Stable of young relievers earn Royals' trust
Yost, team lean on inexperienced but dependable bullpen
KANSAS CITY -- Ask Royals pitching coach Bob McClure if he's had a bullpen as young as his group this year, and he will offer a three-word answer: "No. Never. No."
Veteran starting pitcher Bruce Chen is in his 14th Major League season. He's been a part of 10 different organizations. Has he been on a team with a bullpen this young?
"No. Well, I don't know -- not that many rookies and young guys, no," Chen said.
The Kansas City bullpen currently has seven pitchers. All but one -- closer Joakim Soria -- has fewer than 94 career innings pitched. Four of them made their Major League debut this season. Two of them made their debuts in 2010.
The average age of the Royals' relievers is 24 years, 326 days. Among the other four teams in the American League Central, there are only two relief pitchers whose actual age is younger. The Kansas City bullpen's average age is three years, 216 days younger than any other AL Central bullpen's.
While the age -- or lack thereof -- of the Royals' relief pitchers is interesting, it's only significant because the Kansas City bullpen has been quite good this season. Despite the youth and inexperience, the group is seventh in the AL and 15th in the Majors with a 3.57 ERA.
The Royals have turned to their bullpen in 105 games this season, most in the AL. Due to early-season struggles by the starting pitchers, the bullpen has logged 353 innings, second in the Majors to Baltimore. They work a lot.
In Sunday's 5-3 win over the Indians, Kansas City's bullpen pitched four innings, allowing just one run on two hits while striking out six. In a 14-inning win over the AL East-leading Red Sox last week, the bullpen pitched eight scoreless innings, giving up just eight hits and two walks while striking out seven. They do good work.
Royals manager Ned Yost has had to lean on his relief pitching a lot this season, and his young stable of arms has responded by earning his praise and trust. Soria is the closer and Nate Adcock is the long reliever. But even then, Yost is comfortable with any man in any situation.
"Normally, you've got in a bullpen one or two guys that you can use in a crisis to stop the bleeding right then and there," Yost said. "The cool thing about our bullpen is I've got confidence in everybody down there to be able to come in and do that."
That confidence has typically been rewarded with zeroes on the scoreboard. And although the bullpen has little big league experience, the confidence level of each individual pitcher is not a problem.
"It helps they all have good stuff. They all have strikeout stuff, they all throw strikes, they're all aggressive," McClure said. "They're not intimidated by anything. All that kind of fits into place -- it just happens to be they're all so young or inexperienced."
Soria is the old-timer of the group at 27 years old -- no one else in the bullpen is older than 25. McClure likes the fact his closer is the most experienced pitcher in the bullpen, and he and the rest of the relief corps agree Soria has been a big influence on the group.
"I think all of us being the same age helps with chemistry a lot, just because we grew up doing all the same things. And Jack acts like he's 23 sometimes, so he's a little life in the bullpen, so it's fun having him down there," Louis Coleman said. "He shows us the ropes, but at the same time, he gets on our level, so to speak, sometimes."
Another benefit to having so many young pitchers in the bullpen has been the shared experience. All six young relievers have made an effort to try and learn from each other's mistakes as they all get accustomed to the big leagues.
"I feel like it's good to have a guy like Jack who's been through this stuff. But when you have a bunch of guys coming up with you, I feel like it creates an environment where you can talk to each other a little bit more," Blake Wood said. "You're not afraid to bounce ideas off each other, see what you're doing versus this guy or that guy, or what you think in a certain situation."
While the pitchers making up the bullpen fluctuated early in the season, the group -- Soria, Coleman, Adcock, Aaron Crow, Tim Collins, Greg Holland and Wood -- has remained relatively stable since late May.
And not only has the personnel stayed the same, but the performances have not dropped off in that time either. Ask any reliever what's made the bullpen so good this season and you'll likely get the same answer: confidence, good stuff and hard work. Ask any of them if they still feel like rookies and they'll agree that the feeling is fading.
As a result, Kansas City's bullpen is getting some recognition. Opposing managers admit they don't want to be down against the Royals when the bullpen comes into the game. Crow was the Royals' lone representative at the All-Star Game, and he credits his fellow relief pitchers for the selection.
"I think it helped out a lot that everybody's doing so well for me to get picked for the All-Star Game," Crow said. "I definitely know I wouldn't have had the same opportunities, I wouldn't have had the same success if it wasn't for the other guys down there helping me out."
And the one worry with young arms -- being overworked -- isn't much of a worry with this group. McClure and the relievers offer Yost some praise of their own for making sure each pitcher gets enough rest and doesn't get overtaxed.
Right now, the bullpen looks like the most complete component in the Royals' plan to compete for division titles next season and beyond. Rookie hitters Eric Hosmer and Mike Moustakas are making an impact now, but they still have adjustments to make. The starting pitching will need to improve its performances. But barring injury, trades or a sudden decline in performance, it seems like the organization would be hard-pressed to make many changes to the bullpen in the coming years.
"You would hope so, each one of us, just because we're having a good time and enjoying it together," Coleman said. "Hopefully we can keep pitching well and make the decision real easy."
Adam Holt is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.