Now Kelvin Herrera Is Almost Impossible

Pretty obviously, it’s too early to learn much from our 2016 regular-season sample sizes. In most cases, we just need to be patient until the sample sizes grow, over the course of weeks or months. We go through this every single year, and it’s just part of re-transitioning into the baseball routine. But what if we could work backwards? Take Kelvin Herrera. What if we could increase his sample size by including last year’s playoffs? It sounds weird, but I’ll tell you why it’s possible: Just in time for the playoffs, Herrera started doing something. He’s continued that something into 2016, and it’s made him unfair.

I’m not even deterred by the fact that I wrote about this last October. I generally don’t like repetition, but it’s a new year, now, and Herrera’s keeping it up. So I won’t stop until more people understand that Kelvin Herrera now possesses a reliable breaking ball, and that goes with his blazing heater and high-80s changeup. The breaker comes in around 81 – 84, and based on what we can see, this is turning Herrera into a monster.

Herrera’s story is similar to that of many relievers. He has a good fastball, and he’s long had a good second pitch. Where, for many relievers, the second pitch is a slider, for Herrera it’s been his changeup. Regardless, the problem was finding a third weapon worth a damn. Herrera used to dabble with a low-80s curveball. Last year, he messed around with a high-80s slider. They weren’t quite what he was looking for. Then the 2015 playoffs began.

I’m not exaggerating when I say this happened almost overnight: The ALDS started, and Herrera revealed this hybrid breaking ball. It’s like he was saving it for the playoffs. And he didn’t just flash it from time to time; he went to it consistently, and he’s continued to do so early in 2016. If you look through Herrera’s history, it’s as if he blended his old curve and his newer slider into a breaking-ball compromise. This one, he seems to like, with a curveball’s speed and horizontal break, and something more like a slider’s drop.

In last year’s regular season, Herrera threw 76% heaters, 18% changeups, and 6% breaking balls. Since the start of the playoffs, he’s thrown 65% heaters, 10% changeups, and 25% breaking balls. Just a third of those breaking balls have been thrown in two-strike counts, so Herrera has used them in all situations. This is a high-octane reliever, now with a starter’s repertoire. Batters have to be aware of three different speeds, and the numbers reflect how difficult that is.

Remember when Herrera really seemed to emerge in 2014? He struck out 22% of his opponents.

Remember how Herrera kept it up through 2015? He struck out 22% of his opponents.

Then came the breaking ball. This is where I’m going to combine the sample sizes. Since the start of last year’s playoffs, Herrera has struck out 39% of his opponents. He’s also, for whatever it’s worth, trimmed his walks. He’s just been better. It was always a little strange that Herrera didn’t punch more batters out. Now he is, and the Royals bullpen is getting additional help it didn’t even need.

Watch Herrera throw a perfect strike to Luis Valbuena:

That pitch was supposed to be a strike. Herrera isn’t trying to bury this thing all the time, like other pitchers. He trusts it in the zone. Now for an idea of something more indirect, here’s a 1-and-1 breaker to Preston Tucker:

That’s a pretty good take. It wasn’t a bad pitch — it was just a ball, but it wasn’t the sort of ball Tucker could just eliminate, especially having just seen the pitch to Valbuena. Herrera got Tucker thinking about 81. So then, right after, Tucker was late on 97.

It’s not always about executing every single pitch right away. Every pitch doesn’t have to be a strike; every pitch just needs to set up another pitch. The way Herrera’s repertoire now works together, hitters have more to think about, with an extraordinary fastball but also a breaker at about 84% the speed. And it’s not like the changeup has gone away. It’s just used a little less, just like the fastball. Something had to give to make room for this slurve, and it looks like the slurve is going to stick around. I’m not sure why it wouldn’t.

The Royals have loved Kelvin Herrera for a while. His fastball made him hard to hit square, and every so often, he’d work in this unhittable changeup. Herrera first thrived in the postseason spotlight with two pitches. Then he came back and thrived with three, and to this day he’s got the same three going. I don’t know if we can say he’s as good as Wade Davis, but I do know that the Royals don’t have to pick.

Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.

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Shirtless George Brett
6 years ago

Im with you, Jeff.

One of the things i was really looking forward to seeing this year was if Herrera kept using that breaking pitch and if it was going to be as effective as it was in the playoffs. It really could be a game changer.