The Royals Don’t Need to Carry Seven Relievers

Over the last two weeks, Kansas City Royals management has stirred the pot a little bit by saying that they might not carry a backup middle infielder. Then they said the new plan would be to have Danny Valencia play a little second base. This of course does nothing to solve the problem of giving them a backup shortstop. Also, since Valencia has never played second base and is entering his age-29 season. But if the Royals are going to carry 12 pitchers, their options are limited. They could roll with just four outfielders, or they could just hope that Alcides Escobar and Omar Infante are healthy all year, or they could just try the Valencia hail mary plan. Or they could just carry 11 pitchers.

Using fewer relief pitchers is not a new sabermetric idea, of course. But if there is one team that could pull it off, it’s the Royals. Looking at relief pitcher appearances from April-August, we can see that the Royals were at the bottom of the spectrum.

Relief Pitcher Appearances, April-August 2013
Team RP Games
Mets 435
Giants 426
Diamondbacks 425
Indians 424
Brewers 423
Twins 418
Angels 413
Padres 406
Dodgers 405
Blue Jays 398
Rockies 397
Cubs 393
White Sox 389
Marlins 386
Orioles 384
Cardinals 381
Astros 380
Braves 380
Phillies 379
Rangers 379
Rays 379
Pirates 377
Red Sox 371
Reds 369
Athletics 362
Nationals 362
Mariners 355
Tigers 351
Royals 346
Yankees 340

I eliminate September because the expanded roster rules cause an uptick in the number of relief appearances for a lot of teams. Not all teams, mind you, but enough that it’s more instructive to look at April through August only.

So, we have that as our base. I went a little deeper though. Let’s take a look at how many days of rest each Royals reliever received last year, which we can do a little bit easier thanks to the magic that is Baseball-Reference.

Days of Rest for Royals Relievers, April-August 2013
Pitcher Total G -1 0 1 2 3 4 5 6 7+ First
Collins 58 14 21 11 4 4 2 1 5-Apr
Crow 53 8 17 11 10 3 1 2 1-Apr
Holland 53 2 13 11 11 9 2 3 1 4-Apr
Herrera 51 11 20 11 4 2 2 1-Apr
Hochevar 46 2 21 5 9 1 2 4 1 3-Apr
Gutierrez 25 2 8 5 4 1 1 3 3-Apr
Coleman 20 2 5 8 2 2 23-May
Chen 19 1 3 1 4 4 2 3 5-Apr
Smith 10 4 2 3 28-Apr
Mendoza 6 1 1 3 6-Apr
Joseph 3 1 1 11-Jul
Teaford 1 14-Jul
Bueno 1 9-Aug
Totals 346 2 54 111 64 46 17 11 6 22 13

Two things. The two -1 days rest are for the two instances in which Holland pitched in both games of a doubleheader. Second, I didn’t use each pitcher’s first game, since putting 99 days of rest wasn’t in the spirit of what I was trying to do here.

We can see a bunch of things here, but the most important is that more often than not, Royals relievers had at least one day of rest in between appearances. The only pitcher who was used most frequently on zero days rest was closer Greg Holland, and tropes about being a slave to the save rule aside, I mean Holland was amazing last year. I would have rode him as much as I could have too. So we’ll give Ned Yost the benefit of the doubt there, particularly because Holland did enter a tie game seven times during the season.

Aside from Holland, no one was used most frequently on zero days rest. Aaron Crow was used more frequently on two and three days rest than he was on zero days rest. Kelvin Herrera was used as frequently on two days as he was on zero, and Luke Hochevar was hardly ever used on zero days rest. Tim Collins was worked a lot harder in terms of days rest, but he also averaged far less than an inning per outing, so that might have balanced out. I suppose that would depend on his warmup routine, and how many pitches he needs to throw in order to get into a game.

