The Plan: Comparing HDH Last Year and Now

It’s a simple formula, and one that the Royals leaned on en route to their first playoff appearance in 29 years.

Get a lead. Pitch Kelvin Herrera in the seventh inning. Pitch Wade Davis in the eighth. Finish it off with Greg Holland.

In the ALCS, the trio – referred to by Orioles fans as “cyborgs” on more than one occasion – shut down the Baltimore lineup and recorded two wins and four saves. That’s where the national media really started to notice.

After last season, the Royals – as expected – stuck with the same blueprint to begin 2015, but on occasion there have been concerns that they aren’t using the trio as frequently. So I wanted to go digging and see just how often the Royals are employing the trio and how it compared to last season.

The result? Last year, Herrera, Davis, and Holland pitched in the same game 25 times in the regular season (15.4%). In the 2014 postseason, they worked together in all but two games (but the postseason is a different animal, with off days and less incentive to save an arm for tomorrow).

The most common utilization that developed in 2014 consisted of Herrera pitching a scoreless seventh inning, Davis a scoreless eighth to preserve the lead, and Holland closing out the game in the ninth. That happened 13 times (if I allow for times when Herrera started the sixth inning and continued into the seventh, which only seems fair). Then there were games in which the relievers came in and held the opponent scoreless while the Royals came back to take a lead. That happened four times in 2014. When the Royals used HDH together in games, they went 23-2*. Herrera and Davis gave up no runs in those games. None. Zero. Holland gave up five runs, but only three were earned. They rattled off either a Hold-Hold-Save combination 14 times in 2014 with three more instances in which Herrera pitched the seventh after which the Royals would get the lead and Davis would get a hold and Holland a save, thus giving Herrera the win.

*That can be a little misleading, as HDH would usually only be in games when the Royals had the lead, which would have to be surrendered. If the Royals were trailing, they wouldn’t be used, so the losses that occurred wouldn’t be in that record.

In other words, when these three combined, it was automatic.

Now, I don’t think there’s a unique synergy between the three that leads to their combined dominance. There’s nothing that says that Holland getting a scoreless inning is dependent on Herrera or Davis pitching one, though I imagine there may be a slight element of pressure on an opposing team that didn’t get a lead in the first six innings and would then recognize that they had to face the fire-throwing hydra.

Now, the trio’s dominance seems obvious, but it took the Royals a bit of time to settle into the pattern.

Ned Yost is a manager concerned with roles. He’s of the mind that relievers work better when they know when they’ll be called upon and what situations they’ll have to deal with. Holland is the closer and is used exclusively in the ninth inning. Davis was recognized early as an eighth inning setup man (and in 2014, he pitched earlier than the eighth inning one time), But Herrera’s use varied.

The first time the Royals used HDH together was April 4, 2014 against the White Sox. Jeremy Guthrie loaded the bases with two outs (surprised?). Herrera came in, gave up a hit, but got a strikeout to stop the rally. Davis pitched the eighth and Holland the ninth. But it was Francisley Bueno and Aaron Crow who pitched in the seventh. HDH didn’t see the same game until more than three weeks later on April 30. Herrera pitched the seventh after Danny Duffy and Crow allowed the Blue Jays to tie the game. The Royals took the lead after Herrera pitched a scoreless seventh and DH handled the rest.

It wasn’t until mid-to-late June that the Royals finally settled into their HDH groove. Before June 15, the Royals had only used the three in the same game five times. After, they did so 20 times, including 13 times in a 35 game stretch from July 26 to September 3. August was an HDH month.

Last season Luke Hochevar was used in that eighth inning role and he posted a 1.92 ERA. But he tore the ulnar collateral ligament in his pitching elbow in March, so the plan had to be altered.

But once Davis began to have success in the role setting up Holland, “then it was like OK, find a way to get to the eighth inning,” Yost said. “And with Kelvin’s emergence this year, it’s like, ‘Let’s get through six.'”

– From USA Today, October 16, 2014

Overall, the Royals pitching staff covered 1450.2 innings. The bullpen threw 464 of those (31.99%), but HDH were the featured performers with 204.1 combined innings (14.06% of the Royals inning total) with 74 innings coming in games in which HDH all appeared. They allowed 29 total earned runs across all of their appearances, but the rest of the bullpen allowed 141 (in 259.2 innings).

