This was supposed to be the optimistic flip side of my last post. That plan was put in place before Joakim Soria blew the save, and took the loss, in back-to-back games.
“Somewhere, at some point, Joakim Soria has somehow morphed into a nightmarish combination of Ambiorix Burgos, Andrew Sisco, Mike MacDougal, Ricky Bottalico and every other failed Royals closer of the last generation.”
Soria’s last three save opportunities – today, yesterday, and last Tuesday against the Orioles – he blew the save and took the loss. It came over a six-game stretch, and Soria actually pitched in a non-save situation during that stretch, but that doesn’t mitigate his accomplishment.
You might think that it’s not unusual for a closer to have a stretch that bad – Brandon League did the same thing just three weeks ago, and in his appearance before that stretch, he came into a tie game and took the loss. But it’s actually incredibly rare.
Ricky Bottalico never took the loss in three straight save opportunities with the Royals.
Roberto Hernandez never took the loss in three straight save opportunities with the Royals.
Neither did Mike MacDougal, or Ambiorix Burgos, or Jeremy Affeldt, or the granddaddy of all closer flops, Mark Davis.
In the history of the Royals, only one other pitcher had ever taken the loss in three straight save opportunities – Curtis Leskanic, on April 14th, 23rd, and 29th, 2004.
And now Soria has done so. But hey, I’m sure his arm is fine.
The tale of Soria’s season is actually divided into two parts. In April, you might remember, stat guys were freaking out about the fact that he wasn’t missing bats – in 11.2 innings, Soria struck out just five batters, while walking six. But with the exception of the meltdown against the White Sox, when the Sox mounted a four-run comeback with two outs and no one in the ninth, the end result was fine – Soria didn’t blow any other leads that month, and the Royals insisted everything was fine.
In May, Soria’s strikeout rate has returned to his career norms and then some. He actually struck out the side today, and in 10.1 innings this month, he has 14 strikeouts. He’s also allowed 17 hits, and 3 homers – one in each of his three blown saves – and 10 runs. And, of course, the Royals have lost four games that they shouldn’t have – his three blown losses, and also the game against the Rangers on May 18, when he came into a tie game in the ninth and allowed a run. Neftali Feliz gave it back in the bottom of the inning – Feliz and Soria seem to be in a competition as to which elite closer can terrify their fan base more, a competition Soria is winning – but the Royals lost the game in extra innings. And no one has any idea what’s going on.
According to Fangraphs, Soria’s average fastball velocity is down about 1.5 mph, but the speed of his secondary pitches is unchanged, and it’s not clear from the data whether the decrease in his velocity is because he can’t throw as hard or because he’s simply throwing more “slow cutters” which are designed to have less velocity. But while his velocity isn’t off much, the results are. Hitters are swinging at fewer pitches (40.3% of his offerings, compared to a career average around 47%.) When they do swing, they’re not missing often – they fail to make contact on only about 15% of their swings, compared to a career average of about 25%.
The data is clear that hitters are no longer being fooled. What isn’t clear is why. The Royals can go on and on about how he’s just having trouble locating his pitches, or finishing his pitches, or scuffing his pitches, or whatever excuse they’ll come up with today. But when a pitcher who has been an elite closer for four years suddenly can’t get anyone out, there’s only one conclusion. This isn’t a court of law: he’s injured until proven healthy. I have no reason to think that Soria’s hurting other than the results on the field. Frankly, those results are enough.
For now, Ned Yost has announced that Soria will take a breather from closing, and Aaron Crow will take over the glamour role. That’s all fine and dandy if the point is winning tomorrow’s game. If the point is to figure out what the hell is wrong with Joakim Soria, this is a massive fail. It takes a massive amount of stubbornness to not acknowledge that such a precipitous decline probably has a structural reason, and shifting Soria into a different role is not going to isolate, let alone fix, the problem. But then, it takes a massive amount of stubbornness for the Royals to have denied there was anything wrong with Soria to this point in the first place.
My last post, about the missed opportunity the Royals had by not trading Robinson Tejeda when they had the chance, is almost comical when you put Tejeda’s situation side-by-side with Soria’s. Soria had a massive amount of trade value this winter. He was widely considered to be one of the five best closers in baseball; only Mariano Rivera was clearly superior. He was 26 years old. He was signed to an insanely club-friendly contract, that paid him just $4 million this year, and $22.75 million from 2012 to 2014. Given his age and contract status, I don’t think it’s a stretch to say he had the highest trade value of any reliever in baseball. And the Royals, in trading Zack Greinke, made it clear that they were clearing the decks of established players one last time before the Blue Wave arrived.
