Monday, May 30, 2011

Mexicuted.

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.”

Bob Dutton wrote that sentence before today’s game. Yesterday, the Royals lost a game despite having a two-run lead with six outs to go. Today, the Royals lost a game despite a three-run lead with six outs to go – and the opponents didn’t even have to take advantage of extra innings in either game.

So if you’re wondering whether this brings back awful memories of The Worst Bullpen In Major League History, the 1996-2006 Kansas City Royals*…yes. Yes it does.

*: I’ve mentioned this before, but for those of you who are new around here: from 1996 to 2006, the Royals were 172-275 in one-run games, a .385 winning percentage. That is, by far, the worst record in one-run games over an 11-year span for any franchise in major league history. That stretch ended in 2007 – Joakim Soria’s rookie year.

For the better part of a decade, I was terrified any time the Royals went into the ninth with a slim lead. But as unreliable as the Royals’ closer – whoever their closer happened to be at the time – was, it was exceedingly rare for them to blow a save and take the loss in consecutive games. (For one thing, that required the Royals to actually have a late lead in consecutive games, a task the early-21st century Royals were ill-equipped to complete.)

On July 30, 1977, Doug Bird blew the save and took the loss for the Royals, then repeated the feat in the first game of a doubleheader the next day. (This only succeeded in making the Royals mad, as they went 44-12 in their next 56 games.) Amazingly enough, this was the only time in the 20th century that the same Royals pitcher blew a save and took the loss in consecutive games.

It happened again in 2002, when Roberto Hernandez blew back-to-back saves on July 4th and 5th. In 2006, Ambiorix Burgos turned the trick on May 14 and May 16. And in 2009, Juan Cruz blew the save and took the loss on July 17 and July 18 – a particularly neat trick given that he wasn’t even the closer. I was at Kauffman Stadium for those games, and they inspired this post.

Joakim Soria is the fifth pitcher in Royals history to accomplish such an epic fail in consecutive games. He is by far the most unlikely of the five.

It’s worse than that, though, because in 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.

14 comments:

Timothy said...

Just going to point this out.
I said two years ago, in comments on this site, that I did not believe that Dayton Moore could get us to a championship simply because he has no clue at all how to handle major league players. He does not know how to evaluate them, he does not know how to trade for them, he doesn't really know how to sign them unless he developed them, he doesn't know how to repond when they struggle, he doesn't know how to respond when they get hurt, he doesn't know how to manage playing time, waiver wires or half a dozen other important aspects of his job at the major league level.

And I still haven't seen anything to convince me otherwise, and its examples like this, among others, that show me that; firstly Dayton still doesn't understand how the majors work. and secondly that the Process actually does have a question mark for at least one of its steps. It seems like every other move the FO makes is designed to help us contend this year, and every other move is designed to help us contend in the future while sacrificing this year.

All I really want out of this FO is some damn consistency, and I don't think they can give it too me.

RickMcKC said...

I don't see how you can conclude that the problem must be injury. I can understand how you might suspect that, but why could it not be something as simple as him tipping his pitches? If hitters are swinging at fewer pitches and then connecting more than in the past it could be they somehow know what's coming. Tori Hunter's comments after the game seem to support that idea as well.

ChaimMKeller said...

Rany, much of the pitch analysis seems to be saying he's mostly abandoned his curveball - which has always been his nastiest, most awe-inspiring pitch - and using a cutter, relatively new to him, a lot. Is there any reason he'd abandon his curveball other than some sort of injury?

rbh325 said...

I think he was abducted by aliens :(

KHAZAD said...

There is some indication that he may be tipping his pitches and as one of the previous commenters pointed out, he has abandoned his curveball for McClure's favorite pitch, the cutter.

Whether he is injured, is tipping or has simply lost it I must bring up Teflon Bob (McClure) again, as he is never mentioned when a pitcher develops problems.

Kansas City said...

I was astonished that Yost, after saying Soria was his guy on Sunday and there it would be a mistake to make a change, casually says on Monday that he is pulling him from closing.

I have no idea what, if anything, is "wrong" with Soria. Is the sample size large enought to be drawing conclusions?

