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Hok Talk: The Royals relievers aren’t as bad as you think

Royals fans are a bit spoiled

Scott Barlow throws a pitch Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports

I don’t think it would shock anyone to suggest that Scott Barlow is having a good season. Then again, I’ve spent the entire season hearing about how he always goes through a cold stretch in a way that suggests he’s either had one or almost had one already this year. However, Barlow’s FIP for April, when he was very good, was 1.94. His FIP from April 30 through May 1 was 1.89. Since the Royals snapped the losing streak he’s put up a FIP of 0.95. So far this season Barlow has pitched in 21 of 42 games and he’s thrown 22.2 innings with a 2.38 ERA and a 1.77 FIP. He is the seventh most valuable reliever in the entire league, going by FanGraphs WAR. If he’s had a cold stretch, then Royals fans have nothing to be worried about.

The biggest problem the Royals face with their bullpen is the same problem almost every team faces: relievers are volatile. Unlike in 2018 and 2019, the Royals relief corp is mediocre to good. In fact. many of them will usually be good but not always. Royals fans were spoiled from 2014-2016 with more than one reliever each season that managed to always be good.

So, after Barlow, the Royals have guys like Josh Staumont, Jake Brentz, Kyle Zimmer, and even Greg Holland and Tyler Zuber who are usually good. That’s enough to put them in the upper half of the league in some important reliever categories like save percentage and percentage of inherited runners allowed to score. They’re not doing so hot in several other categories, though. One that will surprise no one who has followed the careers of Staumont, Holland, and Brentz is that the bullpen gives up far too many walks. They also have a team reliever ERA in the bottom half of the sport.

So if their guys are usually good, why do the stats suggest they’re often bad? There are two symptoms that both stem from one root cause. One which I have harped on all year. The Royals starting pitchers don’t go deep enough into games.

If you remember 2014, four of their five mainline starters averaged more than six innings per start (James Shields, Yordano Ventura, Jason Vargas, and Jeremy Guthrie.) When a team’s starters leave the game with fewer than nine outs to go 80% of the time that team can heavily lean on just their very best relievers. This year’s group of starters are all averaging fewer than six innings per start. However, not only does this mean that the team has go deeper into the bullpen to finish off a game but it means even the good relievers are getting overused. Scott Barlow has been very good, but he keeps this pace up he’s going to end up pitching a lot more innings than most shutdown relievers. That leaves more opportunities for injury and the odd ineffective day; both of which could lead to more Royals losses like the one they suffered against the White Sox on Sunday.

With every good Royals reliever injured or overworked, manager Mike Matheny was forced to choose between Wade Davis and Tyler Zuber for the ninth inning of a one-run game. Zuber has been better than you probably think, he’s only allowed runs in four of his fourteen appearances, but he’s still not a guaranteed thing and Wade Davis ended up being the call. He also ended up blowing the game.

Still, minus that 13-game stretch, the bullpen has mostly done its job. If the relievers can avoid any more lengthy, abysmal stretches like that one (and get some help from starters going deeper,) the numbers will look very good by the end of the year. Seriously, that stretch was bad. The Royals had only two relievers with ERAs under 4 during that stretch: Kris Bubic and Ervin Santana a.k.a. the guys called on to pitch when the game was already entirely out of hand. Barlow had the best ERA of the rest at 4.50. There just weren’t any right choices to be made after the starter got pulled and it helped exacerbate all of the other problems that led to that double-digit losing streak.

Video Replay is still broken

We saw over the course of this week that video replay is a lot like everything else in baseball; the unreasonable results balance out. Still, it should be better than it is. Max wrote an excellent summary of the problems with some proposed solutions earlier this week and covered it pretty well. However, I wanted to lean a bit more on a couple of his points and add a couple of my own.

The on-field call cannot be so important

The number of calls that “stand” as opposed to being confirmed or overturned is pretty ridiculous. Max, and others, have promoted several solutions but for my money, the best solution is simply to make it easier to make the correct call. Max touched on this, too, but they need more and better camera angles to help replay officials. Whether those officials become part of the crew or are evaluated more strictly or whatever else can only help so much unless the data they’re working with significantly improves as well.

Explanations are key

Max also touched on this, but it’s important enough that I wanted to reiterate it, too. Umpires need to do more than just give a signal indicating the results of the video review. They need to offer up an explanation via on-field microphone the same way referees do in American Football. It’s beyond frustrating to see a call appear to get missed, to see the replay miss it again, and not even hear from anyone as to why they thought they were making the right call.

Do away with the stupid overturns

I swear that half of the overturned plays I’ve seen since replay was implemented involve a runner’s foot bouncing up off of a base by a millimeter while the tag was being applied. Feet, shoes, and cleats are pretty hard. So are modern MLB bases. It’s nearly physically impossible that they should collide with any velocity and not have at least a little rebound. Headfirst slides are dangerous so we don’t really want to encourage those, either. Reserve calling guys out on the basepaths for when they’re at least an inch or so off the bag, OK?

Eliminate the gamesmanship

Baseball claims that replay review is in the sport to make sure they get the calls right. Ignoring for the moment that we’ve seen multiple instances this year where they absolutely did not get the call right, the entire system is set up so that some bad calls can absolutely remain. If a team uses its challenge unsuccessfully in the first inning they can’t challenge again until the seventh inning. Why? In what way does that improve the accuracy of the on-field rulings? The answer is it doesn’t; it just adds gamesmanship to when and how to use challenges. Which is dumb.

Additionally, using this method causes things to take more time. As things stand every close play causes at least a short delay while the offended team’s replay official determines if the play seems reasonable to challenge. If they determine the play should be challenged the length of the delay is increased while the replay officials take their own look. If, instead, replay officials were already automatically checking every close play then we wouldn’t need to wait the extra amount of time for two people to review the play. If MLB implemented this they could kill two birds with one stone; they could make the games less prone to error and speed them up. So I guess I won’t hold my breath waiting for them to do it.