Rule of three

Are the Royals lucky to have three closers? Sure, but they're also good

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In early March, a Royals pitcher named Luke Hochevar felt a twinge in his elbow as he pitched in a spring training game against the White Sox. Elbow twinges in baseball almost always lead to bad things, and in this case it led right to surgery. For Hochevar, it was more than a little bit heartbreaking.

In the Royals’ 45-year history they have only had one No. 1 overall pick in the amateur draft – and that one pick was Hochevar in 2006. They loved his pitching stuff and took him ahead of, among others, Clayton Kershaw, Max Scherzer, Tim Lincecum and Evan Longoria. They stuck with him through some dreadful seasons as a starter.

Then in 2013, in desperation, they put him in the bullpen. He was something of a revelation. The league hit just .169 against him. He struck out nearly five times as many batters as he walked. Righties, in particular, did not stand a chance against him. The Royals had found Hochevar’s role after so many years of trying. He was finally a triumph, and then, in his first Cactus League appearance, he blew out his elbow and needed Tommy John surgery. He would miss the whole season.

“Well,” Royals general manager Dayton Moore said to his staff, “I guess Wade Davis is now a reliever.”

* * *

Let us go for a moment to a date when the baseball world turned upside down: July 31, 2014, the day of the Major League non-waiver trade deadline. There was an argument whether the Oakland Athletics or Detroit Tigers would rule baseball’s kingdom from that day forward.

As the day began, the Athletics had the best record in baseball. The Tigers had a five-game lead over the Royals in the American League Central. The Los Angeles Dodgers, with that remarkable pitching duo of Kershaw and Zack Greinke, had the best record in the National League. The Washington Nationals, with five superb starters, were poised for greatness.

In that time, everyone knew the way to win in October was with great starting pitching. That was a fact as old as time. For more than one hundred years, baseball postseasons had been dominated by the starters, by Bob Gibson and Sandy Koufax, by Christy Mathewson and Curt Schilling, by Whitey Ford and Chris Carpenter. Everyone believed in it, from old-school thinkers like Detroit’s GM Dave Dombrowski to Moneyball mogul Billy Beane. You win in October with great starters, and so Detroit and Oakland went to get themselves great starters.

On that wild trade deadline day, contending teams had a battle royale for the starting pitchers on the market. In the end, Oakland’s general manager, Beane, won Jon Lester. That seemed to make them invincible. But Dombrowski, Detroit’s general manager, won David Price. That seemed to make THEM invincible. Numerous teams kicked the tires on acquiring Philadelphia’s Cole Hamels.

Reports referred to the mad rush for starters as “The Great Arms Race.”

And in Kansas City, well, the Royals didn’t do a thing. Maybe they knew. Maybe they didn’t. Either way, they had already won The Great Arms Race.

* * *

Greg Holland pitched only a handful of innings in high school. He wasn’t a pitcher then. He was a small, slender, scrappy middle infielder for McDowell High in a small North Carolina town named Marion. When he dreamed of playing in a World Series, as he often did, he dreamed of getting the game-winning hit. Even his friends thought those were pipe dreams. No college seemed interested.

Holland decided to walk on at Western Carolina, a college about 90 minutes away. He decided his best shot was as a pitcher; he had a good arm. He threw about 90 mph in his tryout, and the coaches decided to keep him. He got a little bigger, a little stronger, became the Catamounts closer. He still wasn’t much of a prospect. The Royals’ local scout, Steve Connolly, took a liking to Holland; area scouts are always pushing some kid in their area that they like, and Holland was an extremely likable kid. It took Royals national scout Junior Vizcaino’s added enthusiasm to push the club to draft Holland in the 10th round.

The way the Royals figured: Why not? It was the 10th round – that’s about the time that Major League teams start taking long shots anyway. Holland had a pretty live arm, he had shown steady improvement, his makeup — as scouts like to say — was off the charts. The Royals knew that 5-foot-10 walk-ons at Western Carolina don’t usually pan out. But it’s baseball. Things happen.

Greg Holland (Getty Images)

Holland’s fastball picked up in the minors. He showed a talent for getting the strikeout. The Royals called him up in 2010, he got knocked around a bit, then they called him up again in May 2011 and, what the heck? The guy was unhittable. He struck out 74 hitters in 60 innings. The league hit .175 against him. He threw in the high 90s and, holy nastiness Batman, where did that slider come from? Major League hitters couldn’t touch that slider. They were swinging at pitches that were crash-landing in the dirt a foot outside the zone.

