There is no getting around it, The Royals had an absolutely atrocious bullpen this year. Even their long-time reliable closer Scott Barlow struggled for long stretches. When you looked in the Royals minor leagues, there didn’t seem to be a lot of help available either. And when you looked around the league, it seemed to just be chock full of former Royals relievers who were having a wonderful time.
Barlow himself bounced back with the Padres after a rough start with them. Joel Payamps had an excellent season with the Brewers. Gabe Speier was above average in Seattle. Even Ryan Yarbrough, who had been good for the Royals, was even better in some ways for the Dodgers down the stretch.
It was easy to look around the league and come to two conclusions: First, that Dayton Moore really had, somehow, been the sole genius behind all of the Royals miraculous bullpens over the past decade. Second, that the Royals experiments in improving pitching with better communication of advanced statistics, metrics, and data in general were completely failing.
Then came along James McArthur.
You could be forgiven if you completely tuned out when the Royals acquired him. He had just been designated for assignment by the Phillies and the Royals acquired him for 19-year-old outfielder Junior Marin. The comment section of the above linked Royals Review article is full of people asking, “Why?” and the general consensus appeared to be, “Bullpen depth.”
When the Royals first recalled him to the big leagues toward the end of June, I don’t think anyone expected much. Still, they were disappointed. McArthur made exactly one appearance, giving up seven runs in a single inning to the Cleveland Guardians on June 28, ensuring a game that was already out-of-hand when he took the mound would become entirely hopeless.
McArthur was demoted again in short order and didn’t return until August. Royals fans were rightfully nervous, but he came in to face his former team and allowed only a single run in two innings this time. Not exactly a ringing endorsement, but as Royals fans we had all accepted at this point that someone had to pitch all the innings for the rest of the season. And someone who could actually get a few outs in between giving up runs wasn’t going to be awful to have. He gave up another run in his next outing, then he had a pair of scoreless outings, and then he gave up three runs in a single inning to the Mariners on August 16 during another loss. He was sent back to the minors. I think at that point, most Royals fans probably expected to never see him again.
Still, they probably weren’t that surprised when he was recalled on September 1. The Royals could add a fourteenth pitcher and no one was exactly banging the door down. But what happened after that absolutely surprised everyone who was still paying even a little attention.
He didn’t allow another run for the rest of the season.
Sure, that’s easy to do if you don’t pitch. But McArthur had 12 appearances in September and October from that point. He pitched 16.1 innings, a small sample to be sure, but one that is almost approximately 20% of the workload a reliever might expect in a full season. He had a 10.47 K/9 and a 0.93 FIP to go along with the 0.00 ERA and 0 home runs allowed. Even more impressive, though?
He didn’t give up a single walk.
I would argue you can probably throw out that first appearance; it was his major league debut and he obviously started working on some new stuff once he got to KC. There are always bumps in the road. But even if you include it, McArthur ended the season with a 4.63 ERA, a 2.78 FIP, and a 0.77 BB/9. He had 0.5 fWAR, tying him as the sixth-most valuable pitcher for the Royals this year. He was the fourth-most valuable pitcher still on the roster when the season came to a close.
He ended the season as the Royals’ closer, accruing four saves. He also had eight shutdown appearances and not a single meltdown, because even in the games where he gave up a bunch of runs, it didn’t affect the win probability much because the Royals were already well out of them.
James McArthur stands as one of several examples - perhaps the second best - of the possibilities the Royals can now envision with a scouting and development department that may actually be able to “fix” guys that couldn’t put it together on other teams. That’s something I’m going to explore in a later article, but for now, I think James “The General” McArthur has earned an A for his exceptionally strong finish and good overall statistics. I know J.J. Picollo said that the team didn’t have a for-sure closer next season, but I expect McArthur will merit a long look in that role.
Not bad for a guy that an incredibly strong playoff team in the Phillies walked away from.
What grade would you give James McArthur’s season?
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