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|
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|
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:
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.
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.
Print This Post