We may never know if the Yankees really did offer Jesus Montero for Soria, or if that story was apocryphal. What we do know is that the Yankees panicked and – against their GM’s advice – signed Rafael Soriano to a ridiculous 3-year, $35 million contract that actually gave Soriano the option to walk away after a year. (I’m going to go out on a limb here and predict that he won’t exercise that option.) Based on all the circumstantial evidence, I think the Yankees either offered Montero, or would have parted with him had the Royals made the offer.
I’m not going to rip the Royals too harshly for not moving Soria when they had the chance, because on some level I bought into the notion that Soria was different as well. He’s not a max-effort, here’s-my-best-fastball-and-good-luck kind of reliever. (Unlike Neftali Feliz, who pointedly refused to throw anything but his fastball against the Royals. Thanks, Neffi!) While closers, like all relievers, have a shelf-life only slightly longer than mayonnaise, I thought that Soria might be the exception to the rule. Rivera obviously is; Trevor Hoffman was. I still would have traded Soria for Montero if I had the chance, simply because even if he remained dominant, there’s only so much value that you can have when you pitch 65 innings a year. But I wasn’t adamant about it.
(And it must be said that it’s not clear what the Royals would do with Montero. He’s still a long shot to stay behind the plate even briefly in the majors. He’s also having a bit of an off-year offensively in Triple-A. He’s still just 21 and a long-term beast, but if he winds up at first base, he’s been passed by Eric Hosmer. If nothing else, he would make one hell of a trading chip.)
So consider myself, along with the Royals, chastened by what’s happened to Soria. It’s not even the end of May, and he’s already set a career high in blown saves. It’s not even the end of May, and he’s already given up more runs than he did in any of the last three seasons. And as a result, his trade value has dropped from massive to absolute zero in the span of two months.
At this point, it’s not even clear whether the Royals would deign to pick up his option for next year. If they had to decide today, I think they would, and I think they should – aside from the fact that they would be well-served to pay Soria back for signing such a club-friendly contract in the first place, if they turn down the $6 million option for 2012, they also would lose the option on Soria in 2013 and 2014 if he regains his form.
And he might. Just as we don’t have an explanation for why Soria’s pitching has gone south, we don’t have any reason to think he can’t suddenly right the ship. The inestimable Joel Goldberg tweeted earlier that Jeff Montgomery had a similar stretch in his career, and he’s right. On July 10, 1997, Montgomery had a 7.09 ERA, and in 27 innings he had allowed 38 hits, 10 walks, and eight homers.
The rest of the season, Montgomery allowed two earned runs in 33 innings, with just 15 hits and eight walks, and didn’t blow another save all year. That was Montgomery’s last hurrah – his ERA was nearly 5 the following year and nearly 7 in 1999, after which he retired – but Montgomery was 35 years old. Soria is 27.
So yes, if Soria isn’t hurt, I think he’ll pull out of this. Maybe he won’t be the ridiculously effective pitcher he was the last four years – his career ERA coming into the season was 2.01 – but he’ll be effective enough. If he isn’t hurt.
But if he is, then every time he takes the mound just increases the risk that the Soria we knew and loved is gone for good. The downside to an arm injury is such that if there’s even the slightest risk he’s hurt, he ought to be shut down. Call it a mental break if you have to. What’s the downside to giving him a few weeks on the DL, putting him through some imaging tests, then letting him embarrass Triple-A hitters for a week or two before coming back? It might hurt our playoff chances? Please.
If the Royals had an impeccable record of not sending players out onto the field when they were already playing through an injury, I might give them the benefit of the doubt. They don’t. The new training staff seems to be an improvement on the old one, but I’m sorry, as a fan, I need to see more before I sign off on the decision to keep sending Soria out there to take his lumps.
Dayton Moore has been in charge of the organization for almost exactly five years, and every time the organization has made a mistake under his watch – from signing Jose Guillen to destroying Gil Meche’s arm – I hoped that, if nothing else, the Royals would learn from that mistake, so that when the organization was finally in a position to contend, they would avoid the missteps of the past.
The way they’re handling Joakim Soria is evidence that they still need to touch the stove a few more times before they realize that it’s burning their hand. Only this time, with the Royals supposedly as little as a year away from contention, the stakes are a lot higher. If Soria gets his groove back and we’re all looking back at this stretch in wonderment come August, all will be forgiven. If the Royals are simply trading a short DL stint now for a long one later, well, forgiveness will be in awfully short supply.