ALCS: Who has bullpen edge as Blue Jays-Royals series heads to a tense conclusion?
Allow me to argue something that isn’t going to matter in a day or two. That’s the thing about writing about playoff series — no matter what, the relevance is fleeting. It all seems so important in the moment; it’s all over in just a few blinks of the eye. This argument probably isn’t going to mean very much, and it would’ve been better made before the ALCS began, but think about series keys. A full series is almost entirely unpredictable, only a little less unpredictable than one or two games, so think of this as a general series note, being made with the series in progress.
What it is, I think, is a matter of team identities. When people think about the Kansas City Royals, they think about defense, clutch hitting, and the bullpen. Holy crap, the bullpen, that’s been so valuable for them in the past. It seems like they got past the loss of Greg Holland without even missing a beat. The Toronto Blue Jays? When people think about the Blue Jays, they think about home runs, and David Price, and Marcus Stroman, and home runs. They’re the could-be and should-be and have-already-been offensive juggernaut put together to blast its way to the Series. The Blue Jays are supposed to have the obvious strength. The Royals are supposed to do more of the little things.
One of those being, get the late outs. And even the middle outs, depending on things. The Royals bullpen has a reputation, now, and it’s been fairly earned. The Royals bullpen is thought of as shortening ballgames, a group of arms the opponent doesn’t want to see because it means a total offensive shutdown. The way the pen gets talked about sometimes, it’s like it’s almost invincible. It is, without question, very good. Even without Holland. But an easy thing to miss is the Blue Jays aren’t much worse. Even without Brett Cecil. I don’t know to what extent the bullpens will matter over what’s left of this series, but it doesn’t look like a terrible mismatch.
Forget the full-season team numbers. The numbers that matter are the numbers belonging to the pitchers currently in the actual playoff bullpens. That’s what I’ve assembled, in the following table. Quick things to know: These stats are park-adjusted, and presented on a scale where 100 is average, and something below 100 is good. ERA- is just ERA compared to the average. FIP- is the same, but using FIP (Fielding Independent Pitching), which tries to strip away some randomness. xFIP- is the same, but using xFIP, which balances out home runs in a semi-effective way.
To note: I’m only including numbers posted by the pitchers as relievers. Starting and relieving are very different things.
The Royals really shine by ERA-. By that measure, they were 41 percent better than average. Some of this is because of their team defense, which doesn’t have to do with the pitchers, but you can’t throw it all away because perhaps Royals relievers are pretty good about limiting quality contact. Look at the Jays, and they’re a little worse by ERA-. However, by FIP-, they’re basically the same as the Royals, and they look better in the last column. The last column is also a bit controversial, because of the way that xFIP handles fly balls, but it’s still a point of interest.
What if we focus on the top of the bullpens? That is, the relievers each manager would most prefer to use. The following table is the same as the above table, but for just each team’s top four relievers. For the Royals, that’s Wade Davis, Kelvin Herrera, Luke Hochevar and Ryan Madson. For the Blue Jays, that’s Roberto Osuna, Liam Hendriks, Aaron Sanchez and Mark Lowe.
The Royals lead by ERA- again, but the gap has grown slimmer. And now the Blue Jays take the lead by FIP-, also slightly expanding the gap in xFIP-. The top of the Blue Jays bullpen, at least this season, at least as currently constructed, has been excellent. And this is with Cecil sidelined. What the Blue Jays don’t have is a Wade Davis, and that’s a definite Royal advantage, but the Jays are just waiting on reputation to catch up. Perhaps people don’t know enough about Osuna, being a rookie. Perhaps they don’t know enough about Lowe, being a reclamation project and midseason pickup. Perhaps they don’t know enough about Hendriks, a no-name who’s gained three miles per hour. And perhaps they don’t know enough about Sanchez, because they get thrown off by his numbers as a starter.
Sanchez, as a starter, was very much not good. Like Wade Davis, he’s just a better fit in the bullpen. On that note — the last two years, as a reliever, Davis has allowed a paltry .429 OPS. Sanchez, over 54 games as a reliever, has allowed a .412 OPS. The point is not to say that Aaron Sanchez is as good a reliever as Davis. But he’s been that level of effective, and he has a dynamite signature pitch. Sanchez’s lack of control as a starter is almost irrelevant. Out of the bullpen, he throws enough strikes, and he’s a groundball machine. It makes sense that the Jays bullpen would be underrated, but the Royals shouldn’t be underrating it.
I’m open to the argument the Royals are deeper. Beyond the four, they offer Danny Duffy, Kris Medlen, and Franklin Morales. Beyond their four, the Jays offer Aaron Loup, LaTroy Hawkins, and Ryan Tepera. Losing Cecil hurts the Jays more than losing Holland hurts the Royals, because Cecil was the big lefty, and Loup isn’t nearly as good. Maybe that’ll be the difference-maker. The Royals aren’t short on lefties and switch-hitters.
But maybe it doesn’t come down to the lefties. Maybe it doesn’t come down to the depth. With David Price and Marcus Stroman due to throw, they ought to be good for innings. I don’t know. Weird things happen, and weird things will continue to happen. There’s absolutely no telling how the rest of this series is going to play out. But as Game 6 gets underway, you’re likely to hear on the broadcast a lot of talk about the strength of the Royals’ bullpen. All that talk is legitimate; the bullpen — especially the top — is very, very good. Yet the Jays bullpen doesn’t appear to be very much worse. It is its own kind of capable, its own kind of hard-throwing, and though it makes sense why the Royals have the better reputation, reputation’s never won a pennant.