One of the more refreshing things about manager Mike Matheny is his flexibility when it comes to bullpen roles. Although Ned Yost had a lot of success with a rigid formula of HDH - Kelvin Herrera in the seventh, Wade Davis in the eighth, and Greg Holland in the ninth - the fact is when you don’t have three of the most dominant relievers in baseball, you have to be a bit more creative. Matheny has used his relievers in a less orthodox manner, playing matchups, the hot hand, and considering usage.
It helps that the Royals have better bullpen depth than they’ve had since the days of HDH. Royals relievers are hard-throwing - they are eighth in baseball in fastball velocity. However a few have struggled with command - the bullpen has the tenth-highest walk rate.
It is still very early in the season - these pitchers have only thrown a handful of innings - but how do you rank Royals relievers in terms of level of trust? Who do you give the ball with the game on the line? Here are my early rankings:
1. Josh Staumont
The hard-throwing Staumont has given up only one run in nine innings this year, but he really has yet to unleash the fireball so far this year. He was very briefly placed on the COVID-19 Injured list after an adverse reaction to a vaccine, and he may still be feeling the effects of that or the COVID-19 infection he suffered earlier this year he says sapped his strength. Either way, his velocity is down a bit this year, but he hasn’t been hit hard, and his called strike rate is up, even if his swinging strike rate is down. In other words, Staumont hasn’t been Staumont, and yet he is still getting outs, which makes me feel confident he will only get better as he gets stronger.
2. Scott Barlow
Barlow seems to be favored by Matheny as his glue guy, the fireman he can put in any situation to put out the fire. He has given up four runs in 12 1⁄3 innings, although three came in an outing against the Angels in which he did give up some ropes. He is still missing bats at a good rate, and although he sometimes seems to live life on the edge, Barlow is still getting the job done most nights.
3. Kyle Zimmer
I don’t think we marvel enough at the fact that Kyle Zimmer is finally healthy. Two years ago, I never would have bet he would have 50 MLB innings under his belt by now, and yet here he is. Zimmer has been racking up ground balls at a rate of nearly 60 percent so far this year and his curveball grades as one of the best in baseball so far. He’s not getting quite as many swings-and-misses as you would like, but he’s done a great job keeping the walks down, something that plagued him his rookie season.
4. Tyler Zuber
It is still odd to me that Zuber didn’t make the team initially. The 25-year old has a deceptive 94 mph fastball that reminds me a bit like Joakim Soria’s in that it seems faster than it really is. He leads the team in called and swinging strike rate, albeit in just four innings of work. He has been put in fairly low leverage situations so far, but I can see Matheny trusting him more and more and I think he could become one of the more trusted arms out there.
5. Jake Brentz
Brentz has been as-advertised as a hard-throwing lefty averaging 96 mph on his fastball. What was not advertised is his control. You figure a hard-throwing lefty that has bounced around to his third organization would have massive walk issues, and Brentz did have some of that in the minors. But through six big league innings it hasn’t been a big issue with three walks so far, and his called strike rate is on par with Zimmer’s. Lefties are just 2-for-14 against him so far and it looks like he could be another feather in Dayton Moore’s cap when it comes to finding useful relievers on the cheap.
6. Greg Holland
The nostalgia tour for Greg Holland had positive results in 2020, but age is undefeated. The 35-year old Holland has given up five runs and three home runs in just seven innings of work. His fastball velocity seems the same, but his slider has gotten hit hard early on. His walk issues have returned as well, with one walk per inning so far. It is still early, and Holland had a couple of slow starts even when he was in his prime, but the Royals can’t let the good ol’ days keep them from making hard choices if it comes to that.
7. Wade Davis
Speaking of good times, remember when Wade Davis was the most dominant reliever in baseball? That was fun. Those days seem to be long gone. Wader has served up seven runs in 6 2⁄3 innings so far for an ugly 9.45 ERA. There are reasons to be optimistic - he has a great strikeout-to-walk ratio. But he has also been pretty hard hit so far, and his chase rate and whiff rate are pretty low.
8. Ervin Santana
Ervin Santana has not been a good Major League pitcher since 2017, but he was sold to us on the claims he was throwing 96 in winter ball and spring training. Well now he’s throwing 92. That’s not a formula that’s going to work. Erv had a surprisingly solid three-inning start in the doubleheader against the Blue Jays, but he was hit hard against the Rays this week.
looking at the BaseballSavant box score and Ervin Santana faced 9 batters last night and 8 of them got a "Hard Hit" flame. Which.. seems about how I remember that outing going. pic.twitter.com/3XhgkZsgJg— Brandon H. (@BHIndepMO) April 21, 2021
His first outing will probably buy him some time, but with an “expected ERA” is 21.11 he is going to have to find a way to get hitters out with the guile of a 38-year old veteran.
9. Jake Newberry
Jake is this generation’s “I-29” (well, the Alternate Site is in Springdale, Arkansas, so “Highway 69”?) the player that shuttles between the big leagues and minors whenever the team needs an extra arm. He’s in the back of the pen, to be used when the Royals don’t want to waste any other arms. Still, it is a chance to show what he can do, and he needs to make more of his opportunity before his 40-man roster spot goes to someone else.
What are your bullpen trust rankings?