Nothing drops a buzzkill on spring optimism like a crap bullpen. Remember those warm fuzzies you were feeling a week ago? Welcome to 2019 and the Royals version of a crap bullpen.
Tuesday’s game—where Ian Kennedy and Brad Boxberger surrendered a single tally in the ninth and tenth innings respectively—was followed by Wednesday’s implosion where Jake Diekman gave up two runs to tie the game and Wily Peralta broke the deadlock with a run in the ninth.
The carnage is real and spectacular, damn the sample size. Fine. About that sample size... It is just 17 1⁄3 innings in relief, but the bullpen has put up a 7.21 ERA and 6.8 BB/9 up against a 6.8 SO/9. None of those numbers are the worst in the league. All are close.
It’s never too early to press the panic button. Postgame, the calls grew for Ned Yost to show some faith in Kyle Zimmer. Prior to the season starting, I comped the entire Royals bullpen to a backup quarterback—you know the last version you saw was horrible, so you pine for the new, the unexplored. That’s looking like a poor comparison as this year’s bullpen looks to rival the ineptitude we saw last summer. But the backup QB metaphor could be applied to Kyle Zimmer at this point. He’s so unproven, yet so tantalizing.
We know Zimmer has the raw stuff to miss bats—a key element in any successful reliever. He’s definitely the hardest thrower in the Royals bullpen. This is fact. His fastball will average around 95 to 96 mph. They may get that from Peralta, but early velocity returns on him aren’t all that encouraging as he’s a couple of ticks down from last year. (Although he amped up a bit in Wednesday’s loss.)
It’s time to turn the kid loose. The Royals waited seven years for Zimmer to realize his major league potential. It certainly makes sense to ease him in to action, but if that’s truly the plan, why have they missed myriad opportunities to find him work in the first five games of the year?
This isn’t about advocating him for the closing role, or even about using him as the eighth inning set-up guy. It’s about getting him work even when the Royals have a two-run lead in the sixth, as they had on Wednesday. Or in a tie game in the seventh, like we saw on Tuesday. The faster the Royals get him some serious innings, the sooner he could potentially glide into a consistent high leverage role. Yost noted that Zimmer would be one of the relievers
The Royals have used Zimmer once. The other reliever with just a single appearance so far was Rule 5 selection Chris Ellis. He was, as you already know, designated for assignment and removed from the 40-man roster. That was a bit of a surprise given the Royals didn’t need the space that was created by the move to add Wednesday’s starter, Homer Bailey, to the active roster. And it was even more of a surprise when Yost told reporters that he wanted to “give it (time with Ellis) every opportunity we could and give it a full look.”
Your guess is as good as mine in how one appearance constitutes a “full look.” Ellis will now hit the waiver wire where any other club can grab him with the proviso they keep him on their 25-man roster for the remainder of the season. If he clears waivers, the Royals must offer him back to the Cardinals. It seems likely they would take him back, if they have the space. It was pointed out to me that perhaps the Royals held on to Ellis just after teams set their minor league rosters in the hopes they could sneak him through waivers and the Cardinals would pass on bringing him back. Stranger things have happened.
The Chris Ellis era will probably go down as another example of how the Royals take a curious approach to managing the back end of their roster.
Let’s pivot back to the guys who are actually here. About Peralta - Yost used him in the eighth inning on Opening Day and then the seventh inning in the series opener against the Twins before going to him in the ninth on Wednesday. It’s just three outings, but he has yet to throw a clean frame. This is his modus operandi. Coming out of the pen last year for the Royals, in just 11 of his 37 outings did he complete an inning without allowing a baserunner. True to form in the early going, just 27 percent of his pitches have found the strike zone.
He’s untrustworthy. That’s not a good trait for one of your late inning relievers to possess. It would help if the Royals could assemble a cromulent cast of relievers around him, but… Yeah.
Kennedy, in the meantime, has seen the expected velocity bump in his move to the bullpen. After averaging 90.5 mph on his four-seamer last year, it’s up to 93.4 mph in the early going this season. That’s promising.
However, one trend that has carried over from last year is the horizontal movement he gets on the heater. According to Brooks Baseball, it’s becoming a flatter pitch.
Hitters battered Kennedy’s fastball to the tune of a .532 slugging percentage last year. So far this year, he’s allowed three hits on six balls put in play off his fastball. The average exit velocity is 93.4 mph. Lordy, how I dislike breaking out the data on the smallest of small samples, but the early returns suggest a continuing trend for Kennedy. It’s too early to form a conclusion. Rather, it’s something that bears watching going forward.
Something else to consider it that Royals starters are averaging 5 2⁄3 innings per outing. That puts a burden on the bullpen to get those final 10 outs. That’s three relievers minimum, which increases the odds that one or more of the pitchers Yost will summon from the right field bullpen won’t have their A-game. Considering “A-game” is something of a sliding scale to start, it’s not surprising that we’ve seen a rollercoaster of results thus far. The Royals have cobbled together a bullpen where it’s hallmark seems to be inconsistency.
Zimmer isn’t the answer. One pitcher alone isn’t enough to stabilize a wobbly relief corps. And, over time, he may prove to be just as inconsistent as his bullpen mates. Yet, even after just one week of the season it feels as though they have exhausted all of their other options. Plus, the Royals owe it to themselves to discover just what they have. The mantra in this first week of April is it is still early days. Struggles are amplified by the small sample. But we’ve seen this show before at The K. We know how this ends.