The 2020 “Royalty Awards”: Who was the Royals’ best relief pitcher?

From 2013-2016, the bullpen was THE strength of the Royals team. In fact, over that time span, the Royals bullpen accumulated a 22.9 WAR over that four-year span, which led all teams in baseball, according to Fangraphs. However, after a great run, mostly lead by some combo of “HDH” (Kelvin Herrera, Wade Davis, and Greg Holland…though Holland was not around in 2016 due to injury), Royals relievers fell back to earth from 2017-2019, as they accumulated only a 5.3 WAR over the three-year span, which ranked 26th in baseball, according to Fangraphs. While the bullpen wasn’t the only problem that plagued the Royals over that time frame, the mediocre production from Royals relievers certainly didn’t help, especially in 2018 and 2019, in which the Royals suffered back-to-back 100-plus loss seasons.

This year, the Royals upgraded the pen by bringing back Holland as well as taking a flier on Trevor Rosenthal, a former closer for the Cardinals who pitched in St. Louis when Mike Matheny was manager. However, while those two ended up having stellar bounce-back campaigns, the Royals bullpen as a whole made tremendous gains from the last three years of mediocrity. Though it was a shortened season, the Royals ranked 12th in reliever WAR (1.8), and also posted a 4.02 FIP, which ranked 9th in the league as well, according to Fangraphs. Thus, it can be inferred that the bullpen was a major factor in helping the Royals improve their winning percentage from .364 in 2019 to .433 in 2020.

While the Royals bullpen as a whole was stellar, who were the top Kansas City relievers in 2020? Let’s take a look at the two runners-up and the winner of the “Royalty” award for 2020 “Reliever of the Year.”

Photo by Brace Hemmelgarn/Minnesota Twins/Getty Images

2nd runner up: Kyle Zimmer, RHP

Jesse Hahn technically had the better WAR (0.5) to Zimmer’s (0.4), and Hahn was being used in higher leverage situations down the stretch than Zimmer. Furthermore, after Zimmer’s latest injury, Hahn’s future in the Royals bullpen looks a lot brighter, as it could be possible that if the Royals do not re-sign Holland, Hahn may have a shot at the closer’s role in 2021. I don’t want to omit Hahn from this discussion at all, because what Hahn did in 2020 was something really impressive, as evidenced in the Tweet below:

However, what Zimmer did this year came out of nowhere, even more so than Hahn (whom I thought could succeed if moved to the bullpen). In 18.1 IP in 2019, Zimmer posted an ERA of 10.80, and had a higher BB/9 (9.33) than his K/9 (8.84). The Royals were able to grant Zimmer an extra Minor League option in Spring Training, and they seemed like they were ready to execute it before the pandemic shut everything down. In fact, if any Royals fan in Spring Training said that they thought Zimmer could be a reliable piece in the Royals bullpen in 2020, they would have been laughed off of Twitter by Royals fans. In Spring Training it seemed likelier that Zimmer would be designated for assignment, let alone make the active roster.

That all changed though once Summer Camp began, for after some development and unexpected coaching during the pandemic, Zimmer not only made the Royals active roster on Opening Day, but he excelled on the mound. Zimmer made 16 appearances (which included one “opener” appearance) and pitched 23 innings overall and posted a 1.57 ERA and 2.37 FIP. His K/BB ratio, which was a putrid 0.95 in 2019, improved to 2.60 in 2020, which showed the gains in control he had made since his Major League debut a year ago.

Instead of trying to be a fireballer, like he was in the Minors and his rookie year, Zimmer opted for a more refined approach, which was helped by his improved usage of his slider. According to Statcast data, after throwing his fastball 61 percent of the time and his slider only 25.7 percent of the time in 2019, he cut down on his fastball usage (48 percent) and even velocity (94.1 MPH in 2020 in comparison to 96.4). Instead, he pumped up the use of his slider (34.3 percent in 2020). And the move paid off, for hitters only posted a wOBA of .231 on his slider (in comparison to .362 last year).

Zimmer’s future is a bit in doubt, after elbow numbness shut his season down during the stretch. Even though it doesn’t seem incredibly serious (no talk of surgery yet), Zimmer has been plagued by arm issues in the past, and at his age (29), this could derail his career should it not heal properly. Even if this may be the best season Zimmer has at the MLB level, it was a memorable one, though like most Royals fans, I hope this is not the high point of his MLB career but rather a sign of things to come.

Photo by Brace Hemmelgarn/Minnesota Twins/Getty Images

1st runner up: Josh Staumont, RHP

Staumont has always had the potential to be a fire-throwing reliever in the Royals bullpen. Staumont was rated as the Royals’ top prospect in 2017, according to the Baseball America Prospect Handbook. However, Staumont’s control problems have haunted him throughout his professional career. In 146 games and over 413 innings in the Minors, Staumont possessed a K/BB ratio of 1.68, which was amplified by a BB/9 of 7. Even in his rookie season in 2019, control issues still seemed to be a problem on the mound. In 16 appearances and 19.1 IP, Staumont posted a 1.50 K/BB ratio. While his ERA (3.72) and walk rate (4.66) weren’t bad, his low K/9 (6.98) and high FIP (6.06) spurred doubt about his ability to handle higher-pressure situations in the late innings.

