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The worst bullpens in Royals history

The gas cans that were.

Milwaukee Brewers vs Kansas City Royals - June 24, 2006 Photo by G. N. Lowrance/Getty Images

It wasn’t that long ago that the Royals were known for the most dominant bullpen in baseball. Kelvin Herrera, Wade Davis, and Greg Holland made up “HDH”, a fearsome trio that spelled “game over” for opponents. But Royals fans have seen their fair share of shoddy bullpens as well. These relievers doused fires with gasoline, making no lead safe.

What was the worst of the worst? I decided to try and rank the worst Royals bullpens using a few metrics. I included bullpen ERA and FIP (fielding independent pitching) although it can be a bit flawed for relievers. ERA- shows the ERA in relation to the era, with the higher the number indicating a worse bullpen with 100 being average. I use Fangraphs WAR to show the cumulative value of the bullpen. WPA shows the “win probability added” the relievers contributed. I also looked blown saves (any close lead blown by a reliever), what percentage of inherited runners did they allow to score, and how many games they lost despite leading after six innings.

To give you a point of reference, here is the 2015 Royals, one of the best bullpens in club history.

Bullpen ERA/FIP: 2.72/.356

ERA-: 67

fWAR: 5.1

WPA: 10.37

Blown saves: 20

Inherited runners scored: 27%

Percent of games lost when leading after six innings: 14.9%

These bullpens will....not have those numbers. Here are the worst bullpens in Royals history.

6. 2003 Royals

Bullpen ERA/FIP: 5.57/4.74

ERA-: 116

fWAR: 0.9

WPA: -3.01

Blown saves: 29

Inherited runners scored: 49%

Percent of games lost when leading after six innings: 14.3%

Gas Can of the Year: Albie Lopez. Lopez blew the lead in his very first game with the Royals, setting the tone for his short stint in KC. His 12.71 ERA is fifth-highest in the history of baseball for anyone that pitched at least 20 innings in a season. He gave up seven runs in an inning in a June game against the Twins, leading the Royals to release him before the game was even over.

The 2003 Royals got off to a magical start, winning nine straight to start the year and leading the division much of the summer. Because of their offense and a bit of Royals magic, they were able to overcome a lot of blown leads, but it was clear the bullpen was the big weakness on the team with six losses that year when they lead going into the ninth inning. Closer Mike MacDougal was an All-Star that year, but he was dreadful in the second half, giving up 18 runs in his last 22 13 innings with three blown saves over that time. Manager Tony Pena nearly drove Jason Grimsley into the ground with 76 appearances and a 5.16 ERA. Jeremy Affeldt and D.J. Carrasco provided some help and the team acquired Curt Leskanic, Sean Lowe, Al Levine, and Graeme Lloyd in mid-season, although only Leskanic and Levine pitched well.

5. 2000 Royals

Bullpen ERA/FIP: 5.59/5.44

ERA-: 107

fWAR: -0.1

WPA: -4.24

Blown saves: 26

Inherited runners scored: 36%

Percent of games lost when leading after six innings: 14.9%

Gas Can of the Year: Andy Larkin. Larkin holds the distinction of having the worst ERA in Major League history for any pitcher with at least 100 innings pitched. He did that mostly with the Marlins, but he was as hittable in his short time with the Royals, posting an 8.81 ERA in 19 13 innings in 2000. Of the 97 batters he faced, 40 of them reached base.

The 2000 Royals boasted the best offense in club history with 879 runs, but they still finished just 77-85, largely to a terrible bullpen. Former Phillies All-Star closer Ricky Bottalico was brought in as a free agent, and while his 4.83 ERA was one of the better numbers in the pen, he blew seven saves, earning the nickname “Blow-tallico” from fans. Veteran Jerry Spradlin was released in August with a 5.52 ERA. The Royals auditioned several young arms like Dan Reichert, Chris Fussell, and Kris Wilson without much success. One bright spot was 25-year old Jose Santiago, who posted a 3.91 ERA in 69 innings.

4. 2002 Royals

Bullpen ERA/FIP: 5.29/4.87

ERA-: 111

fWAR: -0.2

WPA: -6.62

Blown saves: 24

Inherited runners scored: 41%

Percent of games lost when leading after six innings: 26.7%

Gas Can of the Year: Blake Stein. The big prize of the Kevin Appier deal had the ability to miss bats - he tied the record for most consecutive strikeouts - but he also had trouble throwing strikes. He finished with a 7.96 ERA in 37 13 relief innings.

