With an 11-game lead in the AL Central and a five-win cushion for the league's best record, the Royals are well on their way to the postseason for the second straight year. Even so, their vaunted bullpen—which last year was the first in history to feature a trio of pitchers (Wade Davis, Kelvin Herrera and Greg Holland) posting ERAs of 1.50 or better across at least 50 innings, and the first to feature a pair (Davis and Herrera) who didn't yield a single homer within such workloads—is suddenly showing signs of wear. After winning 111 consecutive games in which they held the lead after seven innings, they've blown two straight.
Prior to Wednesday night, when Kansas City failed to hold a 4–2 eighth-inning lead over the Tigers, the last time it had faltered in such fashion was May 5, 2014 against the Padres. The Royals' 111-game streak of converting such leads is the third-longest in major league history according to the Elias Sports Bureau, trailing only the 1906–07 Cubs (116 games) and the '98–99 Yankees (115 games). Note that those four teams each won the pennant in those respective seasons, as Kansas City did last year; only they and the '06 Cubs failed to win the World Series.
Wednesday's failure stemmed from manager Ned Yost not pulling starter Edinson Volquez soon enough. Volquez, the team's most consistent starter this season, had held Detroit to five hits and two runs over the course of the first seven innings, using 85 pitches, but he allowed the first four Tigers to reach base in the eighth. James McCann and Jose Iglesias each hit infield singles to third base, sandwiched around a four-pitch walk to leadoff hitter Anthony Gose that should have sounded the alarm for Yost; even with the low pitch count, Volquez was heading toward the middle of the lineup for the fourth time of the night. Ian Kinsler followed Iglesias with a game-tying double, and while Herrera came on to retire Victor Martinez, he let in the two inherited runners via an infield single by J.D. Martinez and a fielder's choice by Tyler Collins, giving Detroit a 6–4 lead that it would extend to 7–4 in the ninth against Chris Young.
It's not as though the Tigers were tattooing the ball so much as it was Yost sticking too long with Volquez when Herrera was ready. The manager conceded as much after the game, telling reporters, "That's my fault. I've got a pretty hard, fast rule that I don't let my starter get beat in the eighth inning and I did it there."
Thursday found the Royals carrying a 5–1 lead into the eighth against the Angels, with Davis taking the baton from Ryan Madson. Davis quickly got into trouble via a single by Kole Calhoun and a double by Mike Trout, who himself came around to score via a pair of productive groundouts to cut the lead to 5–3. Holland came on for the save in the ninth, but allowed the first six batters to reach, punctuating the debacle with a pair of wild pitches. Via two-run doubles by C.J. Cron and Calhoun, the Angels took a 7–5 lead before Holland was mercifully pulled in favor of Franklin Morales. While Eric Hosmer homered in the bottom of the inning to cut the lead in half, the Royals still lost.
Despite this week's failures, Herrera and Davis have both pitched very well this year, even if they have regressed somewhat relative to their off-the-charts 2014 showings. Holland, however, has struggled:
While Herrera's strikeout rate has improved markedly, he's allowed three homers this year after not giving up any last season, and while he let in only nine of the 43 runners he inherited in 2014, he's allowed seven out of 14 to score in '15. Davis's strikeout rate is way down, though he has yet to allow an inherited runner to score, compared to five out of 11 last year. He also didn't give up a homer last season, and he hadn't allowed one this year either until Aug. 1, when he served one up to Toronto's Jose Bautista. Notably, Davis has been day-to-day with a back issue (variously reported as stiffness, tightness and pain) since July 31, with just an Aug. 6 appearance between the aforementioned Bautista encounter and Thursday night's cuffing.
Holland may have been dealing with some rust on Thursday, as he hadn't pitched since Aug. 8, but overall, his strikeout rate has fallen off, and his walk rate has nearly doubled, from 2.9 to 5.5. While he converted 46 out of 48 save opportunities last year, he's just 25-for-29 this year, with three of those blown saves coming in his last 13 outings.
That's a troubling collection of downward trends. However, it's worth noting that with righties Luke Hochevar and Madson and lefty Morales—all of whom have FIPs below 3.20—to supplement Yost's big three, Kansas City has a much deeper bullpen than it did last year, with a collective ERA that's shrunk from 3.30 to 2.47. The Royals have needed that depth, since their rotation has regressed considerably, with an ERA that's risen from 3.60 last year to 4.28 this year. In addition, the starters are on pace to throw 77 fewer innings than in 2014, and Volquez and recent acquisitionJohnny Cueto are the only ones preventing runs at a better-than-average clip now that Young has been moved to the bullpen.
For as much as Yost relies on his push-button bullpen, he may have to consider alternatives to the Herrera-Davis-Holland back end, if only to give his big three time to get healthy and straighten out before October arrives. Perhaps Davis needs a stint on the disabled list to rest his back, and Holland could use a temporary move to lower-leverage duty, with somebody else handling the ninth. Both Madson and Hochevar netted saves earlier this week—the former on Aug. 9 against the White Sox after Holland had pitched on back-to-back days, the latter on Aug. 11 against the Tigers after after entering with a four-run lead but two men on base and throwing the final 2 2/3 innings.
That said, after Thursday’s game, Yost sounded more concerned about getting his big three more regular work, not less. Via MLB.com’s Jeffrey Flanagan, he said, “I was just talking to [general manager] Dayton [Moore] about that. The most important thing is keeping them sharp and healthy. We'll have to continue to work on that.”
Whatever the remedy that’s in store, the good news is that the Royals' big lead in the division affords them time to find answers.