It’s time for me to throw my hat into the ring, joining those who are worried about Joakim Soria.
After Tuesday’s debacle, I’m not just worried… I’m frightened.
For starters, Soria is falling behind in the count early. Baseball-Reference only charts the extremes, but even these numbers are staggering. Here is Soria’s percentage of plate appearances that begin with an 0-2 count since his rookie year:
2007 – 25%
2008 – 32%
2009 – 34%
2010 – 35%
2011 – 11%
Whoa. A full third of all plate appearances last year against Soria started with an 0-2 count. This year, he’s not just down… He’s waaaay down.
Now look at the percentage of plate appearances that start out 3-0:
2007 – 3%
2008 – 4%
2009 – 5%
2010 – 5%
2011 – 8%
Not as dramatic as the dip in 0-2 counts, but still… The increase in the number of plate appearances that start 3-0 alone would be enough to set off alarm bells. As I said, those are extreme counts, but it’s a snapshot to the larger picture. Soria is falling behind in the count much more frequently than he did in past seasons. And he’s paying for this.
Then, there are his walk and strikeout totals. For the season, he has a 4.8 BB/9. His career average entering this season was 2.5 BB/9 and he’s never been above 2.7 BB/9 in a single season. Of course, when you see an increase in 3-0 counts, it stands to reason your walk rate will jump.
And when Soria is falling behind, he’s abandoning his secondary pitches for his cut fastball. He’s throwing the cutter 88 percent of the time when he’s behind in the count. That’s not a difficult mystery to solve if you’re a hitter. Just wait until Soria falls behind in the count and then sit cutter. Nine times out of ten, that’s the pitch you will see.
While the walk rate is alarming, the downturn in strikeouts is a Code Blue. He’s owns a paltry 5.8 SO/9. Entering this season, his career strikeout rate was 9.9 SO/9. He’s lost over four strikeouts per game. We are almost a third of the way through the season… This can no longer be attributed to small sample size. (Honestly, all stats involving relievers deal in small sample sizes.) Yes, he’s thrown more strikeouts this month, but his walk totals have increased as well.
Remember the dip in 0-2 counts? Maybe it’s better that that’s happening this year. Hitters own a line of .571/.625/.857 when Soria jumps to an 0-2 head start. Are you kidding? Overall, when Soria has two strikes on a hitter, he’s just not putting them away. The opposition is hitting .345/.457/.517 against Soria when he has two strikes. Unreal.
We also have to go back to his pitch selection. Two years ago, according to Fangraphs (and my own damn eyes) Soria’s best pitch was his curveball. It was a pitch he threw almost 12 percent of the time. Last year, he started moving away from the curve and featured a slider more frequently. As that happened, his curve became less effective. Last summer, his slider was his best pitch. This year, the exact same thing is happening. He’s now throwing his curve just four percent of the time. Again, it’s turned from an asset to a liability.
This post only tells part of the story as I’ve illustrated how Soria is struggling. It’s the why that is so confounding. Is it mechanics? Is it injury? Or is it regression to mean? None of this tells us why on a 1-2 pitch to Adam Jones, Soria tossed a belt high cutter right down the middle of the plate. I don’t think I’ve ever seen Soria leave a pitch in that location.
It’s troubling and disheartening at the same time.
The only way the Royals make a change is if Soria hits the disabled list. Honestly, that probably wouldn’t be a bad idea to give him a break so he can sort things out. Or rest if his issues are injury related. Nervous Ned isn’t going to dump his Proven Closer after a couple of shaky months. Even if the evidence says he should. Yost is too automatic with his bullpen to start shifting roles. Nope… The only way Soria is removed from the ninth inning role is if he goes on the DL.
This is Exhibit A for why any second division team with a quality, Proven Closer, should be actively exploring a trade. Closers (and by extension, relievers) have an extremely difficult time repeating success. For every Mariano Rivera, there’s a Frank Francisco. And a George Sherrill. The point is, consistent closers are rare. If you’re lucky enough to land one, you better be in a position to win. Otherwise, it’s a waste of resources. Dayton Moore is learning another lesson the hard way.