Hokius of Royals Review penned a thorough piece called “The Royals relievers aren’t as bad as you think” on Saturday. There was was an interesting tidbit from his post that made me reflect on the Royals’ recent struggles in the bullpen, especially in the wake of their 7-5 Friday night loss to the Tigers in which the bullpen blew a three-run lead in the seventh inning. Here is what Hokius said:
The biggest problem the Royals face with their bullpen is the same problem almost every team faces: relievers are volatile. Unlike in 2018 and 2019, the Royals relief corp is mediocre to good. In fact. many of them will usually be good but not always. Royals fans were spoiled from 2014-2016 with more than one reliever each season that managed to always be good“Hok Talk: The Royals relievers aren’t as bad as you think” by Hokius; Royals Review
I felt that Hokius hits the nail on the head here in regard to not just the Royals bullpen, but bullpens everywhere. No one drafts or scouts technically for relievers. Often, relievers are failed starters who struggled with something over their professional careers. Maybe they struggled with control. Maybe they only had two good pitches. Maybe they struggled to adjust to hitters a second time through the order. Maybe they lacked elite stuff. Whatever the reason, often, good relievers are stumbled upon, not necessarily targeted right away, and as a result, teams’ bullpen will often fluctuate from year to year. Hell, look at Ian Kennedy this year, who was fantastic as the Royals closer in 2019, bad last year in has last season in Kansas City, and now has been good again as the Rangers’ closer, as he has 11 saves and a 1.96 ERA in 18 appearances.
In 2014 and 2015, Royals fans were lucky enough to witness one of the best bullpens in the history of the franchise, which says something considering Dan Quisenberry hurled in the bullpen during those memorable Royals runs in the 1980s. But, as Hokius alluded to, maybe that incredible two-year (and I would argue maybe four-year, as 2013 and 2016 were pretty good as well) has spoiled Royals fans. Royals fans expect bullpen success as if Dayton Moore intentionally developed it in the farm system. And yet, even Moore stumbled upon that bullpen success over that two-year span.
Wade Davis was brought over to be a fourth or fifth starter in the rotation from Tampa Bay, and Davis struggled in that role. Kelvin Herrera struggled in the Minors, as he fluctuated in the Royals’ prospect rankings before finding success. And Luke Hochevar, the Royals’ only No. 1 overall draft pick in club history, was drafted to be the Royals’ “ace” for the future, not an effective setup man.
Bullpens go through ebbs and flows, and right now, the Royals are going through a bit of a valley with their bullpen. Of course, it’s frustrating for Royals fans, especially after the bullpen was so strong in 2020, as they ranked 8th in reliever ERA last season. Currently, they not only rank 23rd in ERA, but they also rank 25th in WHIP, which is primarily hurt by their relievers’ struggles with control and command. The Royals relievers rank 28th in BB/9, which is not a good place to be as a bullpen. In those crucial moments, the Royals can’t be allowing free passes on the base paths.
So, the Royals’ bullpen may not be as good as 2013-2016 or even as strong as last year’s group (though last year was a small sample size). However, what can the Royals do the fix this issue, and can it even be fixed at the end of the day?
Depth is the most obvious answer, and Moore acted recently to add some depth to their bullpens with the acquisitions of Domingo Tapia from the Mariners and Anthony Swarzak from the Diamondbacks.
The Royals were able to add Kyle Zimmer back off the IL over the weekend, which was much needed, especially as Zimmer has been a solid contributor to the bullpen the past couple of years. However, the bullpen was dealt a major blow when the Royals announced this news about Jesse Hahn, who left early in his last outing in his rehab assignment in Omaha:
Considering Hahn’s injury history, it seems unlikely that the Royals will see a return from Hahn at all in 2021, let alone a return of his production that made him so valuable in the Royals bullpen in 2020. Thus, Moore acquired Tapia to fill Hahn’s open roster spot in a deal that required no players from the Royals system to be dealt.
Tapia is 29-years-old and has been a journeyman Minor League reliever since being signed by the New York Mets back in 2010. Tapia is known for an electric fastball, but has lacked secondary pitches, which has kept him in the Minors for most of his career.
Last year, Tapia made his MLB debut with the Red Sox, and he did decently in a small sample, as he posted a 2.08 ERA and 1.38 WHIP in five appearances and 4.1 IP in 2020. However, the Red Sox decided to part ways with Tapia this off-season, and the Mariners claimed him off waivers, looking to add to their own bullpen depth at the MLB level. Tapia only made two appearances with the Mariners before being traded and posted a 0.00 ERA. That being said, he gave up four hits and a walk with only one strikeout in two innings of work before being traded.
