third on Kansas City's all-time saves leaderboard with 160 saves in Royal blue, accrued from 2007-2011. Soria has 202 saves in his career, which places him sixth among active players and 47th all-time.
With these new names, how should Ned Yost use the bullpen? Well, let's start from the back and work forward.
Davis will save the games. There is no discussion there. He is a cyborg, and he is legion. His combined ERA over the past two seasons is 0.97 and, you guessed it, that has never happened before ever.
But Davis can't pitch every game, even in save situations. Thankfully, the Royals have a deep bullpen, and trust an additional three guys to save the game if necessary. These Four Horseman of the Bullpenpocalypse, Davis, Hochevar, Herrera, and Soria, will bear the brunt of high-leverage situations.
Traditionally, Yost has only had three guys he trusted like this. This year, he has another one, and his handling of the bullpen and usage pattern is going to be interesting. Let's go inning by inning, taking a look at how many games each pitcher pitched in that given inning in 2015.
- Soria, 47 games
- Davis, 19 games
- Hochevar, 15 games
- Herrera, 6 games
The ninth inning is Davis' inning, no question. But should Davis not be available, Soria seems to be the likely backup. Not only is he the owner of a new, shiny $25 million contract, but he's got a history of performing admirably as a closer.
- Davis, 46 games
- Herrera, 35 games
- Hochevar, 14 games
- Soria, 9 games
- Herrera, 31 games
- Soria, 17 games
- Hochevar, 14 games
And here's where it gets interesting. When Holland was healthy last season, Davis served as the eighth inning man, following Herrera. When Holland went down and Davis took over, Herrera bumped up to the eighth inning.
Will Yost continue to use Herrera as Davis' main setup man? We've only got a few games' evidence, but it seems like Soria will be Davis' main setup man, thus pushing Herrera back into his seventh inning role, where he has thrived before. Now, should Soria have that position or should Herrera? The answer is...it probably doesn't matter as much as we think.
In 2015, Soria posted a 2.53 ERA / 3.71 FIP; in 2014, Soria posted a 3.25 ERA / 2.09 FIP.
In 2015, Herrera posted a 2.71 ERA / 3.44 FIP; in 2014, Herrera posted a 1.41 ERA / 2.69 FIP.
Despite being extremely different pitchers, Soria and Herrera ended up with very similar results in 2015, as well as similar FIP numbers in 2014. In fact, Soria and Herrera are 0.04 and 0.15 apart in their career ERA and FIP, respectively. Moving forward, I would probably give the nod to Herrera to perform better (age and a new pitch are on his side), but the difference between the two isn't huge. Soria melted down on opening day, yes, but he came out guns blazing in the second game, efficiently working three consecutive outs (two of which were swinging strikeouts).
That leaves Hochevar for the...
- Hochevar, 9 games
- Herrera, 2 games
- Soria, 1 game
Remember when Aaron Crow was the 'sixth inning guy?' Fun. Hochevar should slot into the sixth inning as the immediate relief for a starter in trouble, but his role may be more varied than Soria or Herrera. We've already seen Yost use Hoch to bail Soria out in the eighth inning, so it's possible that he may use Hochevar as more of a traditional fireman than the other two. That's probably not such a bad idea.
Wang and Gee are probably going to be used as the long men and/or the fourth/fifth inning guys. Their role won't be terribly different from Finnegan, Blanton, et. al from last year.
Duffy, as always, is the enigma. On opening night, Yost neglected to replace Soria with Duffy against a pair of tough lefties. But on opening day, Yost showed willingness to play to Duffy's lefty-lefty matchups, removing him in favor of Hochevar against a tough righty. Whether or not Duffy will be used as a long man, lefty v lefty matchup guy, or as just another late inning arm for Yost is anybody's guess. On Tuesday, Duffy's fastball topped out at 98.6 MPH, which is absolutely elite velocity from a lefty.
We'll get more information from Yost as the season wears on, but you've got to be a little excited about this bullpen. Traditionally, the Royals' bullpen has been invincible at the back end but somewhat vulnerable elsewhere. This 'pen has the ability to have above average pitchers in every single slot. That is exciting.