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Can Brandon Maurer save the eighth inning?

The days of HDH seem like ancient history

Seattle Mariners v Kansas City Royals Photo by Ed Zurga/Getty Images

The Royals were five games into a nine game winning streak back in July when they announced that they were sending Matt Strahm, Travis Wood and Esteury Ruiz to San Diego for Trevor Cahill, Brandon Maurer and Ryan Buchter. It was a complete waxing of the Padres, at least that’s what most of us were thinking at the time.

The Royals were able to add a legitimate starting pitcher, albeit a questionable one in the American League, and two legitimate relievers for a good reliever, trash and a fringe prospect. They were able to add those pieces to a pitching staff that was starting to make improvements. Danny Duffy and Ian Kennedy were healthy. Kelvin Herrera was looking more like himself. Joakim Soria was a top ten reliever in baseball according to Fangraphs (and still top 12, for what it’s worth). Mike Minor and Peter Moylan were proving to be much more valuable that anticipated.

That was then. Things haven’t progressed as the Royals would have liked. Minor has struggled. Buchter has struggled. Cahill struggled a lot and then hit the DL. Soria continued to throw well up until his Tuesday outing in Oakland, where he gave up four runs in a five-run A’s 8th inning rally. It was later revealed that Soria was dealing with lower back pain, leading to an MRI, and possibly a DL stint.

Which leads us to Mr. Maurer, your new eighth inning guy. At least for now.

While Cahill and Buchter were nice pieces, many of our eyes fell on Maurer because of the shiny upper-90’s fastball and an occasionally wicked slider. He undoubtably has upside that Cahill and Buchter don’t have. Jeff Sullivan of Fangraphs published a piece the day of the trade, talking about Cahill being the most intriguing player, not just in this trade, but one of the most intriguing players in all of baseball.

However, he also touched on Maurer and looked at a theme that any amateur Fangraphs user would recognize.

Maurer is the more electric of the relievers. He’s also the more annoying. He pumps his fastball into the upper 90s, but his results have never matched up with his stuff.

Maurer has always had electric stuff and has shown it with the Royals. You see it in his strikeout numbers over the last two seasons. However, it just hasn’t translated into run prevention. This is easily visible in his FIP/ERA splits.

Brandon Maurer the FIP Warrior

ERA FIP Difference
ERA FIP Difference
6.30 4.90 1.40
4.65 3.49 1.16
3.00 3.31 -0.31
4.52 3.46 1.06
6.19 3.43 2.76

I can’t recall a pitcher with a starker contrast between his ERA and FIP, especially when the FIP is actually better than the ERA. His FIP has stayed relatively the same over his five seasons, with four of the five being between 3.31 and 3.49. His ERA has fluctuated a bit more, but it has stayed consistently high, with four of those five seasons being at 4.52 or higher.

It is bizarre, for sure. But for many people, it is also encouraging. If you believe in FIP, then you also believe that Maurer isn’t nearly as bad as his ERA says he is. But for Royals fans looking for someone to save the 8th inning, that isn’t exactly a narrative received with open arms, and for good reason. Soria’s struggles have been, more or less, justified (by people like me) with the “he has pitched better than his numbers suggest” narrative.

And as is true with Soria, there is more to the story with Maurer than just that narrative. There are real issues to be dealt with. The biggest speed bump being that Maurer gets drastically worse when a runner reaches base, something observed by Sullivan in the aforementioned Fangraphs article.

While Maurer, for his career, has allowed a .271 wOBA with the bases empty, that’s shot up to .382 when there’s been a runner. That’s easily been the most dramatic such split in baseball since Maurer debuted. His splits look awful by wOBA, by strikeouts, by FIP, and by xFIP. It would appear that Maurer pitches quite a bit worse from the stretch, and that’s no good for a reliever to do.

This seems like a big deal. A relief pitcher that struggles with runners on base isn’t great. Heck, any pitcher that struggles that badly with runners on base doesn’t seem like a pitcher that will find a lot of success at this level. However, I then remember that Dave Eiland resides in the same dugout as Maurer and there is a gleam of hope.

Maurer is controlled through 2019, so the possibility of our diabolical wizard fixing Maurer’s problems out of the stretch is a real one. However, the Royals didn’t trade for him to be good in 2018 and 2019. If they wanted that, they wouldn’t have traded Strahm. The Royals need him to be good now.

And over this crucial home stand, starting with three monumental games against the first place baseball team from Cleveland, they need him to be able to get the ball to Herrera with a lead intact.

We likely won’t see Maurer in the eighth inning a whole lot this season if Soria comes back fully healthy. Whether you like it or not, “HDH” is no more and Soria is by far the Royals best option in the 8th inning with their two other feasible options (Minor and Moylan) leaving more to be desired in the splits department.

With that being said, they need Maurer to have a great homestand if they want to stay in the AL Central race. So can Brandon Maurer save the eighth inning? I didn’t have an answer for you. I was legitimately asking the question. Let’s just pray that his production catches up with his stuff, at least for a series or two.