After a five-run eighth inning that included three home runs, the Royals must have felt fairly confident they could extend their winning streak to four in Tuesday night’s contest against the Athletics. But the A’s stormed back with six runs of their own off Joakim Soria and Mike Minor, to win 10-8.
The implosion was just another setback in what has been a miserable month for the Royals' bullpen. After a hot July, in which both the offense was clicking, and the bullpen was shutting things down, the Royals have run into a roadblock in August, and the relief crew has been a big reason why. Royals relievers have a 6.94 ERA this month - only the San Diego Padres have been worse.
What is interesting is how closely the Royals' fortunes mirror the performance of the bullpen. The team had its struggles in April, but righted the ship in May and June, then went on a tear in July, only to stumble in August. This matches exactly what the bullpen has done this year.
Interestingly, the performance of the starters doesn't seem to reflect the team's performance at all. They had their best month in April, when the team was floundering, and were awful in July, when the team got hot.
Overall, the Royals still have an "okay" pen. Their ERA is 4.11 for the entire season, eighth in the American League, and sixth in FIP at 3.85. They have won 88% of all games when leading into the seventh inning, slightly better than the league as a whole. They have 17 blown saves this year, the American League average is 16. The bullpen has been average.
But the Royals won in 2014 and 2015 because their bullpen was outstanding. They won 92% of games when leading into the seventh inning. The difference between 92% and 88% may not seem great, but amounts to about three wins over a full season, enough to keep the Royals out of the playoffs if the pen falters.
Has the bullpen been overworked? Ned Yost has typically been pretty good about not overworking relievers, but this year the Royals are tied with the Indians in leading the league in relief appearances on zero days rest. In fact, no pitcher in baseball has pitched on zero days rest more than Peter Moylan, who has done it 20 times. in fairness, Moylan is a "rubber-armed" sidearmer who relies more on movement and deception than velocity, so if anyone could handle such a workload, it would seem to be him.
Are the starters not pulling their fair share? American League starting pitchers are averaging 5.58 innings-per-start this year. Royals pitchers have been right around that mark, save for a dip in May. Royals relievers overall have worked 403 innings, tied for sixth in the American League.
The most likely reason for the August troubles is that reliever performance is volatile, particularly when you don't have a dominating trio like H-D-H. Indeed, even former H-D-H ringleader Greg Holland has suffered in August, blowing two saves with the Rockies last week while giving up six runs in those outings. The Royals thought they could mitigate some of that volatility by adding depth from the Padres. But Brandon Maurer and Ryan Buchter have both struggled mightily since moving to the American League.
The Royals are far from the only post-season hopefuls to have reliever issues. The Twins, Rangers, and Blue Jays have all had dreadful bullpens all year, and even the high-flying Astros have a bullpen ERA worse than the Royals. But the Royals don't have the kind of margin for error that the Astros do, and they will need a bullpen on its game to succeed. Hopefully the Royals relievers can work out their issues soon, because it appears the team's fortunes depend on it.