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You can’t always blame the bullpen

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Sometimes, you just can't blame the bullpen.

Kansas City Royals v Detroit Tigers Photo by Duane Burleson/Getty Images

Woe is the Royals. Another Sunday, another road loss in the late innings. This one was a 5-2 defeat at the hands of the Tigers. For the Royals, it was their 12th defeat in 16 games away from The K.

The tenth inning of Sunday’s game was a cavalcade of the bizarre. If the Royals were a contending team and that happened, it would be written off as one of those days. Pound some Budweiser, go get ‘em tomorrow and hope like hell that loss doesn’t represent the margin between October baseball and closing up shop at the end of the regular season. Since they are below .500 with a bullpen that regularly fights against ineptitude, you just shake your head in wonder and ponder exactly what kind of deal Dayton Moore made with the Baseball Devil in 2014.

To be completely fair, Sunday’s loss can’t be hung on the bullpen. Not at all. For sure, Ian Kennedy surrendered the walk-off dinger, but the preceding fielding plays by Kelvin Guttierez at third—the first where he couldn’t transfer the ball from his glove to his hand on a slow roller up the line, the second on a squibbed off the end of the bat he tried to barehand—is what placed Kennedy in that spot in the first place. That Kennedy spent the majority of his outing throwing 94 mph and painting the corners with his fastball shouldn’t be lost either. He’s been a revelation in relief.

The pitch Kennedy spun to Dixon—a knuckle-curve on the outer edge of the plate—was a good one. It came on a 1-2 count and followed three consecutive fastballs. Maybe it should have been a little further off the plate so Dixon wouldn’t be able to get lumber on it with a swing. Still, it’s definitely not a pitch where you expect the result to be a game-winning home run to the opposite field.

Such is life in the Kansas City bullpen. Even when you execute to win, you can’t help but lose.

What shouldn’t be lost in the loss is the fact the bullpen has been quietly showing signs of quality. Look over the box score from Sunday and you’ll find a quality performance from the relief corps.

Scott Barlow has been a revelation, retiring the first batter he’s faced 8 out of 11 times, including on Sunday when he entered the game with the bases loaded in relief of starter Brad Keller. Had Yost made the wrong call in that situation, we wouldn’t even be in the position to lament Kennedy’s bad luck in the tenth. Barlow whiffed three, including the two batters he faced with the bases loaded and now sports a 12.3 SO/9. That works.

Barlow was followed by Jake Diekman. The lefty pitched a clean inning with a pair of whiffs. After a rocky start, he’s hasn’t allowed a run in his last seven outings. He’s also allowed just three out of 14 inherited runners to score. With the Sunday strikeouts and without issuing a walk in his last seven outings, he now owns a 10.8 SO/9 and 3.6 BB/9. The strikeouts are close to his career rate while he’s sliced over a walk off his career base on balls rate.

Brad Boxberger took the ball in the ninth, charged with getting the game to extra innings after Hunter Dozier’s home run to tie things up in the top of the eighth. Like Diekman, Boxberger pitched a clean inning and has now retired 15 of the last 16 batters he’s faced over his last four appearances.

The Royals now sport a run differential of -11. That they own the worst record in the American League with 12 wins and 23 losses with the 10th worst run differential points to some kind of bad luck. After all, we know the offense is punching its weight. The collective starting rotation hasn’t been any great shakes, but it’s hanging in there. The bullpen… well, you know.

The Royals are 3-8 in one run games and, after Sunday, 1-4 in extra innings. The run differential and Third Order Winning Percentage kind of flies out the window when the bullpen is blowing games. By Third Order Winning Percentage, the Royals should be in a race for second place in the Central, challenging for .500. Instead, they’re in the baseball’s version of Groundhog Day, fighting it out with the Marlins and the Orioles for the number one pick in the 2020 draft.

Margins like this serve to remind you that everyone matters on the big league roster all the way down to the 25th man. If the Royals hadn’t committed over 110 plate appearances to Chris Owings over the season’s first 33 games, how much better would the offense be at this point? If it hadn’t taken so long for their key relievers to stabilize and if they would just stop giving the ball to Wily Peralta in key situations—see Thursday’s game against the Rays and the high wire act he survived in Friday’s one run loss—how many games could be moved from the loss column over to the left?

Recent positive performance can be found on this club, but they’re still a ways from contention. That’s a shame considering whatever it is the Indians are doing and given the Tigers and White Sox are at similar stages of their rebuild. Losing 10 games out of the gate set the tone for a poor April, but it’s not out of the realm of possibility that we’re seeing a team that can play some decent baseball on the regular. Now control yourself, we’re not talking about a .500 team. Not yet. There’s still plenty to overcome. But at least this year, even though they’re currently on pace for 106 defeats, it suddenly doesn’t seem delusional to suggest the 2019 Royals could avoid 100 losses.

It’s not much, but at least it’s something.