It’s not very often, in recent years at least, that one could say the Kansas City Royals have the best [insert baseball roster component here] in the majors. The organization has drawn wide praise for its farm system of late, but when it comes to major league production, the Royals usually excuse themselves from the conversation. I don’t say this to insult the Royals or their long-suffering fan base; in fact, I find them to be one of the easier organizations to root for. I’m merely setting the stage so this compliment means something significant: the Royals have the best bullpen in the majors.
Okay, now I have to back up and issue a caveat, but I wanted to boldly assert the statement first for dramatic effect. Despite the obviously impressive performance of Kansas City’s relief corps in 2012, there are other teams who might bristle at the suggestion that they don’t have the game’s most productive bullpen. The Royals are number one in collective WAR total according to FanGraphs, however, as they have compiled 3.7 wins above replacement as a unit. The Rangers check in at a close second with 3.6 WAR, and then there’s a bit of a drop to the third place Orioles, who have 3.1 WAR.
Perhaps it’s a little misleading to use WAR for bullpen performance. After all, players acquire WAR gradually throughout the season, so the more playing time they get, the higher the WAR total has a chance to be. Well, Royal relievers get to play a lot; their combined 260.2 innings easily leads the majors, with the Colorado Rockies‘ 242.2 innings being the next team in line. So yes, the fact that Kansas City starters don’t tend to pitch deep into games does help to boost the bullpen value, but it would do just the opposite if the group wasn’t a talented one. The Blue Jays, for example, are fifth in relief innings, and they’ve produced all of 0.2 WAR on the season with an ugly 4.41 FIP. A bad bullpen unit will actually be overexposed and overtaxed if given too many innings, so I wouldn’t consider the extra work Royal relievers get to be an unfair advantage.
True, the Kansas City bullpen may be getting just the slightest bit lucky at times. They’ve managed to strand 79.3% of the runners who reach base against them, which is the sixth highest team mark in the game. Contrast that to the Mets relievers, for instance, who are stranding just 64.7% of runners; this eye-popping total is last in baseball, and well below the historical average of around 70-72%. The Royas have a great bullpen ERA (2.93) thanks in part to this high number of stranded runners, but the team’s FIP (3.42) and xFIP (3.76) both indicate it could be much worse for them. That said, all three of those pitching metrics consider the Kansas City bullpen to be a good one; the lowest they finish in any of those categories is xFIP (12th).
The bottom line is this bullpen is flat out good, and I won’t allow anyone to argue they don’t deserve to be considered among the game’s very best. The once unhittable Jonathan Broxton is the team’s supposed bullpen ace, although it’s safe to say the Royals don’t put much stock in the traditional “make your best reliever the closer” mindset. Broxton is still solid enough, and if you just looked at his 1.63 ERA, you’d think he was better than ever. Look closer, though, and you’ll see he doesn’t throw as hard as he used to with the Dodgers at his peak, his strand rate is over 85% (just amazing, really), and he’s only striking out 6.8 hitters per nine innings. For comparison’s sake, his career K/9 rate is 11.2. Broxton is fine, but he’s most definitely not the best reliever on the Royals.
No, that would be slight-framed, smallish lefty Tim Collins. Listed at 5-foot-7, 165 pounds, Collins is not a pitcher any hitter should ever want to face. Although he was a little on the wild side last year (6.4 BB/9), he’s more than halved that total in 2012, and he’s striking out everyone (12.8 K/9). Collins has been so good, in fact, that he’s already given the Royals almost a full win above replacement level in just 34.1 innings of work.
As good as Collins has been, though, he is far from Kansas City’s only devastating relief option. Fellow strikeout king Greg Holland has a nearly identical K/9 rate and a 2.10 FIP that sharply contrasts his unlucky 3.75 ERA. Holland’s BABIP sits at an even .400 through 24 innings, so it’s safe to say that number has to drop some before the season ends, and that’ll help to lower his ERA.
Wait, there’s more! Kelvin Herrera, just 22 years of age, has a 5.79 K/BB ratio and 0.7 WAR in 37.2 innings. Like Collins, Herrera does not exactly possess ideal pitcher size (5-foot-10, 190 pounds), but the results are undeniably great so far. Tied with Broxton at 0.6 WAR is another widely recognized name, that of Aaron Crow. Crow, a former number twelve overall pick by the Royals in 2009, has taken big steps as a pitcher this year in his own right by cutting down his walks and giving up less hits — in general, by allowing fewer base runners. The fact that his K/9 rate is a little lower than it was in 2011 is not a concern, especially since he’s only thrown 29 innings.
If you count Jose Mijares (4.80 K/BB ratio, 3.13 FIP in 26.2 innings), the Royals have six different relievers they can turn to and feel confident in. That’s not good news for the admittedly rare times that opponents are trailing late in games. If you’ve got a lead you’re trying to keep safe, you could do a lot worse than calling on the Kansas City bullpen, and the team deserves some credit for that.