The Royals bullpen has been a bit up and down during the 2021 season. Currently, they rank 20th in bullpen ERA, according to Fangraphs, but they do rank 16th in relief WHIP and 9th in hits allowed per nine innings, which shows that they may be better than their ERA states.
Scott Barlow has been the most reliable (and frequently used) option out of the Royals bullpen, which makes sense considering he is posting 2.52 ERA, 78 strikeouts, and 10 saves in 64.1 IP. In addition, the Royals have also gotten strong, though inconsistent, performances in the late innings from Jake Brentz (3.38 ERA; 66 Ks in 56 IP) and Josh Staumont (3.13 ERA; 64 Ks in 54.2 IP). In fact, I have felt Staumont’s performance has gone under-the-radar by Royals fans recently, as I tweeted out these stat bits about his season thus far:
However, the rest of the Royals bullpen hasn’t quite been as strong as they were a year ago, when they ranked 8th in the league in reliever ERA. Kyle Zimmer has shown flashes, but has struggled over the past couple of months (which has included a recent IL stint). And though Greg Holland and Wade Davis were nice nostalgia stories for Royals fans, they haven’t really been dependable options in critical moments.
Thus, it’s not a surprise that general manager Dayton Moore looked for some bullpen help mid-season through various trades. And the results were two low-cost arms in Domingo Tapia, who came over from Seattle, and Joel Payamps, who was acquired from the Blue Jays.
Thankfully, for the Royals, the moves by Moore have definitely revitalized a bullpen that was definitely struggling back in June and early July. In 23 games, Tapia is posting a 2.05 ERA and 1.18 WHIP in 22 IP, while Payamps is posting a 2.08 ERA with a 1.27 WHIP in eight appearances and 8.2 IP since moving to Kansas City (he is posting a 2.56 overall, when including his Blue Jays numbers). While Tapia and Payamps haven’t taken over Barlow’s role in the ninth, or Staumont and Brentz’s in those critical seventh and eighth innings, they have proven to be reliable middle-innings relievers who often have been the first to be called when it comes to relieving a starter.
Tapia and Payamps will be under team control in 2022, and if they continue their strong finishes over the next month, it is likely that they will be back in the Royals bullpen on Opening Day. That being said, neither Tapia (30 years old) nor Payamps (27 years old) is particularly young, and Royals fans have to wonder if Tapia and Payamps will be able to put together another solid campaign in 2022.
Therefore, let’s take a look at both Tapia and Payamps’ profiles, and whether or not they can be depended upon in the Royals bullpen next season.
Tapia has been the more dynamic of the two and understandably so. Tapia is a horse on the mound, as he stands at 6’3 and 263 pounds, and he possesses a big-time fastball that suits his massive frame. Tapia throws a sinker fastball 53.6 percent of the time, and a four-seam fastball 20.7 percent of the time, and he averages over 97 MPH on both pitches, according to Baseball Savant. However, while he is known for his plus fastball pitches, it’s his slider that has been key to his success in 2021.
This season, Tapia has been striking batters out primarily with his slider, as he is posting a whiff rate of 30.8 percent and a K rate of 41.2 percent on the pitch, according to Savant. In addition, batters are only posting an xwOBA of .284 on the pitch, which is the lowest mark of any pitch that he throws in the double digits percentage-wise. Therefore, that has been a big reason why Tapia has been finally able to succeed in the Majors after being primarily a Minor League arm for so long: he’s finally developing command on his secondary pitches, which he failed to do in the past.
Here’s an example of Tapia able to utilize his slider in a two strike count to punch out the Cardinals’ Jose Rondon at Kauffman Stadium back in Mid-August:
That being said, his sinker shouldn’t be ignored, as he had demonstrated better and better command with the pitch over the past month, especially in two-strike counts.
Of Tapia’s last four strikeouts, three have come on the sinker, according to Savant game logs. When he locates it down in the zone, like he does here below against the White Sox’s Romy Gonzalez, it can be a tough pitch to touch, especially at 97 MPH:
Of course, Tapia hasn’t been perfect by any means, and his 4.19 xERA suggests that he probably has gotten lucky over his limited stint in Kansas City in 2021. Tapia’s BABIP is only .205 in his time with the Royals, and his strand rate is also high at 81.6 percent, according to Fangraphs. Furthermore, hitters are averaging an exit velocity of 91.6 MPH on batted balls against Tapia, and his hard hit rate allowed is 46.3 percent, which is pretty high. Lastly, Tapia is averaging a walk rate of 14.3 percent, and his K/BB ratio is mediocre at 1.55. Having that high of a walk rate and low of a K/BB ratio is not a good combo, especially for a reliever who is expected to limit the damage when he comes into a game.
That being said, Tapia is getting away with it now, and it’s obvious that Mike Matheny is a believer in his ability for now. With Zimmer struggling and Holland out on the IL, the Royals don’t have a whole lot of dependable options in the middle innings, and Tapia, though lucky, has often limited the damage when he appeared in games for the Royals. Tapia’s big fastball will always make him an intriguing relief option, and it seems like his command and control is getting better with the more appearances he makes with the Royals.
