Bullpens can always be unfairly evaluated by baseball fans. As fans, we are prone to recency bias, and tend to unfairly hone in one good or one bad stretch from a bullpen when it comes to judgment. A closer blows a save? He’s the worst closer of all time in the eyes of the fans of that respective club (as a kid I remember Rod Beck blowing back to back saves and I thought he was the worst pitcher ever…so much so that I had a chance to get his autograph and didn’t want to because I thought he sucked).
In some ways, that has been the narrative of the Royals bullpen in 2019: fans have often credited the Royals’ lack of success to a lousy bullpen (among other things, of course). And it’s understandable why Royals fans may come to that conclusion. Royals fans were spoiled in 2014 and 2015 by the prowess of relievers such as Greg Holland, Wade Davis and Kelvin Herrera leading them to postseason success. To see blown saves and a team bullpen ERA that ranks 25th in the league is definitely a change from the blueprint of success that the Royals embodied not too long ago.
However, in a season where there have been more negatives than positives, one of the surprising results of the second half for the Royals has been the improvement in effectiveness from the Royals relievers. Hence, I will go into why the Royals bullpen was a bright spot in the second half for the Royals organization, and what that means going forward for the club in 2020.
The Royals pen improved in second half due to a few relievers stepping up…
The Royals bullpen kind of lived up to the “they suck and are a big reason why the Royals can find success” adage in the first half. In the first half of the season, Royals relievers ranked second-to-last in saves, 22nd in WAR, 23rd in ERA, and 24th in xFIP, according to Fangraphs. In the second half of the season, the ERA numbers actually got worse, as they fell to 27th in ERA over the second half, and their xFIP stayed stable at 27th. But other than those categories, the bullpen pretty much excelled in the other two. They ranked 6th in saves and 12th in WAR, according to Fangraphs. Considering that there are less games in the second half, the remarkable improvement in those two categories should be seen as something to celebrate as Royals fans, though it may go unnoticed due to the Royals being out of contention for a playoff spot since about May (not good, I know).
So what has contributed to the Royals improving in saves and WAR? Well, the initial credit could be given to closer Ian Kennedy, who is the most valuable reliever the Royals currently have. Over the year, the former starter turned closer has accumulated 30 saves, a 3.28 ERA, 3.77 xFIP and 1.4 WAR over 60 appearances in 2019. Kennedy has been more efficient in his appearances in the second half, as he has 19 saves in 26 appearances in the second half in comparison to 11 saves in 35 appearances in the first half. And it’s not a surprise that he’s been more efficient, as his 2.84 ERA in the second half dwarfs his 3.60 ERA mark from the first half. Therefore, whether Kennedy stays with the Royals or is traded elsewhere this off-season (he is in the last year of his contract next season and may be more valued on a contender), it is evident that he has grown into and embraced the role and pressures of being the “main guy” in the ninth inning.
That being said, to give all the credit to Kennedy for the bullpen’s improvement in the second half would be shortsighted. Yes, Kennedy has been a better closer for the Royals in the second half. However, three relievers also showed marked improvement after the All-Star break as well and could be valuable going forward into 2020.
Those three relievers are Scott Barlow, Tim Hill and Kevin McCarthy.
All three relievers struggled in various ways in the first half. Barlow posted a 6.19 ERA and saw some time in Omaha to work on some things in the PCL. Hill was actually the Royals’ WORST reliever before the All-Star break by WAR, according to Fangraphs, as he had a minus-0.4 WAR in the first half. And McCarthy also posted a negative WAR to go along with more walks per nine innings (4.74) than strikeouts per nine innings (3.65). There were times during the first half of the Royals season where it was plausible to think that none of these three relievers would make it through the year with the Royals organization due to their poor peripherals.
However, all three turned it around, and contributed heavily to the Royals’ success out of the pen, and proved to be valuable set-up men for Kennedy in the ninth. Barlow became the Royals’ best reliever in the second half, as he posted a 2.08 ERA and 0.8 WAR over 30 games in the second half. Hill and McCarthy became groundball machines in the 7th and 8th innings for the Royals over the second half. The lefty Hill induced a 58.5 percent groundball rate to go along with a 3.08 ERA and 0.6 WAR over 30 appearances, while the right-handed McCarthy induced a 64.4 percent groundball rate to go along with a 3.28 FIP and 0.4 WAR. And while Kennedy may get a lot of the glory for the bullpen’s success in the second half, he still finished behind those three relievers in terms of WAR in the second half of the season, which shows how well-rounded the Royals pen was in the second half compared to the first.
What does this mean for the Royals bullpen in 2020?
The Royals cut a lot of fat from their bullpen in 2019 in order to find a core that really worked for them. Wily Peralta, a part-time closer in 2018, was jettisoned from the club around late June, as his failure to show any command, as well as a spat with young catcher Meibrys Viloria, proved to be the final nail in the coffin for his tenure in Kansas City. Furthermore, it seems like the Royals have decided to move on from Jake Newberry and Richard Lovelady, though there was a considerable faction of Royals fans who wished Lovelady got more of a chance to prove himself and improve his 7.65 ERA.
Though it took some time and patience, the Royals core of McCarthy, Barlow, Hill and Kennedy could be a formidable foursome going forward in the 7th through 9th innings in 2020. Furthermore, it is also possible that the Royals could get additional reinforcement in the pen should Jorge Lopez be moved there full time in 2020, which is a strong possibility with Brady Singer and Jackson Kowar most likely going to debut at some point next year, and the Royals will need to make room in the rotation for them. Also, Jesse Hahn, who had missed a lot of time due to elbow surgery since being acquired from Oakland, has looked good in limited bullpen duty down the stretch, and it’s possible that he could be a Kennedy-lite in the sense that he could find success as a “former starter turned reliever”. Thus, there already is depth and potential in the Royals pen for Dayton Moore to build on this Winter, and it will just be a matter of tinkering the pen rather than looking for wholesale moves.
The big question will be what Moore does with Kennedy this off-season. As stated before, Kennedy may be more valued on a contender next season than in Kansas City, where the club will most likely be rebuilding for a third-straight season. However, Kennedy’s contract is expensive even for a one-year deal (he is set to make $16.5 million next year), and that may scare teams off, especially if they are not willing to make him their closer. Additionally, even if a team is willing to take on Kennedy and his contract, will Moore and manager Ned Yost trust Barlow or Hill to take the bump in the ninth with the game on the line? Or will he need to acquire another reliever on the free agent market to fill that role?
The Royals bullpen is in a good spot going forward, but is far from the product it once was in 2014 an 2015. That being said, with some smart moves and the continued development of McCarthy, Barlow and Hill (and maybe Lopez and Hahn), it’s possible that the Royals bullpen could get to that level maybe in 2021, or the second half of 2020, if Royals fans are lucky.