There’s been just a little bit of worry regarding Joakim Soria in the early going this season. For starters, there’s that ugly blown save last week against the White Sox where he coughed up a three run lead. Then, there was his following appearance where he surrendered yet another run (yet still got the all-important save) against the Tigers. My Twitter feed practically exploded after that one… The consensus being that something wasn’t right with the Royals closer.
A couple of things seem to be happening here…
First, Soria has begun to mix a cut fastball that is a notch slower than his normal cut fastball. I was alerted to this point by Pitch F/x guru Mike Fast who mentioned he introduced a cut fastball that averaged around 87 mph in August of last year. That’s quite a bit slower from his normal cutter that lives around 91 mph. However, Mike doesn’t seem to think the reduced velocity is an issue for the closer – the slower cutter actually has a little more action to it.
In other words, don’t sweat the speed difference. If you check his player page at Fangraphs, you’ll notice he has, in fact, lost a couple of mph off his average cut fastball. If he truly introduced this slower version of his pitch last August, then the loss in velocity may not be anyting to worry about, as long as he still has his cutting movement. The last two months of the season Soria posted a 0.79 ERA with 23 strikeouts in 22.2 innings.
Second, is his swinging strike percentage. Long time readers will know I’m all about missing bats. (Perhaps it’s a natural reaction to the Royals “pitch to contact” scheme of the early 90’s.) Here are Soria’s swing and miss rates from the last three seasons:
A trend like that is never positive for a pitcher, no matter the role.
Perhaps this is a matter of location. Check out the plane of his “average” cutter from a period of a couple of weeks in September of last year:
Compare that to the plane from his first several appearances of 2011:
He appears to be catching a little more of the plate. So it makes sense that he’s not missing as many bats.
The good news about his location is he started almost exactly the same way last season. If you remember, his first 12 or so outings were very average – for him at least. And his rough patch culminated with surrendering back to back home runs in that wild game against Texas. His ERA at that point was a gaudy 4.15. From then to the rest of the season it was a more Soria-like 1.20.
And even when he was dominating in mid summer last year, he would go through occasional stretches where he wasn’t missing many bats. Usually, the reduction in swings and misses would begin to appear when he was used frequently. There was a stretch in mid-August where his swing and miss rate was around 6%. That was in the same stretch where he pitched six times in ten days.
So, yes, Soria’s swing and miss rate is lower in the early going this season, but he’s been used seven times in the Royals first nine games. That’s a lot of usage. Fortunately, it’s early in the season where there are a few off days built into the schedule. He didn’t pitch in the opener but from the second game to the ninth, he got three days of rest – two of those days were off days for the team. Blame the rash of extra inning contests and late game rallies by the Royals.
What I’m trying to say is it’s a little to early to start worrying about Soria. He will go through patches like this from time to time and the increased workload certainly hasn’t helped. If we get to the end of May and he’s still not missing enough bats, then maybe I’ll start to worry.