The 2014 and 2015 seasons will always stick with Royals fans of all ages and backgrounds, especially those who are currently situated in Kansas City. For two seasons, baseball was simply magical, not just appointment-television, but an embedded part of daily Kansas City culture during that period of time. Sports radio would talk non-stop about Royals baseball. People in bars and restaurants would endlessly gush about Salvador Perez, Alex Gordon, Eric Hosmer, Mike Moustakas, and Lorenzo Cain, just to name a few. For sports fans who loved baseball, Kansas City was the place to be, not easy to say with “the best fans in baseball” residing across the state in St. Louis.
An important part of that Royals culture in 2014 and 2015 was HDH, or specifically the 7th-8th-9th inning combo of Kelvin Herrera, Wade Davis, and Greg Holland. While other relievers did contribute in the late innings during the Royals run (specifically Luke Hochevar, who became a key reliever in 2015 after Holland went down due to injury), no bullpen was more dominant in the American League, and maybe all of baseball than HDH. In fact, after Herrera and Davis were released last season by the White Sox and Rockies, respectively, I thought it was possible that a HDH reunion may be in store, especially after Holland’s bounce back campaign in 2020. That dream seemed even closer to reality when the Royals signed Wade Davis to a Minor League deal this Winter.
However, the dream seems to be officially dead today, as Herrera announced his retirement from baseball on Twitter:
First, Alex Gordon retires in 2020, and now Herrera follows suit, even before a pitch is thrown in Cactus League play. The best Royals era in decades is starting to slowly fade into history, and it will only be a matter of time before all the major contributors of those squads are out of Major League Baseball. That being said, Royals fans should not forget those teams, even with the promise of better days ahead for 2021 and beyond after a solid offseason and a farm system that has improved dramatically the past few seasons.
And Herrera is a key player that should not be forgotten either, even as he steps away from the game.
Herrera’s Royals career was far from stable in the early going, as he initially debuted as the No. 12 prospect in the Royals system in 2009 (after making his US debut in 2008), according to Baseball America. However, he struggled with injury over the next two seasons, which subsequently plummeted his prospect stock. While Herrera did make the illustrious Baseball America Royals Top 30 list in 2011 (the year the Royals were crowned with the title of “best system in baseball”), he barely made the list at No. 30, and was actually omitted from Fangraphs’ own Top 30 Royals prospect rankings. Here is what Baseball America said about Herrera in their scouting report back in 2011:
Herrera once ranked among the Royals’ best pitching prospects, but he has made just nine starts in the last two years with repeated elbow problems that haven’t required surgery. His elbow issues may be related to changes in his mechanics. He had been putting stress on his arm by landing on his heel, and Kansas City tried to get him to land on the ball of his foot. He overcompensated and shortened his stride, which still resulted in a jarring delivery. Herrera did return during instructional league last fall, showing the same stuff he had before his elbow started bothering him. He throws a low-90s fastball and touches 95. His best secondary pitch is a potential plus changeup, and he also throws a fringe-average slurve. Herrera’s small frame leads to further questions about his durability, which could have him destined for the bullpen, where his fastball could play up even more. His immediate goal is to stay healthy in 2011, when he could return to low Class A for the fourth straight season.“No 30: Kelvin Herrera; Royals Top 30 Prospects” by JJ Cooper; Baseball America
Herrera bounced back in the Minors in 2011, however, as he breezed through Wilmington (0.61 ERA in 8 appearances), Northwest Arkansas (1.75 ERA in 23 appearances) and Omaha (2.12 ERA in 14 appearances), and eventually made his Royals debut by season’s end, albeit only appearing in two games. In 2012, he made his full season debut, and showed everyone why the Royals signed him, even though he didn’t pose an intimidating presence on the mound at five-feet, 10-inches. In 2012, the Dominican flamethrower made 76 appearances and pitched 84.1 innings and in addition to posting a 2.35 ERA, he also posted a K/BB ratio of 3.67 and accumulated a WAR of 1.8, according to Fangraphs.
Even though he was just a “blip” on the Royals’ legendary prospect list of 2011, Herrera proved to be one of the better success stories of that Top 30 class nearly a decade ago.
Over his 10-year career, Herrera made the All Star game twice (2015 and 2016) and accumulated 513.2 IP and a 10.2 WAR overall, according to Baseball Reference. In his eight seasons in Kansas City, Herrera pitched 441.1 innings, posted a 3.02 ERA, and accumulated a WAR of 10.6. Thus, it turned out that the Royals parted at the right time with Herrera, as he struggled in tenures with the White Sox (-0.5 WAR) and Nationals (0.2 WAR) from the second half of 2018-2020. Hence, it probably made sense that the Royals did not offer a Minor League deal to Herrera like they did for Davis: chances are, he may have not had much, if any, gas left in the tank to earn a spot on the active roster by the end of Spring Training.