Leaving that aside for a minute, I went to one more step, and that is looking at the matrix of how the relievers were used by game. I didn’t add in off-days on the left, FYI. This thing is long enough as is:

Royals-RP-2

Here, we see that during most of the first half, the team used seven relievers — Collins, Crow, Holland, Herrera, Hochevar, Gutierrez and Chen, but the last two more sparingly than the other five. The main five relievers appeared in 170 games, compared to just 44 for the other two. After the break though, Gutierrez was put out to pasture and Chen entered the rotation, and Coleman was the only who got regular reps in their place. Aside from the main five relievers and Coleman, there were just a total of 12 other relief appearances in that month-plus. Let’s see if we can streamline this a little bit.

Royals-RP-3
Seventh RP = Gutierrez, Smith, Mendoza, Joseph, Teaford & Bueno

OK, on the face, that looks like a lot of appearances for the proverbial seventh reliever. But take a closer look at the two highlighted spots in the body for a second (OK, it’s four highlighted spots, you knew what I meant!). From May 23-June 4, the “seventh reliever” got into five games, and from June 25 to the All-Star break, the total was 14. The core five relievers were impeccably healthy last season, but those two particular blocks are when Herrera had been optioned to Triple-A, and so for those blocks the “seventh reliever” wasn’t really the seventh reliever. Take those 19 games out, and you are down to 27 games.

So, there you have it. Now, perhaps the flexibility to have those 20-30 games of a seventh reliever outweighs the flexibility of having an extra middle infielder on the roster. After all, Escobar doesn’t take a lot of days off, and if Infante can suit up for the 148-149 games that he did in 2011 and 2012, perhaps Valencia really can handle second base for the other 13-14 games. Then again, Escobar posted a 42 wRC+ against right-handed pitching last season, and Valencia has a career 69 wRC+ against right-handed pitching. There’s also the whole Valencia probably can’t actually handle second base thing.

There’s also the very real possibility that those 27 seventh reliever games can be covered by making the sixth reliever a long/swing man, and the Royals clearly have the starting pitcher depth to make that happen. At least one of Chen, Wade Davis, Yordano Ventura and Danny Duffy is going to find himself left out of the rotation, and he could become a swingman. The Chen/Coleman duo only recorded four or more outs in 21 of their 39 appearances last season, and six of those 21 were exactly four outs. If that sixth spot was utilized for more outs, that would further reduce the need for a seventh reliever.

Essentially, the Royals are having this issue because Ventura is forcing his way onto the roster. The issue will only be exacerbated towards the end of the season when Kyle Zimmer forces his way onto the roster. Right now, it seems easier to squeeze Pedro Ciriaco off the roster than it does one of the relievers because they’re more known quantities within the organization. And Moore is right when he says that the roster isn’t frozen in February. But the Royals went weeks without needing a seventh reliever last season, and with one minor tweak to the usage of a sixth swingman/reliever, they could — thanks to the exemplary work of their core five relievers — pretty easily get by without one.




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Paul Swydan is the co-managing editor of The Hardball Times, a writer and editor for FanGraphs and a writer for ESPN MLB Insider and the Boston Globe. Follow him on Twitter @Swydan.


20 Responses to “The Royals Don’t Need to Carry Seven Relievers”

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  1. Brukruu says:

    I think the quality starting pitching they got is the big reason why the pen wasnt abused, do you see the 2014 rotation being as good as last years?

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    • TangoAlphaLima says:

      Shouldn’t be a huge dropoff. The only player lost was Santana, and he was replaced with Vargas. Santana was great last season, but he probably wouldn’t repeat it, and I think Vargas is only a slight downgrade.

      Plus the Royals stuck with Wade Davis for forever last season, presumably to help justify the Wil Myers trade, even though Davis stunk. With any luck, he won’t even sniff the rotation this year, and maybe he’ll regain his form in the pen.

      I liked Duffy a lot before he got injured. I felt like he was on the verge of breaking out. We’ll see if that can still happen or not, but there’s also Ventura, who could quickly become one of the best starters in the rotation.

