Inside the Royals' New-Age 'Nasty Boys,' the Best-Ever Modern-Day Bullpen

Scott Miller@@ScottMillerBblNational MLB ColumnistOctober 21, 2014

AP Images/Getty Images

KANSAS CITY — Worst sound for opposing hitters? The Kansas City Royals' bullpen gate swinging open.   

It is the sound of the chainsaw firing up in the bloodiest horror flick you've ever seen. It is the sound of a hitter's guts gurgling and bubbling to the point of illness.

It is the sound of history.   

Kelvin Herrera. Wade Davis. Greg Holland.

Good morning, good afternoon and good night.

"We all know their bullpen is really good," Giants rookie second baseman Joe Panik said here as San Francisco and Kansas City worked out in preparation for Game 1 of the World Series Tuesday night. "I wouldn't say there's pressure on us, but we know it's more important to get runs on the board early."

The breakout stars of this October, Herrera, Davis and Holland, now are in position to deliver Kansas City its first World Series crown in 29 years.

Not that the Giants are going to panic, but what Panik said is true: The best path to victory for San Francisco is not to be trailing after six innings. Herrera, Davis and Holland are the modern-day "Nasty Boys," the closest three-headed bullpen monster we've seen in October since Norm Charlton, Rob Dibble and Randy Myers helped pitch the Reds to the 1990 World Series title.

DETROIT, MI - AUGUST 16: Greg Holland #56 of the Kansas City Royals pitches in the ninth inning of game one of the double header against the Detroit Tigers at Comerica Park on August 16, 2013 in Detroit, Michigan. The Royals defeated the Royals 2-1.  (Pho
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Each of them produced a sub-1.50 ERA this season while making at least 65 appearances. No other team in history has even had two relievers, let alone three, with sub-1.50 ERAs and more than 60 appearances.

The Royals were 65-5 this season when leading after six innings, 72-1 when leading after seven and 79-1 when leading after eight.

Herrera, Davis and Holland have combined to throw 134.1 innings over 131 appearances since June 27 (including the postseason), according to STATS LLC. They have thrown 2,067 pitches during that time. Zero have gone for home runs.

FanGraphs tallies a statistic called Win Probability Added, which, in essence, computes a player's contribution to a win by what he does in the game. A total of 13 relievers this season scored a 2.50 or above, according to FanGraphs' leaderboard. Three of them were Davis, Herrera and Holland.

The rest of the country is learning this month what Kansas City fans have been watching all summer: The sound of the Royals' bullpen opening means rival hitters are about to be scorched into burnt ends.

In fact, if I'm the Kauffman Stadium groundskeepers, I keep the WD-40 in the cabinet. I let rust start to eat away at the bullpen gate until it creaks like this and groans like that. Then maybe I stick a microphone on the gate and blast every opening over the stadium sound system.

You think that won't melt rival hitters into a puddle of molten Louisville Sluggers?

Look out! It's the seventh inning, and here comes...

Kelvin Herrera

Matt Slocum/Associated Press

The first piece of Kansas City's lethal combination came last: The Royals knew coming out of spring training this season that Davis would set up for Holland.

"It was in early June when Kelvin really stepped up and grabbed hold of the seventh inning," Royals pitching coach Dave Eiland said. "That's when we started playing really well."

Herrera is just 24, comes from the Dominican Republic and signed with the Royals as a non-drafted free agent in December 2006. A couple of years in, things weren't going smoothly: He missed most of the 2009 and 2010 seasons with a stress fracture in his right elbow.

"It was like, 'Wow, I feel like my career will be over,' " Herrera said. "I don't know what happened, but here I am pitching."

What happened was six weeks straight of getting up close and personal with a bone stimulator to promote healing, for starters, followed by intense rehabilitation.

"I had started feeling a little pain, and I [didn't] pay attention to it," said Herrera, who learned enough through the experience that he probably could teach a graduate-level course on what not to do when your elbow hurts. "Everybody has pain. So I kept pitching.

"That was a bad decision."

He finally re-emerged with a breakout season in Kansas City in 2012, posting a 2.35 ERA that was the best among American League pitchers with at least 80 innings of work.

Among those who helped get him back on track during his rehab were Carlos Reyes, Carlos Martinez and (1989 NL Cy Young winner) Mark Davis, who all work in the Royals system.

And, general manager Dayton Moore.

"He makes you feel like you are his son," Herrera said. "I wish I could have that GM all my career."


Herrera's 0.58 post-All Star-break ERA is the majors' best. And his average fastball velocity of 98.1 mph ranks second only to the Reds' Aroldis Chapman.

You'd think that would be the worst of it for an opposing lineup. Oh, no.

Look out! Now it's the eighth inning, and here comes...

Wade Davis

Orlin Wagner/Associated Press

Davis faced 279 batters this season and allowed a grand total of five extra-base hits. Five. Three doubles, two triples. No homers.

He's 29 and a second cousin to former Cubs catcher Jody Davis. He famously came to Kansas City along with starter James Shields in the Wil Myers trade with Tampa Bay in December 2012.

He had started for the Rays for two seasons before they moved him to the bullpen in 2012, where he went 3-0 with a 2.43 ERA and held opposing hitters to a .189 batting average.