What made Herrera so special was his ability to thrive in a non-closer role for most of his tenure in Kansas City. From 2012-2018, no Royals reliever pitched more innings than Herrera, and by a considerable margin as well, according to Fangraphs. The only other Royals reliever who came close was Holland, who still was nearly 200 innings behind Herrera over that time span (though Holland did leave the Royals after 2015 and saw some time with the Rockies, Cardinals, and Diamondbacks before his return to Kansas City). Of Royals relievers from 2012 to 2018, Herrera led in holds (110); was second in saves (57); had the second highest WAR (7.3); and had the third-best xFIP (3.37) and K/BB ratio (3.42).
Of course, while Herrera’s regular season metrics were impressive, his postseason resume often gets forgotten in Royals lore. While people will never forget Davis’ emergence as closer in 2015 during the postseason, Herrera was pretty remarkable in his postseason career, as he posted a 1.26 ERA in 22 postseason appearances and 28.2 IP. In addition, he also posted an 11.9 K/9, a 3.80 K/BB ratio, and accumulated a 1.18 WPA (wins probability added) in the playoffs. In many ways, Herrera served as a “fireman” of sorts, coming up big in tough situations, with one of his most overlooked outings coming in Game 5 of the 2015 World Series, where he threw three shutout innings to keep the Royals in the game (which ended up being the clincher). Here’s some clips of that performance below:
While his Game 5 performance may have been his most important, it shouldn’t overshadow a sterling playoff career overall. Thankfully, someone on YouTube created a compilation of all his postseason strikeouts, and it’s nearly 15 minutes long and still worth watching in its entirety:
Herrera only really got one and a half seasons to be the Royals closer after Dayton Moore traded Wade Davis for Jorge Soler prior to the 2017 season. Herrera did save 26 games during that 2017 season in 59.1 IP, but he struggled with a 4.25 ERA, which was most due to a 14.5 HR/FB rate, his highest rate since 2013. Herrera did rebound a bit in 2018, as he had a 1.05 ERA and 14 saves in 27 appearances. However, the Royals were clearly in a rebuild, and the Royals wisely dealt Herrera to the Nationals in a package that netted them infielder Kelvin Gutierrez, outfielder Blake Perkins, and pitcher Yohanse Morel, all who are still in the Royals organization.
There’s no question Herrera struggled after leaving Kansas City, as a combination of injury and inconsistency has sapped the once great setup man of his once-electric stuff. From 2019 to 2020, Herrera saw his fastball velocity go from 96.3 MPH in 2019 to 94.5 MPH in 2020. As a result, Herrera had started to go away from his fastball, and instead resorted to his sinker more as his primary pitch, according to Baseball Savant. Take a look at his pitch percentage chart and notice how his fastball usage slowly declined from year to year, while his sinker usage gradually increased as well:
One of the issues with this approach is that his sinker hasn’t really been a great pitch lately, especially when it comes to generating whiffs. After generating a 27.4 percent whiff rate on the pitch in 2017, Herrera’s sinker only generated whiff rates of 17.6 in 2018, 18.6 in 2019, and 14.3 percent in a limited sample in 2020. The bottom line on his sinker was this: it was a pretty mediocre pitch the past three years, and chances are it wasn’t going to get any better soon, especially when combined with a fastball that was quickly declining not just in velocity, but usage as well. Based on these metrics, Herrera was not only a high risk for the Royals, but pretty much all other MLB teams as well, and chances are Herrera read the room and acted accordingly.
Nonetheless, even though Herrera’s career perhaps ended with a whimper, he was an enjoyable pitcher to watch on the mound who had a great career as a Royal. It would have been nice to see him make at least one more Spring Training run in Surprise in 2021, but perhaps Herrera’s health or heart wasn’t in it anymore, which is totally understandable after a rough last couple of years at the MLB level. Herrera always bucked the odds in his MLB tenure, being able to throw fire despite his diminutive stature. Furthermore, he also had a lot of moxie on the mound. He wasn’t quite Yordano Ventura, but he had his moments, like this one with Brett Lawrie and the A’s below:
Jesus Christ, 100 MPH at Lawrie. That’s something. (And God I miss the bad blood between the A’s and Royals; that was a fun, though short-lived rivalry).
It’s doubtful that Herrera will get much Royals Hall of Fame consideration, especially since he never really had a long tenure as a Royals closer. Though I think bullpen roles are overrated, it does clarify things for Royals HOF voters. He’ll probably miss out, and honestly, it’s understandable, especially since the standard for Royals relievers is pretty high with Dan Quisenberry as the most notable closer member.
Nonetheless, Herrera was a crucial part of the Royals’ identity from 2013-2017. He is a postseason hero who doesn’t get mentioned often, especially in comparison to Holland and Davis, but without Herrera, it’s unlikely that the Royals would have been able to get through the postseason, especially in the wake of Holland’s injury in 2015. It will be awesome when a full crowd is allowed back at Kauffman Stadium, and the fans will get to recognize Herrera for all his contributions to the Royals over his eight seasons in Kansas City.
I definitely hope to be there, in the stands, cheering for him, letting him know he was my favorite member of HDH.
(Photo Credit: Peter G. Aiken-USA TODAY Sports).