The next August, the Royals made Holland the closer and … he made yet another quantum leap forward. In 2013, he was about as dominant as a closer can be – he saved 47 games, struck out nearly 14 batters per nine innings and held the entire league to a .251 slugging percentage. That’s SLUGGING percentage. This year, he has been just as good.

“I’d like to tell you we know that Greg would turn into this kind of pitcher,” Moore says. “We’re not that smart.”

* * *

You know the story of the T-formation in pro football, right? In 1940, just about every team in the NFL was using some variation of the single wing, where the ball would be snapped to different players and the key was getting a double team for somebody to run behind. It was almost exclusively a running offense.

The Chicago Bears, though, ran the T-formation, which relied much more on a savvy quarterback who could handle all the fakes and throws the offense demanded. Most people around the league thought that offense was a mess. Then the Bears beat Washington, 73-0, in the 1940 championship game, and most teams decided they might want to give the T-formation a try.

Well, baseball might be at one of those breakthrough moments too. You never can tell, of course, because Baseball shifts dramatically and quickly. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, teams were scoring more runs and hitting more homers than ever before – people worried that offense would wreck the game. In 2014, teams are scoring fewer runs than at any point since American League executives freaked out and added the designated hitter. There’s no telling what the next five years will bring.

That said – one-inning relievers have fundamentally changed baseball. It’s clear in just about every number you look at. I went back more than 40 years to 1973, when the American League added the designated hitter, and broke up baseball games into thirds – innings 1-3, innings 4-6, innings 7-9.

Here to start are the highest strikeout percentages I found:

2014 innings 7-9: 22.1%

2012 innings 7-9: 21.8%

2013 innings 7-9: 21.6%

2011 innings 7-9: 20.4%

2010 innings 7-9: 20.1%

That’s pretty staggering stuff. This means that 22.1 percent of the batters who came to the plate in the late innings this year struck out. More than one in five. Compare that to, say, 1968, the year of the pitcher. In the late innings that year just 15 percent of batters struck out. The league strikeout rate from 1973-2014 was 15.8 percent. A huge difference.

OK, how about the lowest batting averages?

2014 innings 7-9: .241

2012 innings 7-9: .242

2013 innings 7-9: .242

2011 innings 7-9: .243

1989 innings 7-9: .244

Do you see the trend here? The four-lowest batting averages have been late innings the last four seasons. The league batting average from 1973-2014 was .262.

How about lowest OPS blocks?

1989 innings 7-9: .670

2014 innings 7-9: .675

1976 innings 7-9: .677

1976 innings 1-3: .681

1981 innings 1-3: .782

No matter how you slice it, it comes up peanuts for hitters facing 2014 bullpens. Starting pitchers are doing more or less what they have been doing for a long time. The average start in 2014 was six innings – just what it has been since the 1994 strike. For the last 20 or so years, teams have been tinkering with how to get through those final three innings – using different variations of setup men and matchup-lefties and bridge pitchers and fireballling closers.

Now some teams simply have decided to throw THREE fireballing closers at opponents.

And no team has been more effective at it than the Kansas City Royals.

* * *

Kelvin Herrera grew up in a small Dominican village called Tenares, just five miles East of Salcedo, which happened to be where the Royals used to have their academy. He showed up at that Royals academy one day with a friend, who had come to try out. Herrera was 16 years old and had not been invited to try out; nobody considered him a prospect of any kind. He sat in the stands and watched.

Then, after the tryout, he asked Royals scout Orlando Estevez if he could throw a few pitches. He was not a pitcher, had never pitched in a game in his life, but he had a good arm. The Royals figured: “Why not? We’re here.” Rene Francisco, the Royals’ guru of the Dominican Republic, was there that day to watch. Francisco watched Herrera throw 10 pitches – mostly fastballs in the low 90s and one sharp curveball – and he had seen enough. The Royals quickly signed Herrera for $15,000.

Kelvin Herrera (Getty Images)

When they put him in the bullpen three years later and told him to let loose, that low-90s fastball suddenly clicked in at 100. When they taught him a changeup, they watched in awe as his 90-mph version of the pitch baffled hitters.

This year, well, here are two lines of numbers:

Pitcher A: 70 innings, 1.41 ERA, 0 home runs, .266 slugging percentage against.

Pitcher B: 70.2 innings, 1.40 ERA, 4 home runs, .233 slugging percentage against.

Pitcher A is Kelvin Herrera. Pitcher B is Mariano Rivera in 2008, one of his many great years. The big difference: Herrera did his work in the seventh instead of the ninth.