The Royals intended to use him as a starter when they acquired him, but at 6-10 with a 5.67 ERA through 24 starts last season, they moved him to the bullpen last September.

Yeah, call him the accidental reliever.

"Both times, I told [the team] if I'm going to the bullpen, I can't go back to starting in the same season because I thought it would be counterproductive," Davis said.

Now, he may never return to a rotation. He's whittled his repertoire from five pitches to three as a reliever: fastball, slider and cutter. ("The cutter is shaped like a slider," Eiland said.)

His average fastball velocity has increased to 95.7 mph from 92.1 mph this season. Eiland figures it's because, as a reliever, Davis doesn't have to manage his energy to get through several innings. Davis credits a winter spent working out on a CrossFit program.

"It's an extreme way of working out," Davis, 6'5", 230 pounds, said. "Pushing your body to the outer limits.

"After a month or two, I felt a difference in everything I did, even walking up the stairs."

KANSAS CITY, MO - SEPTEMBER 21:  Wade Davis #17 of the Kansas City Royals pitches in the eighth inning during a game against the Detroit Tigers at Kauffman Stadium on September 21, 2014 in Kansas City, Missouri. (Photo by Ed Zurga/Getty Images)
Ed Zurga/Getty Images

During spring training, he said, "It was the best I've ever thrown a baseball in my life. I was throwing the ball at 70, 80 percent effort, and it was going 94, 95 mph.

"I'm not a velocity guy, but I've never thrown 94, 95 until August."

This season, according to STATS LLC, Davis produced a crazy swing-and-miss rate of 34.6 percent (after recording a rate of 18.1 percent during his first five big league seasons). Also according to STATS LLC, 406 pitchers threw at least 300 fastballs this season, and none of them induced a worse slugging percentage than Davis' .173.

Meantime, according to FanGraphs, Davis threw his cutter 20 percent of the time and held hitters to a .113 batting average and slugging percentage with it.

As if that's not enough to strike fear into the heart of any hitter, there's also the knowledge that back when he was with Tampa Bay, on an off-day in Toronto, Davis used his crossbow to take down a 6'0", 300-pound black bear.

"I think me and the bears are done," he said. "That's a long story. And I'd be throwing a lot of people under the bus if I get into it."

OK. Besides, look out! Now it's the ninth inning, and here comes...

Greg Holland

Chris O'Meara/Associated Press

Think it's been a whirlwind postseason for the unbeaten Royals? How about their closer's start? He attended the birth of his baby boy—Nash Gregory Hollandin North Carolina on Oct. 1 and then flew cross-country the next day in time to bag the save in Anaheim, California, during Kansas City's 3-2, 11-inning Game 1 win in the American League Division Series.

Business as usual for Holland, who, understandably, looked at a television guy as if he had six eyeballs when he asked Holland on Tuesday what his postseason highlight has been so far. Duh. His newborn. You think?

Besides, the saves are business as usual: Including the postseason, Holland has converted 52 of 54 save opportunities so far this year, including 45 of his past 46 (26 in a row).

He's a 28-year-old two-time All-Star who came to Kansas City as the Royals' 10th-round pick in the 2007 draft. He took over as Kansas City's full-time closer on July 31, 2012, after the club traded Jonathan Broxton to Cincinnati. That was less than two years after he spent the winter after the 2010 season in Venezuela playing for La Guaira.

"Greg, to me, was a rock-thrower," Phillies pitching coach Bob McClure, who was the Royals pitching coach from 2006 to 2011, told us on MLB Network Radio on Friday. "He would throw as hard as he could. You see those guys all the time. Then he went to winter ball and came back, and this guy was painting strikes at the knees.

"He went from marginal control to commanding three pitches. It was a phenomenal transformation."

McClure, a baseball lifer, said he has never seen as dramatic of a transformation during one winter as Holland made.

Pat Sullivan/Associated Press

Told of McClure's assessment, Holland smiled.

"It was one of those things where I was wild," he said. "I had control issues. I knew if I wanted to improve—to be a reliever every day at the big league levelI needed to improve."

Among those with him in Venezuela was current Royals bullpen coach Doug Henry. As the pitching coach at Triple-A Omaha when Holland was there, Henry was both a friendly face and a vital sounding board.

Now, along with his co-aces in the bullpen, Holland is world-wise and low-maintenance. "These guys are fearless," Eiland said. "They believe in themselves. We're fortunate this organization has drafted and developed power arms very well."

Eiland has a pet phrase or sentence that he uses, simply to remind his dominant trio of what works.

Each afternoon during batting practice, he tells Holland, "Stay on line." Then he reminds Davis, "Stay on the rubber and drive the ball downhill." And he reminds Herrera, "Stay within yourself and drive the ball downhill."

Then, more often than not, Eiland can sit back and enjoy the results—along with the rest of the Royals and this baseball-crazy town that is watching something very, very special with each opening of the bullpen gate.

Scott Miller covers Major League Baseball as a national columnist for Bleacher Report. He has over two decades of experience covering MLB, including 14 years as a national baseball columnist at CBSSports.com.

Follow Scott on Twitter and talk baseball @ScottMillerBbl.

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