For those of you who still hold out hope that the Royals will one day see the light and move Joakim Soria to the rotation…I have bad news.
Game 5 of the 2008 ALCS almost certainly eliminated whatever fleeting chance there was that the Mexicutioner will become a starter one day. The Tampa Bay Rays were seven outs away from the World Series, with a seven run lead. They were then victimized by the greatest postseason comeback since 1929 (gee, like we haven’t seen enough references to 1929 this fall.)
Before my friend Nate Silver became the world’s most famous pollster, he used to write about baseball. One of his most-cited articles, in “Baseball Between The Numbers”, was an analysis of which teams are likeliest to win the crapshoot that we call the baseball playoffs.
What Nate found was that there were three things that were most correlated with a team’s ability to win in the playoffs. Those three things are:
1) Team defense, as measured by Fielding Runs Above Average (FRAA);
2) The strikeout rate of the team’s pitching staff;
3) The quality of the team’s closer, as measured by WXRL.
To rephrase this: over the last 40 years (i.e. the divisional era), it is in fact true that good pitching beats good hitting in October. And the best way to beat good hitting in the playoffs is to keep your opponent’s batting average down. The way you do that is to prevent them from making contact (K rate), and when they do make contact, prevent them from getting a hit on balls in play (FRAA).
If good pitching beats good hitting, one pitcher matters above all: your closer. With more at stake in each game, managers are inclined to use their closers more aggressively, and all the extra off-days make it easier to run your closer out there. Plus, since every team is a playoff team, blowouts are rare and close games the norm, and the cool October weather also dampens scoring and increases the likelihood of a tie game.
Mariano Rivera has never appeared in more than 74 games in a season, and his career high in innings as a closer is 80.2 (he did throw 107.2 innings as a set-up man for John Wetteland in 1996). But since joining the Yankees in 1995, the team has played a total of 128 postseason games, and in just 128 games he’s made 76 appearances and thrown 117.1 innings. Game for game, Rivera has had twice as much impact in the postseason as he's made in the regular season.
These three aspects of a team are known as the “Secret Sauce”, and this year the Red Sox had the best Secret Sauce in the majors. L’Anaheim was 2nd, the Cubs 3rd, the White Sox 5th, the Rays 6th, the Phillies 12th, the Brewers 13th, and the Dodgers 19th.
The Rays had just the fifth-best Secret Sauce of any playoff team, even though they had the best defense in the majors, and the 10th-best strikeout rate. Why? Because their closer (Troy Percival, who’s not even on their active roster) ranked just 21st in the majors, the worst of any playoff team. The Rays have a deep bullpen; Grant Balfour, Dan Wheeler, and J.P. Howell were all among the best set-up guys in the game this year. But they don’t have a go-to guy, the kind of pitcher that you can call on when you’re in danger of losing a seven-run lead in the biggest game of your franchise’s career. The kind of guy who, protecting a three-run lead with six outs to go, won’t walk the leadoff batter on four pitches and then groove a fat fastball to the next hitter, as Wheeler did last night.
They don’t have a guy with nerves of steel. They don’t have the only sane man in an insane world. They don’t have the Mexicutioner. We do. And because of Soria, the Royals actually ranked 7th in the majors in Secret Sauce; the only non-playoff team to rank higher were the Blue Jays. The Royals didn’t have a good defense (18th in FRAA), and their strikeout rate was good but not great (11th in K rate). But Soria ranked 4th in the majors in WXRL, and probably would have ranked higher if the Royals hadn’t been forced to waste him to protect a bunch of four-run leads because tight games were tough to come by at certain points in the year.
I’ve said all season that the Royals are mis-using Soria, and I haven’t changed my mind. But I’m not nearly as convinced that the solution is to move him to the rotation. Between the loss of velocity and the injury risk (remember, he’s already had Tommy John surgery), I think there are real risks to asking him to throw 200 innings a year. But 90 innings a year? That he can handle.
I don’t want the Royals to transplant the Mexicutioner so much as I just want them to unshackle him. Let him pitch the eighth inning once in a while. Let him come in with men on base every now and then. A more liberal approach to using Soria is going to lead to more wins, and equally important, when the Royals are seven outs away from a playoff series win, they won’t have second thoughts about calling on Soria in the 7th inning and asking him to deliver us across the Red Sea into the Promised Land.
Two years ago the Rays were still the Devil Rays, which meant that instead of using the first pick in the Rule 5 draft for themselves, they sold the pick to Oakland (and Billy Beane, bless his heart, used the pick to select an outfielder named Ryan Goleski.) The Royals, picking second, took Soria. Over the last few years the Rays have made countless better decisions than the Royals have (including their one head-to-head trade of J.P. Howell for Joey Gathright). But on December 7th, 2006, the Royals got the better of them. After seeing how much the Rays missed having Soria at the back of their bullpen last night, and imagining how much agony their fans are going through this morning – I mean, is there any wonder why Dayton Moore is looking to leave his closer well enough alone?