Friday, October 17, 2008

Feeling Soria For The Rays.

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?

24 comments:

Jared said...

Soria should be the closer. I really enjoy having confidence that our leads will be kept in the last couple innings. Find someone else to be in the rotation.

Mike said...

Amen. Case Closed. And great point about Soria already having undergone Tommy John and not needing the stress of a 200-inning season on his arm. He is a great fit as the Royals' closer, and Dayton Moore just needs to find another starter via trade or free agency this offseason. The pieces to this puzzle are slowly starting to fit together, and I am excited for this team's future.

-al said...

if it ain't broke don't fix it. it and there's more broken than not.
but yes, please do pitch soria a few 2+ inning appearances. good call there.

Anonymous said...

Still disagree.

What, I'm supposed to be comforted by the fact that our team might fare well in the post season because of two great strikeout starters and an awesome closer?

Sadly, there are TWO aspects of post season success: First, you need to do well, and the "secret sauce" is inarguably important to that, and second, you have to, you know, ACTUALLY FRICKING QUALIFY FOR THE POST SEASON IN THE FIRST PLACE.

You can argue all you want that leaving Soria in the closer role accomplishes the first, meanwhile I'll argue that not moving him to the rotation makes the latter requirement PROHIBITIVE.

jay in houston said...

we could certainly use another starter, but davies i think should pretty much be a lock at this point and we should give a shot to duckworth.

duckworth has been relatively consistent throughout his time with the royals. if he can stay healthy (big if), i think he could be one of those backend guys who goes 12-10 with a 4.54 ERA. someone like jason marquis or jeff suppan or doug davis, for example.

there's always a spot in a rotation for one of those guys.

Anonymous said...

Leave Soria where he is. It's a great feeling to know the game is over after the 8th if we have a lead. And yes, use him with runners on base for gosh sakes! The save situation isn't always in the 9th. You ever watch the CWS? They use closers in the 4th and 5th if the need calls for it.

Davies and Hochevar should be in the rotation next year as well as Bannister. Another starter would be great, but I think Hochevar and Davies will have much better years next year. If Hochevar can just cut down on his 2 out runs he'll already be better.

Anonymous said...

Great, you feel good when Soria comes in because you know the game is over. You know what? You would get the same feeling with Ramon Ramirez. He had a better FIP and xFIP this year than Soria. Yes, we have a lock down guy, but I think Ramirez is just as good, without the save numbers. You do have to get to the postseason first, and to accomplish that, Soria in the rotation as a #3 starter would be the thing to try. What else do you want to do? Trade for Jake Peavy? Good luck.

Greinke
Meche
Soria
Davies
Hochevar

That rotation is better than the Rays overall. Take out Soria and that means Banny/Rosa/etc. come back in the picture. The easy way to 10 more wins would be Soria.

Kevin said...

I also still agree with Soria moving to the rotation and that Ramirez could be a great (or good enough) closer. Especially since Hillman uses him stupidly much of the time just to pad his stats.

Lousy starters and a great closer will still be too few wins.

Michael said...

The question is, how much good does it do if Soria only lasts 120 innings before blowing out his arm again?

Leave him in the closer role to dominate there and not overuse his arm.

Nathan Hall said...

Soria is probably more valuable in the rotation if healthy, when you consider the need to get to the playoffs as well as succeed in them. I think the injury risk should be the deciding factor. Does Will Carrol have an opinion? I'd like to hear some objective analysis on the question of whether Soria is more or less likely to remain healthy in the rotation.

bluewaver said...

In case you missed Dayton Moore's thoughts on the matter, as reported by Dick Kaegel here at MLB.com:

Beefing up a rotation headed by Gil Meche and Zack Greinke is a priority, but it will not be done by bringing Joakim Soria out of the bullpen to start.

"No, I don't think so," Moore said. "It's something that we talk about. There are people in our organization that think we ought to do that, but I get the last vote and right now we're voting to keep him in the closer's role."

Not that Soria couldn't become a good starter, in Moore's view, but his current role is extremely valuable.

"One of the most important qualities of a successful closer is that he creates a perception in the opponents' dugout that the game is over," Moore said. "And I think Joakim is beginning to develop that kind of aura about him."