Despite the hesitation, Staumont came out guns blazing starting in Spring Training, as he was impressing Royals management and fans from Day 1 in Surprise. Not only was Staumont pumping gas in the 100-plus range with ease, but he also was showing renewed command and control as well in Spring camp. Thankfully for the Royals, not only did he transition that to Summer Camp after pandemic, but the 2020 season as well. Staumont posted a 2.45 ERA and a 12.97 K/9 to go along with a K/BB ratio of 2.31, all vast improvements from his rookie debut in 2019. Furthermore, Staumont garnered national attention as one of the hardest throwers in all of baseball as evidenced from this Tweet below:

Lastly, Staumont proved to be more than just a novelty pitcher who threw heat but couldn’t get anyone out, not to mention unreliable, in the late innings. Staumont made 26 appearances, which was third-highest out of any reliever on the team (Scott Barlow was first with 30 and Holland was second with 28). Over the course of the season, Staumont grew to gain Matheny’s trust more in the late innings, and that usage was especially evident after Rosnethal was traded to San Diego for Edward Olivares. Granted, Staumont wasn’t perfect. He struggled to pitch effectively or consistently on consecutive days, and that will need to improve if Staumont wishes to be the Royals’ “closer of the future” like many fans hope.

That being said, 2020 showed a snippet of what could be possible with Staumont in Kansas City. With 100-plus heat and a knee buckling curve ball (his curve ranked in the 91st percentile in spin rate, according to Statcast data), the former Azusa Pacific product has all the tools to handle the ninth inning, especially in save situations. Furthermore, at 26-years-old, he has an opportunity to be the closer for a decent while as well, should he make the proper adjustments this off-season.

Photo credit: Jason Miller (Getty)

Relief Pitcher of the Year: Greg Holland, RHP

Honestly, I was not sure what to expect out of “Dirty South” when the Royals signed him to a Minor League deal last off-season. I thought the deal was done more for nostalgia and “fan purposes” (i.e. get butts in seats after back-to-back 100-plus loss seasons) than baseball ones. While veteran leadership was needed in the bullpen in 2020, I thought Ian Kennedy, Rosenthal and Barlow could handle that just fine (unfortunately, Kennedy really regressed in the final year of his contract). Furthermore, I thought there were a lot of younger arms (Staumont, Zimmer, Tyler Zuber, etc.) that deserved more innings than Holland, who was pretty bad in 2018 with the Cardinals (7.92 ERA in 32 appearances) and mediocre with the Diamondbacks in 2019 (4.54 ERA, -0.1 WAR).

That being said, Holland ended up surprising not just me, but hordes of Royals fans with his pitching in 2020. Holland had his best season since his last season with the Rockies in 2017, a season in which he posted a 1.1 WAR and accumulated 41 saves and an ERA of 3.61 in 61 appearances. This year in his return to Kansas City, Holland posted a 0.7 WAR, 1.91 ERA, and saved 6 games in 28 appearances. While many baseball fans expected the Royals bullpen to regress after the trade of Rosenthal, Holland kept it going, and ended up being the Royals’ de-facto closer by season’s end.

Holland showed plenty of positive signs in 2020. He improved his K/BB ratio from 1.71 in Arizona to 4.43 in Kansas City this year. His xERA ranked in the 91st percentile, and his whiff rate ranked in the 72nd percentile as well, according to Statcast data. And he continued to be one of the best Royals relievers in terms of keeping the ball on the ground, as he led Royals relievers in GB rate at 51.4 percent.

And thus, not only is Holland being celebrated and cherished for his triumphant return to the City of Fountains, but there seems to be discussion in Royals circles that they may bring him back for another year, as long as the money is right:

Bringing Holland back will be a real big question that Dayton Moore will have to examine this off-season. Should the Royals look to give the keys to Staumont or Hahn in the ninth? Or does Holland still have another season or two left in the tank to still close out batters in the ninth inning in Kansas City? While Holland isn’t the dominant reliever he was from 2012-2014 (in which he accumulated 7.7 WAR), he still is good enough to be a decent closer in the American League, as long as his numbers and metrics transition somewhat into next year.

Whether Holland returns in a Royals uniform is 2021 is still to be determined. But for now, Royals fans should celebrate Holland and his incredible comeback season in 2020. Even if it was a shortened season, what he did this year was fun to witness, and definitely brought back some memories from that 2013-2015 time span.

Let’s hope Holland’s return in 2020 can perhaps spark that return to “competitiveness” for the Royals in 2021 and beyond.

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