Kansas City Royals relief pitcher Kelvin Herrera wasn’t happy after Cleveland’s Francisco Lindor tied the score with a RBI double in the ninth inning Thursday night. The Indians won in 10 innings. David Dermer AP
Kansas City Royals relief pitcher Kelvin Herrera wasn’t happy after Cleveland’s Francisco Lindor tied the score with a RBI double in the ninth inning Thursday night. The Indians won in 10 innings. David Dermer AP

Judging the Royals

Lee Judge shares insights from KC's major-leaguers.

Judging the Royals

If he’s not the closer, why was Kelvin Herrera pitching the ninth inning?

By Lee Judge

ljudge@kcstar.com

September 15, 2017 02:35 PM

On Sept. 7, Kelvin Herrera blew a save against the Minnesota Twins and by the next day he was no longer the Royals’ closer. Manager Ned Yost said the Royals would go with Scott Alexander, Mike Minor or Brandon Maurer to close games, depending on who was available.

Going into the bottom of the ninth inning of Thursday’s game against the Indians, the Royals had a one-run lead and a chance to end Cleveland’s 21-game winning streak. But they needed a pitcher to close the game.

Scott Alexander was not available because he had pitched two days in a row and three out of the last four.

Mike Minor was not available because he’d already been used to get through the sixth and seventh innings.

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But Brandon Maurer, one of the three pitchers Ned said he would use as a closer, was available.

Ned chose to go with Kelvin Herrera instead.

Managers and the media

If big-league managers didn’t have to talk to the media most of them wouldn’t. And one of the reasons most managers don’t enjoy news conferences is the media wants definitive answers to questions, which can paint a manager in a corner.

If a manager gets asked and says this guy is my closer, and then things change — and things are always changing — the manager can be called indecisive if he runs somebody else out there in a save situation.

And if the anointed closer scuffles and the manager doesn’t run somebody else out there in a save situation, the manager can be called stubborn and clueless.

The manager probably didn’t want to answer the question in the first place and giving an answer was eventually used against him.

So whenever possible, smart managers will be vague.

Here’s what Ned actually said about Herrera losing the closer’s role: “We’re going to bump Kelvin out of there for a while. He’s just not pitching regularly enough to stay sharp.”

Ned said Herrera would not be his closer “for a while” and blamed Herrera’s ineffectiveness on lack of use.

Going into the ninth inning of Thursday’s game, Ned had to choose between Herrera, Maurer and newcomer Mike Morin, a reliever with one save to his name.

The last time Herrera pitched was the day before and he gave the Royals a 1-2-3 inning.

The last time Maurer pitched was Sept. 11 and he gave up three earned runs in two-thirds of an inning.

Couple that with Maurer’s numbers since coming over to the Royals (an ERA of 7.85 and an opponent’s batting average of .349), and Ned’s decision to go with Herrera is understandable.

A manager’s job is not being perfect, that’s not possible; a manager’s job is to look at the available options and pick the one most likely to succeed.

Ned picked Herrera and it didn’t work out.

So what’s up with Herrera?

Nobody knows for sure what’s inside a player’s head and sometimes that includes the player. But armchair psychologists can look at Kelvin Herrera and say he doesn’t look like a closer.

In recent years Royals fans have seen two of the best and Herrera does not have the same mound presence as Wade Davis or Greg Holland.

But if you’re looking for something a little more concrete than facial expressions, try this: on Thursday night Herrera threw nine straight fastballs before throwing a change-up and getting a groundout.

Then, with Francisco Lindor at the plate, Herrera threw five more fastballs before Lindor hit the fifth one off the left-field wall for a game-tying double. The 2-2 fastball was supposed to down and away and if Herrera had gotten it there it might have worked, but the fastball was up and Lindor smoked it.

One of the theories floating around on Twitter is that Herrera is hurt, but Thursday night he hit 98 on the gun and his last fastball was 97 mph.

But no matter how hard a pitcher throws, if hitters don’t have to worry about seeing off-speed pitches for strikes, even the best fastballs can get timed up.

Maurer got the loss

If it makes anyone feel better — and it shouldn’t — Brandon Maurer was brought in to pitch the 10th inning and gave up a double, a walk, and another double and lost the game before getting an out.

Starting pitcher Jake Junis was once again very good; he threw 5  2/3 innings while allowing just one earned run.

But the last time the Royals got more than five innings out of their starting pitcher was also the last time Junis pitched. When a starting pitcher goes three innings — and that’s what Eric Skoglund did Wednesday — it forces a manager to burn up his bullpen and that means those relievers might not be available the next day.

Want to know why Kelvin Herrera was pitching the ninth inning on Thursday night?

Because Ned Yost didn’t have any one better available.