      Overall, you’re probably not going to see the top of the rotation be as good this year (some regression from Shields, loss of Santana), but I think the improvement at the back end will help make up for that.

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  2. garett68 says:

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  3. KCDaveInLA says:

    Good problem to have, really. I would say use the options that Ventura and Duffy have, keep the extra infielder (Colon or Ciraco), use Chen and Hochevar interchangably as swingmen (was that redundant?).

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  4. bob says:

    They gave Bonifacio a $3.5 million contract to avoid arbitration, then released him to get Chen back as a free agent. So they lost a utility infielder, and also neeeded relief for Chen at the same time, since they apparently don’t trust him to pitch enough innings. That’s how it looked to me.

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  5. Cole says:

    From your Keyboard to Dayton and Ned’s eyes please. Any team carrying 7 RP’s is a waste since you can always rotate out the 6th guy on any given day if you need a fresh arm, but particularly when you have to carry a guy who can use a glove (Butler) you have to make up that flexibility somewhere

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  6. roadrider says:

    Of course they don’t need to carry 7 relievers. No team needs to. They used to get along just fine with 5. Bullpen specialization has simply gone too far. Then again, if the extra guy they’re going to carry is Pedro Ciriaco ….

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    • Vision says:

      This is all true here. The Royals options are fairly limited, and the question really is one of opportunity cost. Is sending one of those down worth less than Pedro Ciriaco on the roster? Could be, sending that guy down actually makes the Royals better by not allowing him to see the field.

      The argument of not needing a 7th reliever because you can call one up any time is astute. I’ve always believed in that “AAA train” for the last arm in the bullpen.

      If only the Royals had a guy who could play multiple positions and not kill you at the plate available to fill this role. It’d be even better if he had a little speed to increase his versatility. Someone like Emilio Bonifacio.

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    • tz says:

      I bet Ciriaco wishes he took some pitching lessons from Skip Schumaker.

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  7. jim fetterolf says:

    Six relievers is an idea that’s been kicked around in the local market and having two of Chen/Hochevar/Davis in the ‘pen for long work makes it easier. That allows Ciriaco and eventually Colon to back up the middle.

    As for Bonifacio, turned out he didn’t want to be utility so was dumped, not unlike Mike Aviles a few years earlier. Few teams want a bad attitude on the bench and apparently few other teams wanted him either, which was why he was released.

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  8. Vlad the Impaler says:

    In the article it says Greg Holland was used most frequently on 0 days rest, but Collins in the chart has 14 appearances to Holland’s 13.

    Collins was also used 21 times to Holland’s 11 on 1 day rest. Even though he didn’t always go a full inning, it’s incorrect to say Holland was used the most on the least rest by the Royals.

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    • Vince says:

      Holland was used on zero days’ rest 13 times – which is more than any of the other scenarios for Greg Holland. So he was “most often used” that way.

      Collins was used on zero days’ rest 14 times, but on 1 day rest 21 times, so zero days was not Tim Collins’ most frequent scenario. (Though he was used that way more than Holland.)

      Paul didn’t say Holland was the most frequently used pitcher with 0 days, but that he was the only pitcher who was most often used with zero days. It’s a funky distinction, and I read the sentence twice to make sure I was interpreting it correctly.

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  9. Chris from Bothell says:

    I might be misreading the article – there’s a lot of good stuff in there – but I don’t see anything that is measuring the historical tendency of the Royals’ projected starting 5 to go deep into games.

    Wouldn’t it be a better measure of whether they need a lot of fresh arms to look at how many of their 2014 starters are likely to go 6, 6 2/3, 7 innings+?

    Same for looking at whether the manager’s a huge fan of lefty/righty matchups, other specialists, using the closer only in the 9th, and so on.

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  10. Iron says:

    Of course, no Hochevar just changed things.

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  11. n8 says:

    Infante played 19 games at SS in 2010. So in theory he can be the “backup SS” if Valencia could spell him at 2B

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