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Singles Night

The Big Blue Machine rolled into Baltimore itching for a fight, but couldn’t solve a pitcher with a 6.93 ERA and were walked off into the harbor. It was the second loss on the road trip, both of which were walkoffs that were ignited by the formerly reliable Joakim Soria.

It has not been a good couple of days for the Royals eighth inning man.

In his two years back in a Royals uniform, Soria has formed a cottage industry of sorts of Royal bullpen angst. It seems he’s not to be trusted, Yost should be fired for using him under any circumstances, and he is responsible for some of the more notorious crimes against humanity in the 21st century.

(Sorry. Let’s step back from the ledge. Together.)

First, let’s put to rest the idea that Soria is awful in high leverage situations. From Baseball Reference:

Leverage
Split PA AB R H 2B 3B HR BB SO SO/W BA OBP SLG OPS BAbip sOPS+
High Lvrge 95 88 14 23 2 0 1 6 25 4.17 .261 .305 .318 .623 .349 68
Medium Lvrge 42 37 1 9 1 0 0 4 10 2.50 .243 .333 .270 .604 .333 65
Low Lvrge 54 50 4 11 2 0 0 4 20 5.00 .220 .278 .260 .538 .367 47
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 8/1/2017.

As usual, the number to focus on is the sOPS+ which is Soria’s split relative to the league. For pitchers, a number lower than 100 is good. Here, Soria does 41 percent better than the league in high leverage situations. Another takeaway is the fact he’s faced 95 batters in this scenario, almost as many plate appearances in medium and low leverage situations combined. Yet Soria has surrendered 14 runs in the high leverage situations, and just five runs otherwise.

This suggests a death by 1,000 paper cuts. Or in this case over 20 singles.

Monday’s loss was the result of three singles, the last two of which were perfectly placed. The Craig Gentry knock that was for the walkoff was a little corkscrew job that left the bat at 79 mph and a launch angle of seven degrees. Balls hit with those characteristics are hits roughly 34 percent of the time. In this case, it was hit in the perfect location relative to where the Royals infield was aligned. Unfortunate.

Soria had a hand in three other losses in the last month.

On July 29 in Boston, Soria gave up a couple of well-struck singles on balls that go for hits 58 percent of the time. With runners on first and third Mookie Betts barreled one to center for a sacrifice fly that scored the tying run.

On July 16 against the Rangers, Soria gave up a well-struck ball for a double to Elvis Andrus, but induced a ground ball from Nomar Mazara that left the bat at 84 mph. That ball goes for a hit around 49 percent of the time. Blown save.

On July 8 in Los Angeles, tasked with protecting a one run lead, Soria surrendered a home run to Cody Bellinger. Yeah, that one was barreled.

In the just completed month of July, Soria appeared in 14 games and posted a 2.63 ERA with a 13 to 1 SO:BB ratio. The Royals won 11 of the games where Soria pitched, and lost three. Yet all anyone is going to remember are the blown saves. Such is life. That he blew saves in two of the three games of the month where he was pitching in his highest average Leverage Index shouldn’t be a surprise. The average in the aLI comes from Soria’s performance. Sometimes you live on the tightrope. Sometimes you fall.

The point is, Soria hasn’t gotten the results he has perhaps deserved. Weak contact at inopportune times has doomed him, especially in the last month.The numbers absolutely bear this out. Overall, the league is hitting .245 on ground balls in 2017. Soria has allowed a .333 batting average on grounders.

So now we move to the psyche of the reliever. Not to go all Uncle Hud in this space, but you can tell these cheap knocks and blown saves are weighing on Soria. The shrug of the shoulders again on Monday after Gentry’s hit carried the vibe of “what else can I do?” It’s not like you can blame Soria for feeling snakebit. The dude is watching balls find holes at an alarmingly high rate in increasingly important situations. So the question is can Ned Yost and the Royals continue putting Soria into these high leverage situations where the doubt lingers in the back of his mind.

With newcomers Brandon Maurer and Ryan Buchter, along with Peter Moylan, Scott Alexander and Mike Minor, it feels like Yost has plenty of options, should he decide to open up the eight inning to a little competition. And at this point, that needs to happen. It’s not that Soria can’t get it done anymore. It’s that he probably needs a little mental break. Managers will shuffle a lineup from time to time to try to get a hitter going (um, Alex Gordon) but in this case Yost seems hesitant (again) to move Soria off the role of set-up man. However, this is different than last season. The Royals are in the playoff hunt and can ill afford to waste many more games on a reliever who doesn’t trust his outcome. The numbers above show Soria is largely the same pitcher, no matter the leverage. So maybe it’s just a matter of putting him in a situation where if he gets nicked by a few singles, it’s not going to impact the ballgame.

Move Soria to whatever role, but the fact remains this is a different group of relievers than the one that dominated in 2015. They allow more runners.

WHIP is a fantasy baseball stat that doesn’t have any kind of predictive value, but it can sometimes be useful (or interesting) in certain contexts. We know how dominant the Royals bullpens of the last couple of seasons have been, and it’s largely because they have been adept at keeping runners off base.

Year WHIP Rank
2014 1.24 13
2015 1.13 2
2016 1.28 13
2017 1.34 18

Another way to look at it is for every clean inning where a reliever retires the side, they have one inning where they allow around 2.7 base runners. Now of course you can’t have 0.7 base runners, but that just means they are giving up a string of hits in an individual frame. Kind of just like we saw from Soria on Monday. Compare that to 2015 where you could say a clean inning was followed up with an inning of around 2.3 base runners. That 0.7 suddenly seems important, because that’s the one that’s usually bringing a runner home. The margin of error always exists, but now with the bullpen allowing more base runners, they are going to fail at a higher rate than we’ve seen in the past. It’s a simplistic way of looking at the situation, but it’s an attempt to explain the difference in the bullpens from year to year. Other teams are allowed on the tracks to drive their own singles train, you know.

This year’s Royals bullpen isn’t as dominant or as good as recent vintages, but Soria still represents a key arm. The Royals will need him to keep his confidence as they push to the postseason. The alternatives may not be much better, but it’s time to at least look at what the other bullpen arms offer in the set-up role.

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