Joakim Soria was not the greatest Rule 5 pick of all time. He may not have been the best Rule 5 pick of last season, depending on whether or not Josh Hamilton can continue to tear baseballs and demons apart. But man, you’d be hard pressed to find a Rule 5 pick who, from the moment he first stepped on the mound in spring training, had people saying, “how the hell was he available?”
He was available only because he had spent essentially his entire career in the hinterlands of baseball:
I wonder if part of the reason is the fact that
Anyway, with Soria you didn’t have to wait until spring training to know that the Royals had pulled off a huge coup. The Royals almost didn’t get him in the first place; there was a growing buzz about him at the winter meetings even before the draft, and there was some talk the A’s (who had worked out a deal with Tampa Bay to select the first pick) would take him. Instead they took Ryan Goleski. Thanks, Billy – you owed us one. Forty-eight hours later Soria threw a perfect game in the Mexican winter league, and the hype had begun.
Not to toot my own horn – oh, who am I kidding, of course I’m tooting my own horn – this is what I wrote about Soria in last year’s Baseball Prospectus: “When contemplating Mexican League statistics, it’s important to remember three things: 1) While ostensibly a Triple-A league, the level of competition actually falls between Double-A and High-A; 2) The league, as a whole, is a tremendous hitters league, even more so than the old PCL; 3) There is tremendous variation in altitude between teams, which makes park effects extremely relevant. The first two points make it virtually impossible for hitters to cross the Rio Grande, but the third makes the adjustment for some pitchers surprisingly easy. Soria played in Mexico City, which at
Soria was available because
Soria made his debut on April 4th, in the Royals’ second game, with two men on base and the Royals down by two. He walked the first batter he faced, then gave up a sacrifice fly and a popout to end the inning. Two days later his name was called again, this time to start the 8th inning just after the Royals had broken a 1-1 tie with two runs. He allowed just a harmless single in a scoreless inning. Two days after that, Soria came in with two outs in the 7th, two men on and the Royals protecting a 2-0 lead; after walking the first batter, he stranded the bases loaded on a foul out, then pitched a perfect 8th inning.
And two days after that, Soria was so dominant in the eighth inning that Buddy Bell sent him out to pitch the ninth with a 6-3 lead; Soria retired the side in order again, striking out the last two hitters. Soria was the de facto closer from that point until Octavio Dotel’s return from the DL, and then returned to the role after Dotel was traded.
I suspect it’s highly unusual for a pitcher – any pitcher, let alone one who had never pitched above A-ball in the United States – to be utilized as his team’s primary setup man in his second major league outing. But to get the closer’s job in just your fourth appearance? That’s almost literally unprecedented. The only pitcher I’m aware of who earned the role more expeditiously was Salome Barojas, who was anointed the White Sox closer in spring training in 1982, despite the fact that he had never pitched in the majors. Five games into his major league career, Barojas had five saves; he finished with 21, which exceeded the total number of saves he would earn (14) in the rest of his career.
Soria’s a testament to good scouting – Louie Medina saw him in
Soria’s success is the product of an excellent cut fastball, a changeup that he hides very well and rides in on right-handed hitters, and with two strikes, the occasional sloooow curveball that he apparently borrowed from Zack Greinke. (Here’s an outstanding analysis of Soria’s repertoire.) And he throws all his pitches with precision. As one AL Central front office source told me after getting a look at Soria in April, “he’s the Mexican Zack Greinke.”
In terms of pure stuff, there’s really not much difference between the two, and the Royals considered moving both of them to the rotation late last year before splitting the difference, moving Greinke while leaving Soria alone. If anything, Soria’s a victim of his own success. He was so good in relief last year, and the Royals have such a long history of brutal closers stretching back to when Jeff Montgomery lost his stuff, that they don’t want to mess with a sure thing.
The question is: should they? It’s the classic dilemma in modern baseball: do you take a pitcher that has proven they can succeed in a high-leverage relief role, and move him to the rotation, where he might give you three times as many innings?
