For those of you who weren’t Kansas City Royals fans yet in 2014, of if you were too young to really get it, getting the game to the bullpen was a sigh of relief. If the Royals carried a lead past the sixth inning, that was it. The game was done, the Royals were going to win, and there was nothing teams could do about it.
That’s because 2014 was powered by a true Cerberus of pitching excellence: Kelvin Herrera, Wade Davis, and Greg Holland. The three gave up 33 runs that year. No no no, they didn’t give up 33 runs each. They gave up 33 runs. Not just earned runs. Total runs. In six months. Over a combined 204 innings. They combined to give up, on average, one and a quarter runs per week all year. Then, in the playoffs, they gave up six runs—again, total—against the best teams in baseball through Game 7 of the World Series.
To say it was all downhill from there sounds like a criticism, but when three players peak in the same year, that’s just how it works. Holland pitched through much of 2015 with a torn UCL and had to go under the knife in August. He didn’t pitch another inning for Kansas City until last year. Herrera turned in another solid three and a half seasons as a Royal, and his stellar three innings of relief work in Game 5 of the 2015 World Series is an underrated individual performance in the Pantheon of the New Golden Age Royals playoff games. Still, Herrera was never quite as effective as he was in 2014.
And then there’s Davis, who maintained his 2014 for another year and will forever be known as the guy who got the last out of the 2015 World Series. Let’s watch that moment again, for fun.
Seven years later, and things are very different. Herrera retired before this season. His post-Royals career was so poor as to almost be construed as double-agent baseball spy work. And now, well, the time has finally come for Father Time to claim his prey: Davis and Holland are washed.
That Holland and Davis were on this team to begin with was a fine enough decision. Both cheap, they were the type of veteran deals that don’t break a payroll budget and have limited downside. But just because they had limited downside didn’t mean they had limited risk. On the contrary: Holland and Davis had shown alarming signs of slowing down.
In Holland’s case—after coming back from Tommy John surgery in 2017—he had been disappointing, but somewhat serviceable. With a 4.20 ERA and a 4.02 FIP for a quartet of National League teams, Holland managed to notch 61 saves. Then, Holland put up a stellar 1.91 ERA and a 2.52 FIP last year with the Royals. Davis, on the other hand, hit the wall hard after free agency. With a 6.49 ERA and a 4.73 FIP for the Rockies, Davis simply stunk—especially in 2019 and 2020, when his ERA was an unsightly 9.77.
This year, Holland and Davis continued their downward spiral. Much of this can be attributed to a decline in fastball velocity; at their 2014 peaks, they both threw their average fastball at 96.5 MPH. This year, their average fastball velo declined to 92.9 MPH and 92.8 MPH, respectively. Few relievers manage to continue their effectiveness as their fastball velocity wanes, and Holland and Davis were not immune.
All told, Holland and Davis have been a millstone around the necks of the rest of the bullpen. By the most obvious stat—ERA—the Royals’ bullpen would move up five whole ranking spots without their “contributions.”
The Effect of Davis and Holland on the Bullpen
|Davis and Holland
|Bullpen w/o Davis and Holland
|Davis and Holland
|Bullpen w/o Davis and Holland
Both aging pitchers have seen their playing time diminish and pitch in fewer and fewer high-leverage situations. Per Baseball-Reference’s leverage index, Davis’ average leverage index was 0.49, or safely below a perfectly neutral leverage (set at 1.00). Holland’s average leverage index on the year is 1.29, or slightly higher than neutral. However, through June, Holland’s aLI was 1.47, and it has only been 0.96 since the beginning of July. It is perhaps not much of a coincidence that the Royals began winning more games after they moved a poorly performing reliever out from pitching high leverage situations.
This certainly seems to be the swan song for both Holland and Davis. Yes, they are cheap and are freely available, but they are both because they are bad. Furthermore, the Royals have a pitching crunch next year. Assuming that Mike Minor, Brady Singer, Brad Keller, Daniel Lynch, Kris Bubic, Carlos Hernandez, Scott Barlow, Josh Staumont, Jakob Junis, Jake Brentz, and Kyle Zimmer make the Opening Day roster—extremely likely barring injury—there are only two spots left for a 13-man roster. Why use them on Holland or Davis when you’ve got half a dozen more interesting and, frankly, better pitchers on your 40-man, let alone free agents?
Both Holland and Davis have shots at the Royals Hall of Fame for their contributions for the World Series runs in 2014 and 2015. We can also watch highlights of them in action every time we want to thanks to highlight clips on YouTube. It’s just that, ah, this particular season won’t be very well represented.