As to yesterday, he struck out the side and, as far as I could tell, he made one bad pitch. I assumed Yost would point that out, and move on. Instead, he turned it into a pottential long term disaster.

McGoldencrown said...

Rany, you critisize based on hindsight more than any writer I follow. Of course we all would have taken the Montero trade had we known. If his stuff appears fine and he says his arm feels good, than you cant just put him on the DL. There are rules against that. Otherwise every team that needed to open a roster spot would just come up with a phantom injury for their least productive player. KC did what every other team would have done. They demoted him from his closer role so he can catch his breath and maybe get his confidence back in lower pressure situations.

Kansas City said...

I would have kept him in the closer role, but since Soria seemed cool with it (which might not be a good sign for other reasons), it probably is okay.

I think it is not unusual for teams put pitchers on the DL with phantom injuries, in order to buy time to get the pitcher straightened out.

I listened to Jason Starks this morning on the Petro show. His views were: (1) fangraphs show Soria is no longer fooling anyone - I think guys as swinging at only 40% rather than 47% of his pitches and he also cited the swing and miss figure; (2) he is throwing the cut fastball [I think that was the pitch} too much and not using his fastball or curve enough - he has fallen in love with his cut fastball; (3) the loss of 1.5 miles on his fastball could be a problem; (4) the various factors point to something being wrong with him physically.

There also was a consensus that closers almost never last a long time anyway. Petro asked everyone how many total saves Soria would wind up with. The numbers were shockingly low. He currently has 130. Petro said 150, and the highest was about 250, which would only be 3 more quality closer years for a guy 27. I say 400.

Hunter did suggest in the paper this morning that Soria was tipping pitches somehow.

Chris said...

Rany, you mentioned in your piece about Montero and except for having a good batting average he has regressed as a hitter. Go look at his stats. 43 strikeouts and 9 walks? That's a pace for about 130 SO and 35 walks. If we were talking about a Royals prospect we'd be up in arms about it. Now, I'm willing to grant you that it is a short period of time and Montero may very well hit like the Montero of last year. My question is: why doesn't Soria, who has performed excellently for four years now in the MAJORS, get the same courtesy? I used to say that no one except for Pujols ever had the same year each year. Hell, you can't even say that about HIM any more. Soria has earned the right to have a bad year. He deserves time to become the Soria of old.

MoCrash said...

Soria began throwing a cutter this season, but has a hard time getting it over for strikes. When he falls behind, he comes with a straight fastball over the plate and -- Voila! -- it's a meatball that gets cuffed. Soria needs to dump the cutter and go back to the fastball/slider combo which has worked so well for him.

Mike said...

Here is a question I have not seen raised:

WHY IN THE WORLD WAS SORIA EVEN TRYING TO ADD ANOTHER PITCH IN THE FIRST PLACE?

I'm not saying, nor am I believing that this "cutter" is a reason that he's fallen off a cliff this year. But I've seen this topic come up with Soria numerous times... cutter this, cutter that.

When you have a 2.01 career ERA, why are you changing ANYTHING?!?

Walter said...

in response to ChaimMKeller

"much of the pitch analysis seems to be saying he's mostly abandoned his curveball."

i've seen him pitch in person once and on the tube a dozen times. he can't snap off his curve, which used to be his best out pitch. as we all know, he likes to close out games with it. right now, it sucks. in fact, right now one out of three good high school hitters could jack it.

my suspicion is that he's relying on his cutter because it's an off speed pitch that doesn't hurt to throw. the only problem is it's not enough of a velocity differential from his hard fastball...

the same thing happened to jeff montgomery near the end of his career.

when anyone sees him snap off "a dandy" curveball, please post the news.

Big Donkeys said...

He lost his curve ball almost two years ago. But it didn't seem to matter much. Now he's apparently lost his confidence. And that has made all the difference.

Baseball HQ radio said...

Unless you're in middle or high school, the term for something not working is a "failure," not a "fail." And certainly not an "epic fail." If a closer for a middling-to-poor ballclub in KC blowing a few saves is "epic" in scale, what term can we apply to, say, the failure of the backup systems at the Japanese nuke plants?