Soria threw 69 innings last year. Factor in two additional weeks that he spent on the DL for precautionary reasons more than anything else, and you figure he’s good for 75-80 innings as a reliever. Projecting any starter for more than 200 innings is risky anymore, so let’s say that he’s worth 200 innings in the rotation.
Now factor in leverage. A closer’s innings will be necessarily more valuable than a starter because (presumably) he is being leveraged in situations where a single run allowed has far more impact on the game than it would in, say, the first inning of a tie game. Fortunately, at Baseball Prospectus we have a statistic to measure that, conveniently called Leverage. Soria’s Leverage was 1.53 last year, so roughly speaking you can argue that his 69 innings were as important as 69*1.53=106 innings from a starting pitcher would be.
But Soria’s Leverage last year reflects the time he spent in middle relief as well as his time as the closer. The Leverage of the other four closers in the division last year ranged from 1.59 (Bobby Jenks) to 2.09 (Joe Borowski). A typical closer has a Leverage rating between 1.7 and 1.8. So Soria’s 75-80 innings in relief would be the equivalent of about 135 innings as a starter.
Then you have to account for the fact that, almost without exception, all pitchers will be more effective in relief than in the rotation. This is not a controversial statement, but the size of that difference might be surprising. Research that Nate Silver did as part of his annual improvements to PECOTA showed that, if you hold all other factors equal and move a reliever into the rotation, his ERA will rise a full 25%.
Now, Soria had a 2.48 ERA last season; tack on 25% and you’re at 3.10, and a starter with a 3.10 ERA is a damn sight more valuable than a reliever with a 2.48 ERA, Leverage be damned. But what if Soria’s true talent is more in the 3-3.5 ERA range? Would you rather have a closer with an ERA of 3.20, or a starter with an ERA of 4.00? In that case, you’d still want the starting pitcher. According to Nate, in fact, “a 2.00 ERA closer is roughly as valuable as a 3.69 ERA, 200-inning starting pitcher.”
Not all pitchers improve equally when moving from the rotation to the bullpen. As Nate found in a subsequent article, there are certain factors that make it more likely that a starting pitcher will blossom in relief. Those factors are 1) a high strikeout rate; 2) a high walk rate, i.e. poor command; 3) lots of isolated power, i.e. a flyball pitcher who gives up homers.
In other words, a pitcher with great stuff and little idea where the ball is going should see more improvement, moving from the rotation to the bullpen, than average. Nate brings up the examples of Bobby Jenks, Jonathan Papelbon, and J.J. Putz as guys who took to the bullpen like a fish to water. Conversely, that means that such a pitcher who was already in the bullpen would struggle more than average if he was moved to the rotation. For that reason, Nate argued against the idea of moving Papelbon back to the rotation after his rookie year (an opinion the Red Sox eventually agreed with, and an opinion that was borne out last year.)
But look at Soria. Soria had a terrific strikeout rate,
I understand why the Royals are keeping him in the bullpen, because it’s just so easy to look at him and envision a young Mariano Rivera on the mound. There are some visual similarities, and of course Soria has a great cutter, and like Rivera he used that cutter to just saw off the bats of left-handed hitters last year (they hit just .167/.217/.229 against Soria, which is filthy). And like Rivera he gave up very few extra-base hits.
But we shouldn’t be making momentous decisions like this based purely on his superficial similarities to one admittedly unique pitcher. Rivera has thrived in the bullpen as essentially a one-pitch pitcher, but Soria has four good pitches, he’s young, he’s worked as a starter for most of his pro career, and there’s a lot of statistical evidence to suggest he will adapt to the rotation just fine.
The Royals need their security blanket for now, so they’re leaving Soria in the closer’s role, but they have not shut the door on him returning to the rotation in the future. Unfortunately, time will shut that door for them soon enough. Assuming the Royals aren’t actually in a pennant race in the second half and can afford to experiment for the future, they need to put Soria in the rotation for the last month or two of the season and see what they’ve got. Worst-case scenario, in 2009 he goes back to being the team’s first bona-fide closer since Jeff Montgomery. Best-case scenario…the Royals have something even more valuable than a bona-fide closer.
In whatever role they use him in, he’s a joy to watch. Good thing we’ll be watching him in