* * *

A couple of years before Michael Lewis wrote his classic “Moneyball,” the Royals had their own version. At spring training, Hall of Famer George Brett marked one of the baseballs before batting practice. Then, after everyone had hit, and baseballs were littered all over the field, he announced: “I have marked one ball. Whoever gets the Moneyball, I will personally pay $100.” The players on the team with the lowest payroll in baseball raced for the outfield like it was the great gold rush.

That seemed to be about as close as the Royals got to the objective analysis and advanced metrics celebrated by Lewis’ actual book “Moneyball.”  The Royals were actually mentioned in passing a few times in “Moneyball” as exactly the sort of team whose day had passed. The Royals one year took a high school pitcher named Colt Griffin in the first round of the draft because he had been clocked at 100 mph. It was exactly the sort of thing “Moneyball” preached against.

The Royals would profess, every now and again, to care about “Moneyball” things. In time, like every other team, they hired analytics guys to run the numbers. But, to be frank, the Royals just never quite seemed to get it. They would give an aging slugger like Jose Guillen a big contract, or they would believe themselves just one player away from contending when they were many players away, or they would load up their pitching staff with contact pitchers and wonder why they couldn’t prevent runs.

So, it is jolting to see the Royals at the head of this multiple closer trend. The Royals are hardly the first team to put together a dominant bullpen. The 1990 Reds won the World Series largely behind a commanding bullpen called “The Nasty Boys.” Other teams had great bullpens.

But this idea of three closers – one for the seventh, one for the eighth, one for the ninth – is something a little bit different. It has been building for a few years but it really came into focus this year. Teams are winning a higher percentage of games they lead going into the seventh and eighth innings. And the Royals are almost invincible in those games.

Winning percentage when team has the lead going into the seventh:

1973-2013:  86%

2014: 88%

Royals: 94%

Winning percentage when team has the lead going into the eighth:

1973-2013: 90%

2014: 92%

Royals: 99%

Yes, the Royals lost just four games all year that they led going into the seventh, and they went 72-1 when they had a lead going into the eighth inning. The Royals players often said things like, “We know if we go into the seventh with a lead, we feel like we are going to win.”

Well, it was more than a feeling. The Royals in 2014 had blatant weaknesses that in other years would have simply eliminated them from any World Series. They scored just 651 runs – no World Series team has scored so few in a full season since the 1988 Dodgers. The Royals finished last in the league in home runs and walks. Their starters’ ERA of 3.62 was tied for sixth in the American League, so it wasn’t that great, and they did not have a starter who is likely to get a Cy Young Award vote.

But they did not lose games in those last three innings. That was enough to get them into the playoffs. And once they got there … wow.

* * *

So we go back to July 31.

The Detroit Tigers traded for dominant starter David Price. Many believed this won them the pennant, which made sense. A rotation with Max Scherzer, Justin Verlander, Rick Porcello and Price … how are you going to beat that team? Instead, the Tigers barely held on to the division title against a streaking Royals team, and they were swept in the playoffs. They lost the game Price started, 2-1, because Price – who was brilliant otherwise – gave up a two-run homer in the sixth.

The Oakland Athletics traded for dominant starter Jon Lester. Many believed this won them the pennant, which made sense. They already had the best record in baseball and now they added a great left-hander who had proven to be sensation in the postseason?

Instead, the A’s utterly collapsed; they went 22-33 the rest of the way. Then, in the wild-card game against Kansas City, with Lester on the mound, the A’s took a 7-3 lead. And it fell apart. Lester started the eighth inning, gave up two hits, two stolen bases and walk, and then reliever Luke Gregerson gave up a a single, a stolen base and a wild pitch. Closer Sean Doolittle couldn’t protect a one-run lead in the ninth. And the Royals won it in the 12th.

And the Royals? Here is how those three closers did after from July 31 on:

Kelvin Herrera: 11 holds, 0.75 ERA, 22 strikeouts, 7 walks, 0 homers.

Wade Davis: 14 holds, 1.03 ERA, 40 strikeouts, 4 walks, 0 homers.

Greg Holland: 18 saves, 0.79 ERA, 30 strikeouts, 8 walks, 0 homers.

That’s a combined 0.86 ERA in 73 innings. The league hit .175 against them. The Royals played .625 baseball after the trade deadline.

