Joakim Soria is off to a better start this season. You don’t need an advanced degree in sabermetrics to see that.
In six innings across five appearances, Soria has not allowed a run. His strikeout numbers are up. He has avoided the high-leverage meltdowns that soiled his 2016 season and sullied his once-estimable reputation in Kansas City.
But to understand why Soria has been a better reliever, you have to look a little closer. Royals manager Ned Yost credits better luck — or rather, a lack of the strange bounces and weird happenings that coalesced with a handful of mistakes to turn a season into a relief pitcher’s nightmare.
Pitching coach Dave Eiland offered a slightly more nuanced view.
Soria’s mechanics are sounder, Eiland said. His command and stuff are sharper. Soria appears fueled by the doubts and criticism that accompanied a run of blown saves last year.
“He’s got a little bit of a chip on his shoulder, too,” Eiland said. “Which is always good.”
The sample size is still small, of course, so limited that any conclusions should be put in the proper context. Soria has thrown just six innings. Let’s remember that.
Still, the Royals have to feel good about what they have seen thus far. One year after signing a three-year, $25 million contract to return to Kansas City, Soria has the appearance of a serviceable piece at the back end of the bullpen. That would be positive news in any context. For the Royals, whose bullpen has posted a league-worst 6.68 ERA, it could be vital.
The Royals are still searching for a suitable bridge to closer Kelvin Herrera. Left-hander Matt Strahm is in Omaha. Mike Minor and Travis Wood are off to slow starts. And thus, the formula could rely on more mixing-and-matching during innings and more two-inning stints from pitchers such as Soria and Peter Moylan, Eiland said. But for now, Soria has delivered as a setup man.
He worked two scoreless innings in an extra-innings loss in Houston on April 9. He rescued Minor on Saturday night, throwing 1 2/3 scoreless innings in a 3-2 victory.
“He had a good spring,” Eiland said. “He’s picking up where he left off. He’s right where we need him to be.”
The performance, to this point, has been vindication for Yost, who spent most of 2016 defending Soria during a spate of high-leverage blowups. In all, Soria finished the 2016 season with a 4.05 ERA and seven blown saves. According to Win Probability Added, an advanced metric that measures a pitcher’s impact on his team’s chances of winning, Soria was the second-worst reliever in baseball in 2016.
Yost, though, had seen a different Soria. He saw the reliever who posted a 1.78 ERA and recorded 43 saves for the Royals in 2010. He saw the pitcher who offered stability on losing teams from 2007 to 2010. He couldn’t lose that image, Yost said.
“I knew that last year was totally out of the ordinary for him,” Yost said. “His stuff was great. It was just weird stuff was happening.”
This view may explain some of Soria’s problems in 2016. Opposing hitters posted a .323 batting average on balls in play, a number that suggests the “bad luck” theory is plausible. On average, close to 30 percent of balls in play fall in for hits. So anything higher or lower signifies bad fortune or good luck, respectively.
Still, the theory can’t account for all of the issues. Soria’s walks per nine innings spiked to 3.6, his highest mark since 2013, when he was returning from his second Tommy John surgery. Opponents also posted a .457 slugging percentage and hit 10 homers in 66 2/3 innings. Sometimes, he just got knocked around.
This year, Soria is striking out more hitters, recording eight in six innings. Yet he’s also walked five, a concerning number. He’s also benefited from some combination of improved luck and better stuff. Opponents are hitting just .200 against him on balls in play.
“His stuff is better,” Eiland said. “Confidence has a lot to do with it, too.”
From a mechanical standpoint, Eiland says that Soria’s front side has been “stronger”, meaning he’s keeping it closed longer and pitching downhill. As a result, the break on his slider has been tighter. His fastball has had better life through the strike zone, too.
“I see him staying behind the ball,” Eiland said. “That results in better stuff, later life, sharper command.”
For the moment, there has been one other noticeable difference. Soria is keeping a low profile. Last year, as the blown saves piled up, Soria was diligent about speaking to reporters following bad outings. He never hid from the cameras or reporters. He sought to be accountable.
The tactic sometimes backfired. He drew the ire of fans by stubbornly referring to balls that resulted in homers and doubles as good pitches. But he rarely lost patience or declined interviews … until his good start this season.
After his strong outing Saturday night, Soria politely declined a group of reporters hovering near his locker. The next morning, he declined again, saying “I have to go” as he headed for a pregame workout.
In truth, of course, fans will hardly care about his reticence should the strong start continue. And for now, his manager believes it will.
“I had the benefit of having Jack when I first came here,” Yost said. “He saved like 39 consecutive games for us. So I knew who he was.”