The 2000 Royals had a great offense and a poor bullpen, and with Johnny Damon approaching free agency, the Royals decided to trade him in a three-team deal to net prospect Angel Berroa, catcher A.J. Hinch, and veteran closer Roberto Hernandez. Hernandez had been brilliant early in his career as a two-time All-Star with the White Sox and Devil Rays, but he was 36 by the time he came to Kansas City. His 4.33 ERA in 2002 wasn’t too bad, but he did blow seven saves that summer, his last in a Royals uniform. Jason Grimsley, Cory Bailey, and lefty-specialist Scott Mullen were reasonably effective, but the back of the bullpen was a bit of a horror show with Stein, Brad Voyles, and Ryan Bukvich.

3. 2018 Royals

Bullpen ERA/FIP: 5.04/.485

ERA-: 116

fWAR: -1.7

WPA: -4.26

Blown saves: 24

Inherited runners scored: 37%

Percent of games lost when leading after six innings: 22.8%

Gas Can of the Year: Blaine Boyer. The Royals brought in the 36-year old right-hander after a decent season in Boston, but it became pretty clear he couldn’t miss any bats and was going to get hit hard. He gave up a whopping 33 runs in just 21 23 innings for an ERA of 12.05 before the Royals mercifully let him go in August. His saving grace was rescuing the team bus after the driver was struck by falling ice in Toronto, a feat that may explain how he stuck around so long.

The Royals needed some veterans to fill gaps on a rebuilding roster, but the trio of Brandon Maurer, Justin Grimm, and Boyer combined to give up 81 runs in 65 23 innings. Rule 5 pick Burch Smith wasn’t much better with a 6.92 ERA and Jason Adam fell apart after a decent start. The Royals did find some gems in Kevin McCarthy and Brad Keller (who eventually moved to the rotation), Tim Hill became a decent lefty specialist, and Wily Peralta was 14-for-14 in save opportunities despite a high walk rate.

2. 2006 Royals

Bullpen ERA/FIP: 5.41/4.97

ERA-: 119

fWAR: -1.3

WPA: -7.73

Blown saves: 31

Inherited runners scored: 34%

Percent of games lost when leading after six innings: 26.2%

Gas Can of the Year: Andy Sisco. The Royals thought they had found a gem when they plucked Sisco in the Rule 5 draft and he put up a solid rookie season in 2005. But a poor work ethic and shaky command caused him to regress badly in 2006 with a 7.10 ERA and 40 walks in just 58 13 innings.

Ambriorix Burgos keps his wild arm and temper in control in 2006 enough to close out 18 saves, but he did it with a 5.52 ERA in 73 13 innings. Jimmy Gobble was still making the transition from starter to lefty-specialist, and his 5.14 ERA was one of the better marks on the team. Joel Peralta was claimed off waivers and provided some relief with a 4.40 ERA and free agent Elmer Dessens was a decent signing with his 4.50 ERA, but guys like Sisco, Jeremy Affeldt (5.91 ERA), Mike Wood (5.71 ERA), and Scott Dohmann (7.99) were far less effective.

1. 1999 Royals

Bullpen ERA/FIP: 5.77/5.64

ERA-: 114

fWAR: -2.4

WPA: -10.94

Blown saves: 30

Inherited runners scored: 43%

Percent of games lost when leading after six innings: 27.4%

Gas Can of the Year: Jeff Montgomery. Monty was a three-time All-Star and Royals Hall of Famer, but by 1999 he was at the very end of his career trying to make the best of it in the silly ball era. He posted a 6.84 ERA, the seventh-highest ever in a season for someone with at least 50 innings pitched and 10+ saves. He recorded just 12 saves, while blowing seven leads and hung ‘em up after the season. Honorable mention for Ken Ray, who allowed opponents to hit a whopping .460 against him in 11 13 innings while failing to strike out a single hitter.

The 1999 bullpen was a hodge-podge of has-beens and never-weres. Veterans like Montgomery, Scott Service, and Terry Matthews were well past their primes, and the team had to shuttle a parade guys up from Omaha who weren’t up to the task - Don Wengert, Matt Whisenant, Chris Fussell, and Ray. The club ended the year with more blown saves (30) than saves (29) and posted the eighth-highest ERA by any bullpen since World War II.

The confidence of the entire bullpen has simply shattered. People have blamed Tony Muser for not handling his bullpen very well, but where is the guy supposed to turn? Nobody’s pitching well. Matt Whisenant finds it hard to throw strikes. Scott Service gives up homers, although not quite as often as Tim Byrdak. Alvin Morman, whose job is to get out left-handed hitters, isn’t getting out left-handed hitters. Jeff Montgomery, well, you know.

What’s a manager supposed to do?

Personally, I’d go for the cherry-flavored Rolaids.

-Joe Posnanski


What was the worst bullpen in Royals history?

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Hat tip to Sean Thornton, for inspiring this article.