Royals' Bullpen Woes Lead to Second Straight Loss

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Royals' Bullpen Woes Lead to Second Straight Loss
(Photo by G. Newman Lowrance/Getty Images)

After a second straight night in which Juan Cruz blew an eighth-inning lead, it would seem like perhaps the time is now to examine what has gone wrong in the Royals bullpen.  

A year after the Royals were able to pride themselves on having one of the better bullpens in baseball, Dayton Moore's 2009 creation has run off the tracks.

Gone are Leo Núñez and Ramón Ramírez, the arms that carried the Royals through the seventh and eighth innings of 2008.  Núñez had an ERA+ of 143 in 45 appearances for KC last season.  Ramírez sported a 162 ERA+ in 71 games last year.

Adding insult to injury, Núñez's ERA+ is 116 this season while Ramírez's is 201.  The players acquired in the trades that sent the setup men from 2008 packing have put up an OPS+ of 88 (Mike Jacobs) and 90 (Coco Crisp) and the latter played in a mere 49 games before being shut down for the year. 

With the departures of the men Trey Hillman turned to 116 times last season, Dayton Moore brought in Kyle Farnsworth, Juan Cruz, Jamey Wright, and Doug Waechter.

In their own ways, each has failed to deliver for the man who brought them in.

Kyle Farnsworth has pitched well with nothing on the line.  Give him a high-leverage situation, though, and the results have been disastrous.  Just ask Michael Young or Jim Thome (who he never should have been pitching to anyway, but that is a point in another discussion). 

Unfortunately, there have been enough attempts at protecting a lead from Farnsworth to still possess a 4.24 ERA.  Tragically, that ERA is the best of anyone Royals relief pitcher not named Joakim Soria.  

Farnsworth does at least possess an ERA+ of 102 thus far this season, which doesn't justify the two-year, $9.25 million contract Moore handed him early in this past off-season hot on the heels of a 16-game stint in Detroit in which he earned a 66 ERA+.  Adding to his worth is the fact that he currently finds himself on the DL with a groin strain.

When Juan Cruz was signed this off-season, there were not many people who were saying anything but laudatory things about the signing.  Cruz's performance in 2008 earned him the Type A free agent classification.

In his each of his three seasons in Arizona, his ERA+ climbed, starting at 113 and working its way up to 176 by last year.  For each of the years of 2003 through 2008, Cruz struck out opposing hitters at a minimum of a 8.4 K/9 clip, averaging 10.0 K/9 over that time.

Of course, Cruz has been horribly disappointing.  For the second straight night, Cruz was brought in to protect a lead in the eighth only to surrender that lead as soon as the opportunity presented itself. 

After peaking on May 17 with an ERA of 1.45, Cruz pitched a brutal 12-outing stretch in which he put up the following line:  10.95 ERA, 2.11 WHIP, 9:8 K:BB, and a .360/.458/.640/1.098 line against in 12.1 IP.  By the end of that run, his ERA had ballooned to 5.23.

Some of his struggles may be linked to the issue explored here.  After Friday's game, Juan Cruz possessed a shockingly low GB/FB of 0.26.  When combining that with the plummeting K/9 (6.69 through July 17th) and the increased reliance upon his changeup (touched upon in the Juan Cruz write-up here), the picture may be becoming clearer. 

That changeup, which Cruz has been falling back on 13.4% of the time (up from 4.1% in 2008), is the same pitch that Cruz left up against Evan Longoria on Friday.  This after giving Longoria fits with his fastball.  Longoria promptly deposited that ball into deep left field.  

His ERA of 4.91 is good for eighth-best amongst Royals relievers this season.

Horacio Ramirez, who pitched so poorly he was cut despite his $1.8 million salary, had an ERA of 4.42 in relief. 

Jamey Wright, who had surpassed the 100 mark in ERA+ only once since 2005 (the 2007 season in Texas), has pitched predictably underwhelmingly.  If FanGraphs' Pitch Type information on Wright is correct, then Wright has also puzzlingly abandoned the slider this year in favor of the cutter. 

Regardless, his early season success has long since been left by the wayside, as his ERA now sits at 4.57.  His FIP of 5.34 would suggest that perhaps even that ERA was reached with a certain degree of luck.

Doug Waechter, the other free agent brought in to brace the Royals for the loss of their two star set-up men, made three appearances before going to the DL.

Now in my talks of the Royals' 2008 bullpen, I did neglect to mention another arm that they relied upon heavily.  On July 30 of last year, Ron Mahay had pitched in 47 games for the Royals. 

In those 47 games, the then-37-year-old Mahay was the proud owner of a 1.75 ERA.  Opposing hitters were hitting .221/.290/.289/.579 against him.  He had a 42:22 K:BB in 56.2 IP. 

You will note that all of those stats were through July 30 of last year. 

Any contending team in baseball could have used a left-handed relief pitcher sporting those numbers at the trade deadline. 

After the deadline passed last year, Mahay's ERA was 15.75 while hitters laced everything he threw to the tune of a .421/.511/.789/1.300 line in 10 games. 

This year, Mahay's line is as follows:  29 GP, 30.2 IP, 1 W, 0 L, 4.40 ERA, 1.57 WHIP, 28 K, 12 BB.  It isn't an awful line.  

It also isn't nearly as good as the line he had heading into the trade deadline in 2008.

Obviously, it isn't entirely fair to play Armchair GM with the gift of hindsight and state that someone should have been traded, but it was widely thought that Mahay would be the piece that Moore would deal at the deadline.

His inability to get something in return for Mahay when his value was conveniently at its peak is regrettable to say the least.

When compounding the lack of well-timed opportunism with the fact that absolutely none of Dayton Moore's expensive off-season bullpen acquisitions have panned out, you have found the recipe for late-inning meltdowns. 

When an offense is as unable to score runs as this incarnation of the Royals offense is, that is simply untenable.

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