Kansas City keeps winning formula despite rotation's low innings count
By Mike Bauman
MINNEAPOLIS -- Can the Royals succeed while being last in the American League in innings pitched by starters? They did well enough with this unlikely formula last season when they were last in starters' innings pitched and still went on to win the World Series.
The numbers are even more pronounced this year. Kansas City starters averaged 5.6 innings per start in 2015. They're down to 5.3 innings per start this season. The league average is 5.8. The Royals' numbers are not helped by the fact that two starters -- Chris Young and Kris Medlen -- are on the disabled list.
So when Edinson Volquez went 6 2/3 innings on Tuesday night in a 7-4 win over the Twins, this was well above the norm.
The Royals compensate, of course, with a dominant bullpen. They have built a winner from the back of the 'pen, featuring power arms and legitimate depth. The concern would be that at some point, the outstanding Kansas City relievers would be overworked and their dominance would come to an end.
But that hasn't been a problem yet. And there are valid reasons why it hasn't. One of them is quality depth in the bullpen. The other is that none of the relievers has been ridden into the ground. So the starters' relative lack of innings may be a concern but it hasn't become a crisis.
"You'd like to get a little more depth out of [the starters], but it kind of runs in cycles," manager Ned Yost said. "The majority of the time, we get 100 pitches out of them. You try to get every out you can [from the starters], but when you've got a bullpen that's as good as ours, and you're playing close games -- one-, two-run games like we're playing -- it's hard to continue pressing a starter once you get to the sixth inning when you've got as good of a bullpen as we've got.
"Do I worry about their usage now? Yeah, but I worry about their usage all the time. You would like to use them less frequently, but then you go into it knowing we're going to try to win a baseball game tonight, we're going to do it any way we can."
The point about the bullpen depth was made on Monday night in a rain-interrupted 10-4 victory at Target Field. Starter Ian Kennedy's night was shortened to 3 1/3 innings by a 41-minute rain delay. Yost wanted to stay away from his primary setup men, and he was able to do so except for two outs from Kelvin Herrera, because he received more than capable relief from three other pitchers.
"They've done a nice job for us," Yost said of his less-publicized relievers. "We were at a point [Monday night] where we had used Hoch [Luke Hochevar] four out of six days, Herrera, used four out of six days. We need to give these guys breaks. We got to stay away from [Joakim] Soria, we got to stay away from Hoch and Wade Davis. So [Peter] Moylan, [Scott] Alexander, Chien-Ming Wang, Brian Flynn; they've all done a nice job for us."
Moylan gave the Royals 2 1/3 badly needed innings and picked up the victory in the process. Moylan may be one of those typical Royals signings that aren't much noticed, but work out extraordinarily well. He had terrific seasons with the Braves, but that was in the first decade of this century. He is 37 now, apparently ideal for Kansas City.
"Yeah, it was a great signing, it was one of those under-the-radar signings in Spring Training," Yost said. "I never knew Moylan, but being from Atlanta, I knew a lot of guys there and I'd always heard of his reputation of being a great guy, a great teammate and a real competitor. You can see from his delivery that he's got a lot of deception, a lot of funk. So when we signed him, I thought: 'This could be a good deal for us somewhere down the road.' He came into Spring Training, quite frankly didn't do very well. But toward the end of Spring Training, he really started to look good, really started to dial his command in.
"You always hope that you're not going to need a bunch of relievers over the course of the year, but that hope never really comes to fruition. You've always got to have guys. With his experience at the big league level with his competitiveness, with his stuff, which is still very good, he's a very good pickup for us."
Things are picking up for the 2016 Royals. They have won eight of the past 11. Tuesday night, even when danger seemed to be everywhere in the ninth inning, there was no real problem. The Twins loaded the bases with none out against Davis. Then, Eduardo Nunez struck out. Joe Mauer struck out. Miguel Sano flied to center.
"Wade, when he gets his back up against the wall, that's kind of like that's it," Yost said. "I figured he would find a way to get out of it."
That's the microcosm of Kansas City's bullpen story. It would be helpful if the Royals' starters could work longer. But apparently it is not absolutely necessary.
Mike Bauman is a national columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.