Wednesday, July 18, 2007

In praise of the bullpen

Leo Nunez's first career start was nothing to gush about -- the Red Sox hit the ball hard to all parts of the field and put at least two baserunners on in the 1st, 3rd and 4th -- but it was, to the nth degree, effective. In the hallowed province that is Fenway Park, Nunez never lost his composure when he got into trouble and made pitches when it counted. As a result, he left the game in the 4th with a shutout intact, and with his team up 2-0, you had to feel very, very optimistic about the Royals' chances.

This, I imagine, must have come as somewhat of a shock. The feeling of optimism, that is, unbidden and uncanny. Playing against a team with the fourth best home record in baseball, at a site where earlier in the year the Orioles lost a 5-0 lead in the 9th even after recording the first out, any sane thinking being can be excused from thinking, The Royals couldn't possibly pull this out with its bullpen, could they?

Ah, but could they ever.

"If we can get to our bullpen and we can line them up the way they need to be lined up, then we're pretty good," Buddy Bell said after his team's 9-3 victory.

Indeed, these aren't yesteryear's relievers. Lefty specialist Jimmy Gobble -- who has completely rerouted his career for the better after learning his sweeping sidearm delivery -- came in and faced three batters, retiring J.D. Drew on a fly-out and making a fool out of David Ortiz. Then Zack Greinke got the chance to show off some of this stuff -- still starter material, but the Royals can afford to keep him in the bullpen through the summer -- before giving way to Joel Peralta, who struggled but was bailed out by Senor Smoke. By this point, the Royals had blown the game open -- five crisp, nothing-cheap-about-em runs in the 7th and another in the 8th -- but if there was any doubt left about the game's outcome, Soria put it to rest. He faced four batters and sent three of them back to the dugout scratching their heads, victims of absolutely unhittable curveballs that spanned the panoply of nasty. Seventeen pitches, 12 strikes -- so dominating that our friends at Royals Review were compelled to speculate (rightly) that Soria is the Royals' best reliever in many a-years.

Of course, it's not just him. The Royals have always had one guy who could be counted on -- to give you an idea of how wanting the bullpen has been, this role was once filled by Curtis Leskanic -- but this year the entire relief corps has answered the bell when called upon. As if you couldn't tell -- Royals fans: notice the hair you haven't pulled out, the curse-laden howls undelivered, the fist-shaped holes absent from your house's plaster -- here are some stats to prove it:
  • The Royals' bullpen ERA, at 3.78, is sixth best in the AL and 0.40 better than the league average. That doesn't sound spectacular until you consider how they've fared in the last seven years:

    (ERA, league average, AL rank)
    2006: 5.36, 4.21, LAST
    2005: 4.70, 3.96, 11th
    2004: 4.50, 4.23, 10th
    2003: 5.55, 4.23, LAST
    2002: 5.27, 4.21, LAST
    2001: 4.87, 4.48, 11th
    2000: 5.57, 4.60, 13th

    The abrupt turnaround from having one of the consistently worst bullpens in the league to one of the best is nothing short of remarkable. For seven years -- seven long, miserable years... and frankly, it could well extend further back -- we endured countless blown leads and agonizing late innings that made us want to start fistfights. Now, suddenly, the bullpen's stocked with great arms, some that are legitimately dominant (let's thank the stars for Soria). It's almost weird to think that guys like Soria, Dotel and Riske are wearing the same uniform previously occupied by the likes of Sean Lowe, Albie Lopez and Dan Reichert. Let's hope we never relive those dark days again.

  • Using component ERA, which is ERA based on hits and walks allowed rather than runs, the Royals rank even higher: No. 2 in the league, behind only the Red Sox.

  • The best way for relievers to get out of a jam is by the strikeout, and no bullpen in the AL has totaled more strikeouts than the Royals', who have 271. Adjusted for innings pitched -- Royals rank No. 2 in that category, by the way -- they're No. 3, behind only the Indians and Blue Jays.

What's the difference between a reliable bullpen and a Royals bullpen from 2000-06? Years of one's life, saved from stress and sorrow. Seriously.


  1. As much as I have been very pleased by this bullpen, I still hope we trade Greinke, Dotel and Riske.

    I don't know why I want this to happen, but I do.

  2. I'd like to keep Greinke. It's easy to forget, but he's only 23 years old -- give him a couple of years and he just might develop the mentality needed to complement his 98 mph fastball (I don't doubt the stadium radar guns add a few mph, but it's still amazing velocity from someone his size). Dotel will be gone within the month, and the Royals should be able to fetch some good young talent for him. Riske's much cheaper than Dotel, so DM may just keep him.