The Royals might miss the playoffs. That shouldn’t be news. It’s been a distinct possibility for months now. But after Wednesday night’s loss to a miserable Minnesota team, it seems to be the consensus. I’m not giving up all hope just yet, as Kansas City is still just four games out of a playoff spot, albeit with just 23 games left. They have little margin for error.
Plenty of the blame for this situation is being laid at the feet of Joakim Soria, who blew the lead in Wednesday night’s game and has really struggled this season. This piece is not meant to defend Soria (well, OK, maybe a little bit) because he has not been what I would consider good. Here are the facts: Soria has eight losses this year, a lot for a late-innings reliever. His ERA is 4.13, his WHIP is 1.459, and he’s allowed nine home runs in 61 innings. On the other hand, his WARP of 0.8 actually ranks him sixth on the Royals’ pitching staff, ahead of every reliever not named Kelvin Herrera (admittedly, part of that is that he has more appearances than any reliever not named Kelvin Herrera). And his DRA of 3.94 is actually lower than his ERA, suggesting some bad luck.
But still, I think we can all agree that Soria has struggled this year, and it would probably be wise for Ned Yost to stop using him in high-leverage situations (such as a one-run lead with the top of the order coming up, as happened in Wednesday’s game). Although as our Clark Fosler pointed out the other day, injuries such as the one to Luke Hochevar have perhaps forced Yost into using guys in situations he’d rather not use them in.
Certainly, if the Royals do miss the playoffs, Soria will be a reason. But the reason? I would say no. As I said, the Royals are four games out of a playoff spot. So here’s a thought experiment: are there five games they could have won which Soria did not affect? Five games that, had things gone differently, put the Royals in a playoff spot?
Why yes, yes there are.
How about April 20, a Wednesday night at home against Detroit? Ian Kennedy allowed two runs in 6 1/3 innings, but the Royals’ offense could do nothing against Jordan Zimmermann. They did get a nice scoring chance in the fifth, when Alex Gordon and Salvador Perez began the inning with singles. But Omar Infante (remember him?) failed to get a bunt down and ended up striking out. Jarrod Dyson hit a grounder to second baseman Ian Kinsler, who couldn’t tag Perez and instead threw to first for the out. While Perez was in a rundown between first and second, Gordon tried to score but was thrown out by a good 10 feet. Soria pitched a scoreless eighth before Chien-Ming Wang gave up a run in the ninth. Gordon and Perez hit solo homers in the ninth but the Royals still lost, 3-2. This game has the added indignity of coming against a team the Royals are now chasing.
Then there’s April 29, a Friday night game in Seattle. You could say that, given the pitching matchup, this would probably be a loss anyway. But Kris Medlen, Danny Duffy, Soria, and Hochevar combined to limit the Mariners to one hit. Meanwhile, the Royals collected six hits, three walks, and two Seattle errors while facing Felix Hernandez and two relievers. But Kansas City went 0-11 with runners in scoring position. That one Mariners hit? A solo home run by Seth Smith off Medlen. And a 1-0 final.
A slightly higher-scoring game came on May 25. This was also a Wednesday in Minnesota. In this game, Dillon Gee allowed three runs in the first two innings. But the Royals exploded for five runs in the fourth. Gee couldn’t hold the lead, allowing one run in the fourth and then a single and Miguel Sano home run to start the fifth. The Royals did nothing else and lost 7-5. If any loss to the Twins is considered fatal to the Royals’ playoff chances, then this certainly counts.
Given how poorly the Royals played in July (7-19), you’d expect a game or two from that month to make this list. How about July 6 in Toronto? Sure, it’s tough to beat the Blue Jays at Rogers Centre, but this was a winnable game. Kennedy did an admirable job limiting the Blue Jays to two runs in six innings. The Royals were hitless through five innings against Marcus Stroman before Brett Eibner led off the sixth with a walk. Alcides Escobar came up with the first hit, a run-scoring triple. But with the tying run at third and no one out, Jarrod Dyson grounded out. Gordon grounded out. And Whit Merrifield struck out. Eibner homered to tie the game in the eighth, but Herrera gave up two runs in the bottom of the eighth and the Royals lost 4-2.
OK, one more. How about July 30 in Texas? The Royals got two hits and two groundouts for one run in the first inning; they managed three hits the rest of the game. Meanwhile, they grounded into three double plays and went 0-5 with runners in scoring position. The Rangers tied the score in the third. They untied it in the ninth, when Mitch Moreland homered off Brooks Pounders with two outs in the ninth for a 2-1 win.
I thought Soria would be a useful bullpen piece, although I expected him to pitch more in the sixth or seventh innings. I wouldn’t say he’s had a bad year, more of an average to slightly below average year. But he’s certainly struggled in key spots. The point of this exercise is not to excuse Soria’s performance this year. No, the point is that over 162 games, there are going to be plenty of games that a team feels like they should have won. There are plenty of plays that make a difference between winning and losing. The Royals went 7-19 in July, struggled pretty much all year to find a reliable fifth starter, and battled injuries to key players. They showed plenty of heart just by playing well enough in August to get back in the playoff race, but if they do fall short, it’s ridiculous to blame just one player for it.