The discovery came as the struggles mounted. Joakim Soria and Royals pitching coach Dave Eiland pored over video clips in a back room inside the clubhouse, looking for any hint of something amiss. They found the flaw, ever so slight, in his front side.
“He knows how to fix it,” Royals manager Ned Yost said Wednesday.
The diagnosis came after a troubling stretch. Soria has allowed six earned runs and 10 hits in seven innings in his first season back in the Royals’ bullpen. His command has been less than sharp. He has not worked with his usual efficiency. A spate of poor luck has compounded the problem, which came to a head during another frustrating outing in an 8-6 victory over Detroit on Tuesday.
The problem, Soria said, stemmed from a mechanical issue with his front side. As he’s finished his delivery during the season’s opening weeks, his left side has drifted open too quickly, leaving his release point off.
“My front arm is pulling side to side, instead of up and down,” Soria said. “It’s not a big deal. But it’s obviously going to help me.”
As Soria works through the issue, Yost said he will deploy right-handed reliever Kelvin Herrera more in the eighth inning, a role that Soria occupied for the season’s first two-plus weeks. The bullpen roles, Yost said, will not be rigid. Instead, he wants to use Herrera in the most high-leverage situations, whether that falls in the seventh or eighth inning.
“We’ll mix and match it,” Yost said. “We’ll look and see where the (opposing) lineup is. If the middle of the lineup is coming up in the seventh, we might see Kel there.”
Herrera has mostly been lights out during April. He has not allowed a run in 7 1/3 innings across eight appearances. He has racked up 10 strikeouts. He has unleashed a new slider on opposing hitters after debuting the pitch last September and October. Even if Soria had not struggled during April, he would still have a strong case to work the eighth inning and hand the baton to closer Wade Davis.
“On a clean inning, will Herrera have the eighth? Probably,” Yost said. “He’s throwing the ball really well.”
For Soria, his return to a former home has been filled with frustrating moments in April. He allowed three runs on opening day to the New York Mets. He allowed the decisive run to score in a 3-2 loss at Oakland on Sunday. Yet he has not been getting hammered — aside from one home run, allowed to Minnesota’s Byung Ho Park. According to MLB.com’s Pitch-f/x data, Soria has induced the weakest contact, on average, of the Royals’ pitching staff.
“That’s the frustrating part,” Soria said. “It feels like I haven’t had any luck in my outings. It feels like every single ground ball gets (through) a hole. But like I said, it’s part of baseball. It’s part of competing.”
Soria also acknowledged his command issues during the stretch.
“Sometimes that little ground ball, if the pitch is executed better, maybe it’s a ground ball to the third base or the shortstop,” he said. “It’s just what it is.”
In the offseason, the Royals signed Soria to a three-year, $25 million contract, reuniting with a former All-Star closer who saved 160 games from 2007 to 2011. The move was designed to fortify a strength — a dominating bullpen — and offset the losses of Ryan Madson and Greg Holland. For much of spring training, Soria appeared ready to slot into a late-inning role. Yost remains confident Soria is close to finding a familiar groove.
“Some of it’s luck, and some of it’s mechanical,” Yost said of Soria. “Because when he’s right, he commands three pitches. He’s real close to reeling off about 20 consecutive appearances (with) no runs.”