It will be interesting to see if Tapia continues that progression, since it is likely he will get more chances down the stretch for the Royals in September. If he does regress, it is likely that the Royals won’t stay with him this offseason, especially since he’s already 30 years old and just made his MLB debut in 2021.
Payamps is an interesting case because his profile is a lot different from Tapia’s. While Tapia relies on his imposing presence on the mound as well high-heat fastball, Payamps is more of pitch-to-contact guy who is much better at inducing softer contact.
Payamps only averages 94.7 MPH on his four-seam fastball, which he throws 39.9 percent of the time. However, he utilizes it well with his slider, which he throws 29.2 percent of the time, as well as his sinker (21.4 percent usage rate) and changeup (9.6 percent usage rate). Not only is he posting a whiff rate over 20 percent on three pitches (four-seamer, slider, and changeup), but hitters are only averaging an average exit velocity of 84.5 MPH on batted balls, in addition to a hard hit rate of 25.4 percent, according to Savant. Those are much more impressive metrics in those categories in comparison to Tapia, and it’s not a surprise that Payamps’ xERA (2.66) isn’t much different from his actual ERA (2.56).
Payamps hasn’t been a strikeout machine by any means since coming over to Kansas City, as he is only posting a K/9 of 6.23, according to Fangraphs. However, his control has greatly improved since coming over from Toronto, as his BB/9 dropped from 3.30 with the Blue Jays to 1.04 with the Royals. As a result, his K/BB ratio improved from a mediocre 2.00 in Toronto to 6.00 in Kansas City, which is pretty stellar.
In addition, the 27-year-old has shown a propensity to get the Royals out of jams, as evidenced by his latest outing against the White Sox at Kauffman Stadium. Though he did give up two hits and didn’t strike out any Chicago batters, he didn’t allow a walk or a single run, which helped keep the Royals in the game.
Here’s an example of Payamps coming in with only one out and runners on first and second against a stellar White Sox lineup. First, check out how he utilizes his four-seamer on the corner in a 3-2 count on Andrew Vaughn to induce a fly out to shallow right field, which keeps both runners at bay:
Then, against the next batter Leury Garcia, he utilizes his fastball in a great location, which gets Garcia to line out directly to centerfielder Michael A. Taylor, which ends the inning, and keeps it a three-run deficit for the Royals.
It was initially expected that when the Royals acquired Payamps that he would be a groundball-inducing specialist. With the Blue Jays, he posted a GB/FB ratio of 1.11, which was amplified by a 47.1 percent groundball rate. Considering the Royals’ prowess up the middle with Nicky Lopez and Whit Merrifield, that kind of ability, especially from a reliever, is not bad to have.
However, Payamps hasn’t been as effective when it comes to generating groundballs since moving from North of the Border to the Midwest. Payamps is only posting groundball rate of 34.5 percent, and his GB/FB rate has regressed to 0.77, which is a much more lackluster mark. Granted, this sample from Payamps in Kansas City is a lot more limited, as he has only pitched 8.2 innings in Kansas City in comparison to 30 innings in Toronto. Thus, it is possible that this is just a temporary stretch, and that Payamps will be able to induce more groundballs with more innings in September.
Tapia and Payamps are affordable relievers with lots of years of team control, though at their ages, they won’t necessarily be long-term options per se. Pitchers like Tapia and Payamps usually are good for a year or two, but they typically hit a wall at some point, regression really hits them hard, and before one knows it, they are playing in another club’s uniform in no time. It is completely possible that this path unfolds for Tapia or Payamps or perhaps even both at the start of the 2022 season, or as soon as Spring Training.
That being said, when it comes to building a solid bullpen, there is a need to find guys who often “outperform” their expectations, especially over a decent period of time. The Royals in 2014 and 2015 had plenty of relievers like Franklin Morales and Jason Frasor who weren’t highly heralded, but ended up having productive stretches out of the bullpen. The Royals, if they want to take a step forward in the AL Central standings, will need that to occur with one or two cases in 2022.
Now can Tapia and Payamps be those guys? It’s possible. Tapia has an electric fastball and seems to be finding his groove and command at the Major League level. As for Payamps, he’s proven he can work in tough spots and generate weak contact from hitters. There still is upside from the pair, even if it may not last beyond 2022.
But…even one good year from Tapia and Payamps could be the shot in the arm the Royals need for the next month, as well as next year. Royals fans will need to keep an eye on Tapia’s control and Payamps’ ability to prevent hard contact hold over September, but the early results from the two are good, and it seems like both are on their way of gaining favor with Matheny for the remainder of the season.
Who knows…maybe Tapia and Payamps are the pieces this club needs to turn things around in 2022…
And it barely cost the Royals anything in return.
Photo Credit: Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sports