As everyone obviously knows by this point, the Kansas City Royals are the 2015 World Series Champions. Just one year removed from their heartbreaking game seven home loss to the San Francisco Giants in the 2014 World Series, the Royals got their redemption. Immediately following the Royals’ World Series victory, several writers and pundits shared their views on the “Royal Way;” how the Royals build their team from scratch in order to compete for a World Series.
While many of these articles discussed how other teams could emulate this success, the “Royal Way” is another strategy entirely. While the Royals did build their team from the ground up, and benefited from quite a bit of homegrown talent, the key to their World Series championship was in another strategy entirely. The Royals won the World Series on the back of one of the most dominant bullpens in not only all of baseball this year, but perhaps in all of baseball history.
With Ryan Madson, Jason Frasor, Luke Hochevar, Kelvin Herrera and Wade Davis leading the way in the playoffs last season, the Royals were definitely a formidable force, and that’s not even including Greg Holland. Not only were the Royals dominant in the late innings during the postseason, but they were also dominate for the whole season.
Throughout the season, the Royals bullpen was near the top of the league in quite a few pitching categories. In 2015, the Royals were first in bullpen ERA, first in ERA-, first in batting average against, second in WHIP, and finally they were first in left-on-base percentage. In a broad spectrum of collective categories, the Royals were one of the, if not the, best bullpens in all of baseball.
Even more importantly, individually, the Royals had some of the best relief pitchers in all of baseball. Davis was arguably the best closer in all of baseball, with an ERA under 1.00, Madson had a career resurgence with possibly the best season of his career, and Herrera was his usual dominant self all season.
The old adage says pitching wins championships, although for the Royals it is relief pitching in particular. With the price of free-agent pitching skyrocketing, look no further than the $200-plus million contracts of David Price and Zack Greinke, more and more teams are attempting to emulate the Royals bullpen model. With the sixth through ninth innings, or at least the seventh through ninth innings, completely squared away, the Royals did not need the dominant starting pitching staff that has become the goal of many teams throughout the league.
For comparison, the Royals pitching staff was in the bottom half in the league in ERA, ERA-, batting average against, WHIP and left-on-base percentage. While the Royals bullpen was in the top two of the league in all of those categories in 2015, the pitching staff was almost the direct opposite. However, the Royals proved that this dominant bullpen model can work. The playoffs were the prime example of this. In almost every game, the Royals needed no more than five, or at most six, innings from their subpar rotation in order to have a chance at winning any game. That’s what that strong bullpen can do.
Although the biggest storyline of the offseason has been on the large sums of money going to almost every pitcher on the free agent market, the Royals approach to building a bullpen has been gaining more and more traction this offseason. Look no further than the Boston Red Sox, Los Angeles Dodgers, and Detroit Tigers, who have all taken this approach to heart when making moves this offseason. Even with the arrival of David Price, the Red Sox still added both Craig Kimbrel and Carson Smith, who join with Koji Uehara and Junichi Tazawa to form arguably one of the top five bullpens in all of baseball. Prior to the revelation of domestic abuse allegations, the Dodgers were going for the same strategy with the attempted acquisition of Aroldis Chapman to add to already dominant closer Kenley Jansen. Finally the Detroit Tigers took one of the worst bullpens in all of baseball and added Francisco Rodriguez and have also reportedly agreed to a deal with Mark Lowe, suddenly bringing them back to the top of the league. All three of these teams have gone from being some of the worst bullpens in baseball, to some of the best bullpens in baseball, based on the model provided by Kansas City.
The Baltimore Orioles, who just re-signed Darren O’Day to continue being the setup man to Zach Britton, also seem to be continuing to follow this trend as well. The New York Yankees were perhaps the best example of jumping on this trend after the Royals success in 2014, with the two headed monster of Dellin Betances and Andrew Miller, and are now just yet another in an increasing list of teams who are taking this new philosophy to heart. Other teams like the Pittsburgh Pirates, Houston Astros and St. Louis Cardinals have also followed this model to an extent, and are also seeing varying levels of success.
The Royals have ushered in a new era in baseball. While pitching and defense have always been the key to World Series victory (or say they say), an increased focus has been put on the bullpen in recent years, as modeled so successfully by the Kansas City Royals. The era of bullpen dominance is definitely here and, perhaps, here to stay.