Garrett said...

either way, these guys know more than me so it's not my decision to make. would you rather: Have a dominant closer, or possible dominant starter? Let us not forget but I think Soria is the only pitcher anywhere on the staff with a no-hitter under his belt. Could be nice to have a guy to every now and again flirt with perfection like that.

Paul said...

My vote will always be move Soria to the rotation. Rany, are you saying that if the Royals move Soria to the rotation they can make it to hosting game 7 of the ALCS? And you are trying to make this a negative thing?

Yeah, lets's keep Soria as the starter. You guys are right. If it ain't broke, don't fix it. The Royals are the team to beat in 09. Their 4th place finish and -100 run differential show just that.

Ryan said...

I just came home from waiting tables to see the last three outs of Game 7. Who's pitching? David Price.

David Price who should have been our first round pick in 2007. Buddy Bell in last throes of futility couldn't even lose one of the last three games again the Tigers, who were headed to the playoffs, to secure us the number one pick.

Although I'm happy for the Rays, and think they're the team to beat in the World Series, I can't believe Price won it for them.

After the complete and utter meltdown of the Chiefs this year (I refuse to watch them...first time in my life I haven't watched one quarter in my 33 years) I'm a little frustrated in being a sports fan who grew up in Kansas City.

Anonymous said...

Rany:

I know you helped found BP, but is there any way you can stop pretending that FRAA is a particularly useful stat for understanding defense? It might help for historical comparisons, but it's not even as good as Zone Rating, and is a joke compared to RZR/OOZ, UZR, or Dewan's.

It's not a huge deal, and I don't want to come off as an elitist. But it's weird coming from a sabr-heavy blog.

Need an example? Jose Guillen is a "0" on Fielding Runs Above Average, and 16 above replacement for this year. Need any more be said about it's usefulness? Any stat that has Jose Guillen, in 2008, as a league average defender is probably worse than using batting average to evaluate the contributions of a hitter.

Anonymous said...

Yeah, because there is no way Jon Lieber and Ryan Dempster could ever think about throwing more than 120 innings a year after they had TJS.
If Dayton Moore has shown anything in his time in Kansas City, it's his ability to string together a good bullpen. Look at the heap of dead he has brought back to life: Ramon Ramirez, Robinson Tejeda & Horacio Ramirez.

Anonymous said...

Rany --

Eagerly awaiting your post about how if the Rays were anywhere near as smart as the Royals, they would "leave well enough alone" and keep Price as their closer.

Anonymous said...

Rany,

I'm a Royals fan living in Boston... What are your thoughts of the Royals going after Varitek this off-season? I'd love Tek to help the young pitchers for a few years, even if his offense has steadily declined.

Anonymous said...

Jason Varitek at catcher next year would be like Paul Bako, except with an onerous contract (although one not quite as idiotic as Jose Guillen's) and lots of noise from Treyton Moorman about how great he is at "handling the staff" and "doing stuff that doesn't show up in box scores."

Arathorn said...

I have to agree with many others that using Soria as a starter makes more sense to me. Dempster, Smoltz, etc. have proven it can be done effectively. With Ramon Ramirez, Leo Nunez, and Ron Mahay, we can scramble a closer -- at least one as good as Grant Balfour or the remains of Troy Percival.

Getting *to* the postseason has to take priority over what to do if/when one gets there. I remain convinced that the best way for the Royals to get to the postseason is to start Soria (or at least, seriously explore using him that way).

Anonymous said...

I've always been of the opinion that if Soria was used in a better capacity, like say 90-115 innings a year, that he would be more useful as the closer.

The problem is, which do I see happening first, that two traditional baseball guys like Dayton Moore and Trey Hillman decide to totally buck all of recent baseball tradition and use their closer for anything other than 1 inning save opportunities, or that they move him into the rotation? I doubt either is likely, but the latter is far more likely than the former.

Kevin said...

anonymous 3:05,
I still like Soria in the rotation but I could live with what you propose. That is simply the old school model of closer or fireman. Bring him in when you actually need him.

I have called Hillmoore "old school" but what I guess I really mean is conservative. A true old school guy might do what you propose. But, Hillmoore so far is simply cautious, conservative users of today's rules of thumb.

Oh well, I also agree that they won't do anything imaginative with Soria.

Kevin said...

I agree with allowing Soria to pitch in other situations than the beginning of the 9th with no outs and no one on.

Antonio. said...

Duckworth?!