Everything was trending up for Kelvin Herrera.
It was April 16 and the flame-throwing right-hander already owned a win, two saves and two holds. He had struck out at least two batters in four of his first six appearances of the 2013 season and had yet to give up a run.
And all this was coming off the 2012 season in which he was one of baseball’s best setup men. Last season, Herrera pitched to a 4-3 record with a 2.35 ERA, 1.19 WHIP and struck out 77 in 84.1 innings.
Herrera entered the eighth inning of the game in Atlanta with the score tied at 2. He was ready to blow away the heart of the Braves’ lineup with his blazing fastball.
However, after recording the first out of the inning, Jason Heyward and Justin Upton caught up to Herrera’s heater for back-to-back home runs. After another out, Dan Uggla went deep for the third home run of the inning.
Herrera finished the day with 0.2 innings pitched, 3 hits (all home runs), 4 runs and 1 walk. To put things in perspective, Kelvin only allowed four home runs all of last year.
Just a blip on the radar screen, right? Every pitcher has a bad outing once in a while.
After a scoreless inning the next day against the Braves, Herrera had another stinker, this time against the Boston Red Sox. He entered the game in the eighth inning with a runner on base, two outs and the Royals leading 2-1. Following a walk to the first batter he faced, Herrera served up a home run to Daniel Nava and the Red Sox went on to win 4-3.
In 10 appearances after the April 20 game against Boston, Herrera gave up an earned run in five of them and served up four more home runs. His struggles with the long ball eventually led to his demotion to Triple-A Omaha on May 22.
He had doubled his home run total from 2012 and that was a serious problem in the eyes of Royals management. He needed to go down to the minors and work out the kinks.
“He got to the point by not having confidence in his fastball to where he was trying to overthrow it, so he needs to just smooth his mechanics a little bit and really just go down and have some success,” Manager Ned Yost told the media after Herrera’s demotion. “He’s very young, too, and a big part of our ‘pen, so we need to get him straightened out. Get a little bit of his swagger back and bring him back.”
Aaron Crow served as the eighth-inning reliever while Herrera was in the minors. He has struggled as well, with a 4.11 ERA and a 1.47 WHIP in 16.1 innings.
Crow had a meltdown of his own on May 29 against St. Louis, giving up 5 hits, 4 ER, and 1 HR in a 5-3 loss.
Meanwhile, at Omaha, Herrera appeared in five games, logging 4.2 innings. He gave up 2 hits, 3 walks, and struck out six. Most importantly, no home runs and no earned runs.
The Royals saw what they needed to see from Herrera and recalled him from Triple-A on Tuesday.
Now that he is back, the Royals should give Herrera a shot to regain his setup role. On Wednesday, Ned Yost called on Herrera to pitch the eighth with a 4-1 lead over the Twins. He retired the side in order with one strikeout.
With Herrera’s success in the minors, as demonstrated by the numbers, he should have some of his swagger back. That could be a huge boost for the free-falling Royals.