I guess I should have paid more attention to Will Carroll. Carroll, you might recall, was the one saying “I don’t feel good about this one” when Hillman finally came clean about Joakim Soria’s shoulder even while downplaying the extent of the injury.
It turns out that the injury was not something that would clear up with a few days of rest, which opens up a whole ton of questions. Like, wouldn’t the Royals have been better off putting him on the DL back on April 19th? That was over three weeks ago, meaning there’s a good chance Soria might have already been re-activated. And, as Sam Mellinger pointed out, if Soria’s injury was more than the he-just-needs-a-few-days-of-rest variety, why on earth did Hillman use him in back-to-back games as soon as he was healthy enough to pitch? (For more with Sam, download yesterday's podcast here.)
In his first game after the injury was revealed, on May 2nd, Soria came in to pitch the 10th, threw six pitches in the inning, and then went back out the following inning with a three-run lead. I don’t fault that decision at all – he was already warmed up and in the game, and he only threw 13 more pitches to close it out. But why, if there was any concern whatsoever about the status of his arm, would Hillman use him the following day (barely 12 hours later, actually) to protect a three-run lead in the ninth? Soria wouldn’t pitch for another four days, even though the Royals played an 11-inning game at home in between, after which Hillman said Soria wasn’t available because of “manager’s decision”. In that game Soria pitched as poorly as he has all season, and afterwards the persistent pain in Soria’s shoulder finally forced the DL stint. In retrospect it would appear that the decision to use Soria in back-to-back games aggravated his symptoms.
And while Hillman deserves some of the blame for that decision, the bulk of blame lies on the training and medical staff for clearing Soria to pitch in the first place. On paper the training staff had a good year in 2008; the starting rotation, in particular, was remarkably healthy outside of the rib-cage injury to Luke Hochevar. But the training staff, led by head trainer Nick Swartz, has never had a particularly strong reputation around baseball. I make that statement not as a medical judgment of my own – I’m much too far from the situation to render that kind of judgment – but simply as a reflection of what I’ve heard from people around the game.
Injuries to Royals players have an annoying tendency to linger, or to recur after we’ve been told they were healed. This isn’t a new problem, either; this goes back to 2000, when Jose Rosado complained of shoulder pain after four starts, the Royals declined to order an MRI – hey, those puppies are expensive! – and instead skipped his turn in the rotation once. Rosado took the mound again on April 30th, and gutted his way into the sixth inning and even got the victory. Afterwards the pain in his arm was even worse, so the team finally caved and ordered the MRI – which revealed that Rosado’s rotator cuff had been reduced to hamburger meat. Rosado would never pitch in the majors again, the career of a two-time All-Star over at age 25.
I certainly hope that a similar fate does not await the Mexicutioner. His MRI, the Royals repeatedly reassure us, is completely normal. But even ignoring the possibility that this is a lie – the Royals have already lied once about the condition of Soria’s health – sometimes the worst news you can get about a pitcher complaining of arm pain is that “nothing is wrong”. Something is clearly wrong, or his arm wouldn’t hurt. The problem is that the Royals don’t know what’s wrong – and if you don’t know what’s wrong, you can’t make it right. Maybe it’s true that all he needs is a little rest, and he’ll be back in a few weeks, good as new. If that’s the case, the Royals will be fine. Juan Cruz is perfectly capable of functioning as the closer in the short term.
But it’s also possible that after a few weeks of rest, Soria’s still feeling arm pain – in which case, what do you do? When the medical tests and the symptoms disagree, trust the symptoms. Show me a pitcher that’s been accused of malingering, of refusing to pitch through the normal soreness that every pitcher feels, and I’ll show you a pitcher whose got an arm injury that’s gone undiagnosed. Mark Prior was accused of being a faker by the Cubs right up until the moment the doctors did exploratory surgery on his rotator cuff and found that the MRI had somehow missed the fact that somewhat had set off a bomb inside his shoulder.
Soria is so indispensable to the Royals largely because he’s not fazed by anything. No one thought he would become a closer when he was acquired in the Rule 5 draft, and even today no one would accuse him of having closer stuff. What he has is a closer’s mentality. He’s fearless on the mound, and he never, ever loses his composure. He’s about the last guy on the team you’d suspect of exaggerating pain symptoms. If he says his arm’s hurting, I don’t care how many imaging studies come back negative – there’s something wrong with his arm. And this time, the Royals better not let him anywhere near a pitching mound until they are totally, completely, utterly certain that his arm is 100%.
That may be a long way off. As Will wrote yesterday, “I'm worried that there's something more going on here.” You and me both, brother.
The silver lining here is that tonight’s starting pitcher is Luke Hochevar, who has probably been the most effective pitcher in Triple-A this season. I didn’t see this coming. Even though I’m not surprised to see Soria get put on the DL, I didn’t expect the Royals to use this injury as an opportunity to revamp their rotation. I would have expected someone like Carlos Rosa, who has taken to the bullpen nicely (17 Ks, 4 BBs in 17.2 innings in
Just last Thursday on the radio show, I asked Assistant GM Dean Taylor about what the Royals planned to do with Hochevar given how well he was pitching, and nothing in his response suggested that Cool Hand was about to replace Sidney Ponson in the rotation. Which was not surprising, given that Ponson was coming off his best performance (one run in 7.1 innings) the day before.
So give the Royals credit here: they didn’t have to make this move. They could have left Hochevar in
And in the long run, it’s possible that Hochevar’s brief return to Triple-A will be the best thing for him. For the first time in his pro career, he was able to completely dominate hitters at a level before he was promoted. He made six starts, each arguably better than the one before – topped off with an eight inning, five hit, no walk, nine strikeout performance in which he got 14 groundouts and just one flyout.
Hochevar has succeeded by focusing on what he does well: throw strikes and get groundballs. In 40 innings, he’s walked just 10 batters, and has a phenomenal groundball/flyball ratio of 3.68 – which has led to just two home runs. His 0.90 ERA is not going to last, driven as it is by allowing just 28 hits – his BABIP is about .250, which is unsustainable. But he’s whiffed a solid 30 batters in 40 innings, a ratio which is actually better than it looks precisely because he has surrendered so few baserunners per inning.
The biggest reason for concern with Hochevar is that he hasn’t done much to conquer his platoon splits. Last year RHB hit just .244/.319/.348, but LHB hit .314/.371/.475, and that weakness has persisted this season. In
For the remainder of the season, I think it’s perfectly reasonable to expect Hochevar to put up an ERA in the mid-4s, maybe a little lower if something really did click for him in Triple-A. If he’s the Royals’ fifth-best starter – and depending on how you feel about Brian Bannister, even if Hochevar is their fourth-best starter – then this is one hell of a rotation. There isn’t a single guy in the rotation that projects to be significantly below-average, which is the first time I can say that since, I don’t know, 1991? The 1994 Royals had David Cone, Kevin Appier, Tom Gordon, and Mark Gubicza all pitching well, but no reliable fifth starter. The 1991 Royals had Appier, Mike Boddicker, and Bret Saberhagen – and while Gubicza was terrible that year, Gordon and Luis Aquino both pitched well when they were used as starters. In any case, it’s been a long, long time.
Get well soon, Jack. With a rotation that should consistently keep the Royals in ballgames – and with an offense that doesn’t figure to blow opponents out all that often – I expect that we're going to have a lot of close leads to protect all season long.