A hallmark of the last competitive Royals teams was a lockdown bullpen. Who can forget the brief but remarkable dominance of HDH, the three-headed bullpen monster of Kelvin Herrera, Wade Davis, and Greg Holland that made any lead after the sixth inning feel comfortable? The Royals even got quality relief innings from less-heralded pitchers like Ryan Madson, Aaron Crow, Jason Frasor, and Franklin Morales. It makes sense that the best bullpens in Kansas City history by fWAR are, in order: 2012, 2013, 2014, 2016, and 2015.
The 2023 Royals were a far cry from those years. Little went right for the team this year and the bullpen was no exception. Blown leads were frequent, and the relief corps only managed to convert 28 saves over the entire season. Holland recorded more saves than that by himself in the first four months of 2014. As I watched Carlos Hernández, ostensibly the team’s best reliever, blow yet another save in Toronto last month, I got to thinking, “Is this the worst bullpen Kansas City has ever had?”
This is not the most straightforward question to answer as there are many ways to evaluate a bullpen. A straight WAR ranking doesn’t make much sense as there just isn’t that big of a gap between the best and worst seasons when looking at an entire bullpen (most settle somewhere between 1-4 fWAR). Thus, I pulled together numerous stats to pick contenders, ultimately settling on five contenders for the worst bullpen in franchise history.
485.1 IP, 5.77 ERA, 5.64 FIP, N/A BS, 114 ERA-, 115 FIP-, -10.94 WPA, -2.4 fWAR
Going in chronological order starts us with potentially the strongest (weakest?) contender. Despite a position player group that finished 16th in baseball in fWAR, this team lost 97 games largely due to abysmal pitching. The ‘99 relief corps posted the lowest strikeout rate in baseball and combined that with inflated walk and home run rates. They had the third-worst save percentage of any team since 1969, when the save statistic was invented. Scott Service threw by far the most innings out of anybody in that bullpen and produced a 6.09 ERA. What was left of Jeff Montgomery walked nearly as many batters as he struck out en route to a 6.84 ERA in what would be his final big league season. Only Jose Santiago and Terry Mathews threw at least ten innings with an ERA under four, and they did so with respective strikeout rates of 7.4% and 10.9%. There truly was no bright spot in this bullpen.
515.1 IP, 5.57 ERA, 4.74 FIP, 28 BS, 116 ERA-, 104 FIP-, -3.01 WPA, 0.9 fWAR
The 2003 season was a random contending for Kansas City amidst a string of uninspiring campaigns. In spite of this, they finished well out of postseason position and would have just missed the cut even with the current expanded postseason field. This team won 83 games despite a -31 run differential. Generally, when a team overperforms like that, I assume it’s due to luck in one-run games. That was not the case here as the ‘03 Royals were 18-22 in one-run games. If more of those had gone the other direction, perhaps Kansas City pushes Minnesota at the top of the division. Alas, the bullpen did this squad few favors — their 28 blown saves are second-most in franchise history. Mike MacDougal was solid, and Jeremy Affeldt pitched well in relief after being bumped from the rotation. Their efforts were undone, however, as Jason Grimsley, Kris Wilson, and Sean Lowe each produced an ERA above five in regular action, while D.J. Carrasco was not far off. That is to say nothing of the disaster that was Albie Lopez. This bullpen wasn’t a comprehensive crisis and was not the worst in franchise history in any one metric, but a better unit could have had the Royals closer to postseason position.
577.2 IP, 5.41 ERA, 4.97 FIP, 31 BS, 119 ERA-, 111 FIP-, -7.73 WPA, -1.3 fWAR
The third of three consecutive losing seasons, the ‘06 Royals were a comprehensively terrible team that featured a bullpen with the worst adjusted ERA and most blown saves in franchise history. The name that probably comes to mind for most Royals fans here is Ambiorix Burgos, who was a mess as the team’s primary closer. While guys like Joel Peralta and Elmer Dessens put together solid seasons, their efforts were undone by the catastrophic campaigns from the likes of Andrew Sisco, Mike Wood, and Scott Dohmann. The only guys that threw at least 20 innings in relief with an ERA under four were Todd Wellemeyer (who did so in spite of walking as many batters as he struck out) and Affeldt (who walked more batters than he struck out). Ryan Braun played for the Royals that year. I bet you didn’t remember that.
542.2 IP, 5.04 ERA, 4.84 FIP, 24 BS, 116 ERA-, 116 FIP-, -4.26 WPA, -1.5 fWAR
The first year of the ongoing rebuild was a far cry from the strong bullpens of the contending squads. By adjusted FIP, this was the worst unit in team history. A half-season of Kelvin Herrera wasn’t nearly enough to save it. There isn’t even one culprit really, this was a team effort. The following is a complete list of relievers that threw at least ten innings with a FIP over five: Burch Smith, Jason Adam, Brandon Mauerer, Blaine Boyer, Jake Newberry, Justin Grimm, and Heath Fillmyer. I bet those names bring back some fond memories. Somebody named Jerry Vasto made five appearances. The fact that
former Speaker of the House Kevin McCarthy was arguably the most reliable reliever on the team speaks volumes about this unit.
623.1 IP, 5.23 ERA, 4.63 FIP, 25 BS, 117 ERA-, 109 FIP-, -7.94 WPA, 0.5 fWAR
Even including half a season of Aroldis Chapman and Alec Marsh as a bulk reliever, this was still a spectacularly bad bullpen by both win probability and adjusted ERA. It didn’t help that the bullpen was used so much due to poor starting pitching. Carlos Hernández led the way in innings, producing a strong first half that was followed by an ERA and FIP over seven after the All-Star break. Taylor Clarke was an oft-used catastrophe. Jose Cuas was third on the team in innings despite being traded at the deadline. Out of the thirteen pitchers that threw at least 20 innings in relief for Kansas City, only seven finished the ‘23 season on the roster. Though James McArthur and Austin Cox showed promise, their contributions were more than offset by dismal pitching from others.
In summary, the title of “Worst Bullpen in Royals History” probably still belongs to the 1999 unit. They truly set the standard for dismal relief pitching in a way that’s hard to top. The 2023 bullpen, however, has a compelling case for second worst. With the third worst ERA-, fourth worst FIP-, and second worst WPA, this relief corps performed poorly in all facets. The bullpen is not the main reason this team lost 106 games, but it certainly didn’t help.
1999 aside, what was the worst bullpen in Royals history?