Ask most Royals fans what’s wrong with Joakim Soria and they’ll tell you that he’s not very good. Some will put it a bit less kindly than that, but that’s the consensus. And they’re right. In 2016, he hasn’t been very good. Sure, there have been stretches. He had a 2.15 ERA from April 29 through the All-Star break. In 11 appearances from August 5 through August 28, he didn’t give up a run in 10.1 innings with 13 strikeouts. But more often than you’d like from a guy often asked to protect a small lead in the late innings, he hasn’t come through.
Ned Yost said the other day that it was because he was using him too often, and while Yost might truly believe that, the numbers don’t back it up. Well, that’s not entirely true, but it’s hard to give the kind of rest the numbers say Soria needs given the needs of the bullpen. In games through Monday, here’s what Soria’s numbers looked like based on days of rest:
|Days Rest||G||ERA||WHIP||OPS vs.|
So maybe there is something to the idea that he could use more rest, but again, it’s hard to throw a guy one day and give him two days off very often when he’s supposed to be one of your big three in the back of the bullpen. Let’s put a pin in that theory and deal with it another day.
Another theory is that relievers are volatile and they tend to just kind of lose effectiveness sometimes. We see it quite often, and Soria is no spring chicken in baseball terms at 32 years old and with two Tommy John procedures under his belt (okay, maybe not under his belt, they were in his elbow). It sure looked like he figured something out in his time in Pittsburgh as so many pitchers do when working with pitching coach Ray Searage. It just hasn’t carried over to this year at all. His DRA says he’s probably been a bit better than his numbers would indicate, but not that much better.
I personally think part of his whole issue is that he just needs to start fresh. He was horrible his first time out, and that’s kind of stuck with him. You’re always able to tell when he isn’t “on” that night because he gets very slow and deliberate in everything he does. Getting to start with a 0.00 ERA next April seems like something that will help him out. But I think there’s more to it than just simply losing it or needing a fresh start to a season.
With that in mind, there’s a different trend that I haven’t seen much conversation regarding. Soria had allowed a .284/.373/.534 line to right-handed bats and a .242/.308/.358 line to lefties. I didn’t remember him struggling with righties before, and sure enough, his career numbers prior to this season showed he allowed a .210/.274/.321 to righties compared to .215/.262/.339 to lefties. That’s essentially no split.
Okay, so what’s different now? I visited Brooks Baseball to understand how he pitched lefties and righties to see if there was anything that stood out. And, oh yes, there was. Just looking at his repertoire, you’ll see that he throws his fastball a lot, more than 60 percent of the time. He also has a changeup, slider and a curve. But the way he utilizes his pitches is different when facing different batters. Here are the charts leading into Tuesday’s game.
Soria hasn’t thrown a ton of sliders this year, obviously. In fact, he’d thrown just 98 of them heading him into Tuesday’s game with the A’s. But still, he’d allowed a .409 average and a .727 SLG on the slider compared with a .150 average and .250 slugging percentage on the changeup. He’s also allowed a .325 average and .571 slugging percentage on his fastball overall, but that drops to .296 and .437 against lefties, where he has an actual weapon to use against them aside from the fastball. For what it’s worth, the curve is still very good against everyone.
In his career, the slider has been a strikeout weapon for him. Prior to this season, 18.9 percent of his strikeouts against right-handed bats came using that slider. This season? Just 7.3 percent of his strikeouts of righties have come using the slider. It simply isn’t performing for him.
But the question you might be asking yourself now is how exactly is a pitch that he throws less than 10 percent of the time overall causing him these kinds of problems. I think we all know Soria’s fastball isn’t dominant. Yes, he’s throwing it harder than ever before, but it’s just not the type of fastball you see from so many late inning relievers these days. He was always sort of the outsider as the closer without that big, dynamic fastball. It takes his breaking pitches and off-speed pitches to make it work. Sure he throws it a lot and always has, but the fear of any of his other pitches being able to make a hitter look silly had allowed his fastball to play up.
First, here’s him trying to throw his slider to Byung-Ho Park very early in the season. It got mauled.
Maybe partially because he didn’t feel he had the slider to throw with two-strikes, he left a fastball away out over the plate enough to Mike Trout that he was able to do all sorts of damage against.
He doesn’t have that weapon against right-handed bats anymore because the slider just isn’t working. Take a look at this homer from Justin Upton last week against the Tigers. It’s a fastball down that maybe shouldn’t be hit out of the park, but it was, and part of why it was is because Upton didn’t need to worry about anything off speed there. He could sit on the fastball, no matter the location
Look, I’m not trying to blow smoke up your you know what and say that the only reason Soria hasn’t been good is because his slider isn’t working, but I kind of believe it’s the base of his issues. He’s clearly not having many problems against lefties, and I think it’s because he’s able to utilize his changeup to keep the hitters off balance and not sit on the fastball.
I mean, look at this home run he allowed to Nelson Cruz. I think that’s a changeup, a pitch that’s been very good this year. Although not having the breaking ball could make the change even easier to sit on for a right-handed bat. Either way, he’s not making good pitches, in spite of what he says after every seemingly single disappointing outing.
If you want some more evidence about his slider, let’s take a gander at spin rates because those are always fun to mess with. Baseball Savant data only goes back to 2008, so there is no rookie year for Soria listed on his sliders thrown, but of the 681 listed by Baseball Savant, only four of the sliders he’s thrown this year are in the top 100 for spin rate. That seems bad. And even that doesn’t tell the story. Not one of his top 67 sliders thrown by spin rate have come in 2016. That’s right, the most spin he’s gotten on a slider this year is the 68th most he’s gotten on any slider since 2008.
If you were wondering, the four top 100 sliders he’s thrown this year have resulted in a foul ball, a ball, a called strike and a groundout. By contrast, 16 of his lowest 100 spin rates on sliders have come this season. Interestingly enough, he hasn’t allowed a single hit on those, but they were mostly taken for balls, and it’s probably because hitters were able to pick them up so easily. Of the 94 swinging strikes he’s gotten on his slider since 2008, just six have come this season.
The spin rate part is just interesting to me, showing that his slider just doesn’t have the same deception it once did. I really believe that’s what’s causing the bulk of his issues. You can make mistakes when hitters don’t know what to expect, but when they know you have to throw a fastball, it’s going to get hit. And when you make mistakes on the other pitches, those are often going to get hit anyway.
My suggestion to Soria is to look into developing a cutter this off-season. It’s a pitch that’s fairly easy to learn if you already throw a slider (easy is relative, of course), and could help to provide some more deception to right-handed bats than he’s currently getting with his slider. It should help his fastball play up a little more and make him just a bit tougher for a right-handed bat to square up. What’s interesting is that Soria has thrown a cutter in the past, so maybe it’s more that he’s re-developing the pitch. In 2010, arguably his best season, he used it somewhat sparingly but enough to keep hitters honest. Then in 2011, usage ramped up. 2011 was one of his worst seasons, but the cutter wasn’t the reason, though the numbers against it were worse than in 2010. Either way, he’s thrown one before.
Pitchers have to adjust as they age. This is no different. And if he doesn’t adjust, a very good career looks like it’ll end with a thud. That’s not good for the Royals. They need more than a thud for that money.