It’s no surprise that Yost would lean on HDH when the rest of the bullpen performed so poorly. Crow didn’t give up a an earned run until his 20th appearance, but from that point, he had a 5.79 ERA (Crow had Tommy John surgery in March after a trade to Miami.) Jason Frasor was a solid acquisition to help add some depth to the bullpen, but he was never going to crack the HDH rotation.

And in the postseason, HDH pitched together in every game but one on the road to the World Series and in two of the Royals three wins against the Giants. They combined to cover 40.1 of the Royals’ 141 innings in the postseason (28.6%).

“For me, the whole focus is just get through the sixth inning tied or with the lead, so that we can get to those guys,” Manager Ned Yost said. “If we have the lead, I feel like the game is over. If we’re tied, I feel like they’re going to hold us there until we score a run.

From the New York Times, October 12, 2014

So, then, how does all of this compare to 2014?

I was surprised to find that the usage isn’t that much different than last year. This year, we’ve seen Holland go on the disabled list, Herrera get suspended, and Davis have some back issues. And still, the three have pitched in the same game 20 times in 141 games (14.1%) in 2015. And up until the September 9 game against the Twins, all of those games were wins.
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The “standard” usage hasn’t been quite the same though. This time, HDH has only had six Hold-Hold-Save combinations in the seventh, eighth, and ninth innings, though they do have seven games in which Davis got the win after Herrera had pitched with the Royals tied or behind.

Some of this year’s HDH moments have been by accident, that is, the Royals ended up using all three when it seems clear that they were trying to give one of the three a night off. Like July 21 against Pittsburgh. This was the game in which Jason Vargas started but blew out his elbow in the second inning. Joe Blanton had to cover 3.2 innings for him, and, after Ryan Madson pitched the sixth, Herrera tried to cover the seventh and eighth. He gave way to Davis, who faced one batter and struck him out, before Holland got the save in the ninth.

Or July 25 when Madson pitched the seventh with the Royals trailing 0-1 and held Houston scoreless. The Royals tied it in the bottom of the inning, which got Davis and Holland for the eighth and ninth. Herrera pitched the top of the tenth, after which the Royals got a walkoff win. There’s also August 22 when Davis set up for Herrera with the Royals up 6-2. But Herrera hit a batter and walked Pablo Sandoval with two outs, which put the tying run on deck, which brought out Holland for the save (Herrera had also thrown 25 pitches after the Sandoval walk). In those cases, the Royals tried to use just two of the three but ended up using all three anyway.

Unlike last season, however, the Royals have the luxury of a deeper bullpen. Ryan Madson has acted as an honorary member of HDH often this season, and Luke Hochevar has been mostly solid in his first season back from Tommy John Surgery. Many fans have extended the acronym to include one of both, as in HMHDH.

That has given Yost some leeway in using HDH. Holland’s had velocity issues and arm soreness all year. He’s had some stretches of no activity, even if he wasn’t placed on the DL. Davis has been unavailable here and there. Herrera, Davis, and Holland have thrown 162.1 innings combined through Sunday, 12.88% of the Royals’ 1260.1 innings as a staff. They’ve allowed a total of 40 earned runs. The rest of the bullpen has thrown 302.2 innings and allowed 99 earned runs. A much better balance than last season.

This year, Yost has opted to give guys a day off here or there. With a large division lead, he can go with the next best option and feel fine (again, a deeper bullpen makes this much easier, but running away with a division is a lot different than trying to catch a wild card spot). Yost also uses HDH in ways that optimize their situations. They usually start with a clean inning, free from the stress of runners on (though Herrera is most likely to be used with runners on).

So what does it all mean? The two things I noticed in looking at the game logs were as follows: 1) I thought the Royals had used HDH more often last season. 2) I didn’t think they’d used them nearly as often this season. Is there meaning in that? Or is it just how things work out? There have been situations where the Royals could have used their bullpen differently and chose different combinations. There were games in the past two seasons when the Royals starter went seven or more innings, preventing any HDH combo.

The Royals are going to lean on this trio again this postseason, and I expect it to be effective. It’s a blueprint for success that’s worked regularly already, and the Royals have had little reason to change it up (and no plans to, either). The Royals found a bullpen plan and between last year and this year, they’ve stuck to it in about the same way.

Below is a spreadsheet noting every instance in which HDH pitched in the same game between last year, last postseason, and this season (so far):