The Royals’ three-man closing law firm of Herrera, Davis and Holland has been the single dominant weapon of the postseason. In the wild-card game, while Lester and the A’s bullpen disintegrated, the Royals’ threesome kept the Athletics scoreless in the seventh, eighth and ninth. That allowed the Royals to come back. In the Angels series, the threesome kept the Angels scoreless in those pivotal three late innings, and the Royals took control with back-to-back extra-inning victories.

But the singular moment, I think, in this remarkable postseason run happened in Game 1 of the American League Championship Series against Baltimore. It was something easy to miss. In the ninth inning, with the score tied, the Royals loaded with the bases with nobody out. The Royals then proceeded to not score in the most dramatic way possible – cleanup-hitter Eric Hosmer swung at a pitch roughly 15 feet outside the strike zone on his way to a force play at the plate, and then Billy Butler hit into a double play.

That should have been it. Camden Yards was shaking with joy. If you could have harnessed the “Orioles are going to win now” buzz in the stadium at that moment, you could have used it to power the Vegas Strip. The Orioles were sending their Nos. 2-4 hitters to the plate. Some people believe in baseball momentum and some people don’t, but there was no doubting the feeling: The Royals were finished.

Instead, Wade Davis walked to the mound. He calmly struck out the side.

Wade Davis (Getty Images)

Every ounce of the energy drained out of Camden Yards. Alex Gordon led off the 10th with a homer, Mike Moustakas added a two-run homer of his own, and the Royals swept the series, trailing only once in the process.

Wade Davis has appeared in all eight of the Royals playoff games. Herrera and Holland appeared in seven of them. They held every lead they were given.

* * *

One question people ask me all the time is this: Aren’t the Royals just lucky? It’s not like they planned this thing out. When they traded for Wade Davis, they wanted him to be a starter – and he badly wanted to be a starter this year until Hochevar got hurt. They did not scout out Kelvin Herrera in the Dominican Republic, even though he lived just down the road. The guy just showed up. And they just took a flyer on Greg Holland – they had no idea he’d become one of the game’s dominant closers.

Aren’t the Royals just lucky?

Sure they are. But there are a couple of points to be made about this. One: Nothing ever works out exactly to plan. The Yankees wanted Mariano Rivera to be a starter. Stan Musial began his career as a pitcher. The St. Louis Cardinals took Albert Pujols in the 13th round, which means they didn’t want him in the 12th. Lucky happens.

Which leads to the second point: Recognizing luck is the key to having luck. You know the old joke about the guy who prays daily to win the lottery and then finally hears a heavenly voice say: “Look, I’d like to help you, but you have to buy a lottery ticket first.” The Royals might have been lucky getting those three pitchers. But turning that trio into perhaps the greatest closing machine in baseball history is the Royals’ doing.

Anyway, baseball has never been more about luck than it is now. The game has two distinct seasons — the first lasts 162 games and is a grueling six-month test of skill and consistency and depth and will and attitude. That first season eliminates 20 of the 30 Major League teams.

The second season, the postseason (or as Billy Beane calls it “the crapshoot”) is different. Everything is amplified. Bad breaks seem disastrous. Good breaks are viewed as signs of destiny. Luck takes a hand at the poker table.

If the Royals lost that one-game playoff game to Oakland … but they didn’t.

If the Angels had managed to squeeze across a run in the late innings of Game 1 … but they didn’t.

If the Orioles had scored when Camden Yards was loud and hopeful … but they didn’t.

Why didn’t they? Well, having three closers in one bullpen might boost a team’s luck. You know the great line about Bob Gibson – he was called the luckiest pitcher in the world because opposing teams never seemed to score runs when he was on the mound.

Now the Royals play another team of destiny, the San Francisco Giants, and San Francisco probably has the best player in the series (Buster Posey) and the best starting pitcher in the series (Madison Bumgarner) and the best manager in the series (Bruce Bochy). The Giants have more power than the Royals, they have more experience than the Royals. They have two World Series victories in the last four years.

And the Royals will counter with great defense and that bullpen.

Enough? Nobody can fully predict the future of baseball. But a good bet is that baseball’s future will have inning-specific closers throwing hot fastballs and nasty sliders starting in the sixth inning. Or the fifth? How about the fourth? You never know: The game could evolve into one where starters are just the first relievers. There’s no telling how far it will go. But for once, the Kansas City Royals have a front-row seat on the bus into baseball’s future.

Lucky? “Sure,” Dayton Moore says. “We’re very lucky.” He smiles. The World Series begins in Kansas City on Tuesday at 8:07 p.m. Eastern time.