Tapia pretty much is a fastball-heavy guy, as he threw his sinker 77.1 percent of the time and his four-seam fastball 14.3 percent of the time with the Mariners this season. Last year proved to be the same, as he threw his sinker 41.3 percent of the time and four-seamer 37.5 percent of the time. However, his sinker has some interesting movement, and it reaches the upper 90’s in terms of velocity, which is also a plus. Here is an example of Tapia utilizing his sinker effectively in this strikeout of the Orioles’ Trey Mancini:
Tapia will start his Royals tenure in Triple-A Omaha, and it will be interesting to see when the Royals will utilize Tapia at the MLB level. He does have a slider and changeup, but he has utilized those pitches sparingly this season at 5.7 and 2.9 percent, respectively. In many ways, Tapia may remind some Royals fans of a Wily Peralta, who also had big-time velocity on his fastball, but lacked good secondary offerings and command. The Royals are only looking for Tapia to give the Royals bullpen some depth, so a Peralta-like player isn’t necessarily a bad thing at this time.
Tapia was not the lone reliever acquired recently, as the Royals also acquired Anthony Swarzak, who pitched with the Diamondbacks before being released in mid-April. Swarzak did not pitch for a MLB club in 2020, and at 35-years-old, it is unlikely that has much time left in professional baseball in general. However, Swarzak brings some experience, and could give the Royals some depth in middle relief, should he get an opportunity with the Royals at some point.
Much like Tapia, Swarzak is a two-pitch pitcher, though he tends to rely more on his slider than his fastball. This year, he did throw his fastball (57.6 percent of the time) more than his slider (42.4 percent of the time), but in 2019 with the Braves in a larger sample, he threw it 59.4 percent of the time and generated a whiff rate of 36.8 percent on the pitch, according to Baseball Savant. Unfortunately, he only generated a whiff rate of 11.8 percent on the slider this year with the Diamondbacks. That being said, the Royals are banking he can fine tune some things in the Royals organization and find that 2019 effectiveness with the slider as a member of the Royals.
Here is an example of Swarzak generating a swinging strike with the slider on Cincinnati’s Nick Senzel this season:
The good thing about Swarzak is that he doesn’t walk batters, as he only posted a BB/9 of 1.93 with the Diamondbacks in 4.2 IP, and he has a career BB/9 of 2.82 in 645.2 IP, according to Fangraphs. Thus, Royals fans can understand why Moore acquired him, especially considering the Royals bullpen’s struggles with walking batters this year. Swarzark is not on the 40-man roster (unlike Tapia), so he will have to prove himself in Omaha if he wants to earn a spot on the Royals roster. However, if Swarzak can maintain his control and find his groove again on his slider in Triple-A, Swarzak could make a case for the Royals bullpen, especially if injury besets someone in the future.
Currently, in the American League, the Royals rank 12th out of 15 teams in reliever ERA, according to Fangraphs. On a positive note, they still rank ahead of the Tigers (who rank 15th) and the Twins (who rank 13th). However, they are significantly behind the White Sox (rank 7th) and Indians (who rank 1st). While it may be tough for the Royals to overtake Chicago and Cleveland’s bullpens, especially considering the star power in those respective bullpens, it would be nice to see the Royals at least close the gap this summer between those two clubs and their relief units.
Doing so could help catapult the Royals back into the Central division race, or maybe the Wild Card race at the very least.
It is easy to think that the only way for the Royals to find success in 2021 would be to follow that 2014 and 2015 model, which was through speed, defense, and the bullpen. The speed is still there (the Royals rank 2nd in the league in Stolen Bases), but the defense and bullpen hasn’t quite been of the 2014-2015 caliber. That being said, the Royals can win in other ways, and with Andrew Benintendi heating up, and Kelvin Gutierrez giving the Royals some surprise production in Hunter Dozier’s absence, perhaps the Royals can win with their bats this summer, rather than that traditional 2014-2015 model. Furthermore, the recent solid outings from Kris Bubic and Brady Singer this week may also be a help to their postseason chances, and maybe in 2021, it’s the starting pitching that carries this pitching staff as a whole rather than the bullpen.
The Royals bullpen doesn’t have to be elite. Just “good enough”. In order to do that, the Royals need depth, especially to weather this most recent injury to Hahn.
Tapia and Swarzark add to that organizational bullpen depth…
Let’s see if they, or someone else in the upper Minors, can help the Royals bullpen improve this summer and get back into the thick of things as a club in the Central division.
Photo Credit: Mariners PR