No lead is safe. If you are a Royals fan that is still watching games, or at least tracking the score on your phone each night, that statement feels very real right now. On Tuesday, when the Royals took a 9-0 lead, we saw them prove it. Yes, KC won the game, but it sure didn’t feel like it. When you have a bullpen that has no trustworthy arms, it just makes every lead a shaky construct.
To be fair, the 2023 Royals bullpen has no chance of going down in history as one of the worst of all time. However, that might only be because it wasn’t a terrible pen before the trade deadline. After the deadline, it has been impressively bad. Since August 2nd, the bullpen has accumulated -1.3 fWAR, good for 29th over that period. That has been over 39 games, so the current bullpen would pace for -5.4 fWAR over a 162 games season. The all-time record is -5.1 from the 2013 Astros. Only Texas has been worse over the same period, and may miss the playoffs because of it. They tried to shore it up by giving the Royals Cole Ragans, but Aroldis Chapman has not been enough to save them.
To be fair, the first half of the season did happen, and bullpens for bad teams tend to get worse in the second half as that is the most commonly traded commodity at the break. The Royals bullpen should not look like this to begin next season. It does not change the fact that the current state of relief pitching in KC is as poor as we have ever seen.
Part of this is just purely how many of the arms they are depending on are below replacement level. I went to Fangraphs and looked at every relief pitcher from 2000 and on who had at least 10 innings pitched. I will also be ignoring those that pitched for more than one team in a year as I could not figure out a way to split them into their teams in a way that would not eat most of my life this week. This search encompasses 7,597 pitchers who threw at least 10 innings for one team in those years. The team with the most negative WAR pitchers in that sample is the 2021 Chicago Cubs at 13. Right now the 2023 Royals have eight negative WAR relief pitchers. It is actually possible for them to tie the Cubs if things break right (wrong?) down the stretch.
To add five more Royals to the negative WAR mix is unlikely, but three of them would be pretty easy. Right now, Jackson Kowar, Taylor Clarke, and James McArthur are all sitting at 0 or 0.1 fWAR, so one bad outing could do it. To get two more, and tie the Cubs, it would take a little bit. Brad Keller could add himself to the list, but he has only thrown one inning out of the pen, so he needs to rack up nine more of sub-replacement level work on average. Steven Cruz is at 5 bullpen innings and one opener gig, and the bullpen ones are negative, so he just needs a few more average or worse relief outings. The last would be Taylor Hearn, who if he was recalled and got and inning and a third could make it to 10 innings. Regardless, eight negative WAR pitchers out of one bullpen is rare, and the Royals look like they will have at least that. Nine would set the Royals record. Eight has happened in two other Kansas City seasons, 2002 and 2009.
Having lots of bad performers on your team is not ideal, but coupling that with no top-end performers makes it even worse. The top two relievers for the Royals in WAR this year are no longer on the team, Chapman and Barlow. Of the remaining members, the top three are Austin Cox (0.3), Carlos Hernández (0.2), and Alec Marsh (0.2). If you include Marsh’s starts, he is a negative WAR pitcher this season and Cox bumps all the way up to 0.5 wins. Similarly, Hernández has been an opener a few times, and if you include those he is at 0.6 wins. The top three arms in the bullpen combined are at 0.7 wins when coming in from the pen and 0.5 wins if you include their openers/starts. Either way, all three combined would be behind the top 80 relievers this year, so on average each team has two and two thirds relievers better.
There is not a lot in the way of a silver lining to the Royals bullpen. The only solace I can give is that bullpens can be turned around much quicker and with less resources expended than the lineup or starting rotation. Every year there are stories like Yennier Cano, players who go from obscure to dominant in one off-season. Hopefully the Royals can collect some arms between now and the 2024 season, and then work some Cole Ragans-style magic with them. We have seen some promise from Hernández and others as well. It is not inconceivable that they could piece together a competent bullpen for next season. Until then though, no lead is safe.