Ask Rustin: A investigation into Joakim Soria, Jason Vargas’ return, and more

Kansas City Royals relief pitcher Joakim Soria.
Kansas City Royals relief pitcher Joakim Soria. jsleezer@kcstar.com

Joakim Soria has not been great this season. He has posted a 3.77 ERA in 57  1/3 innings, which would be his worst season since 2011. His WHIP is 1.41, which would be the worst of his career. He has walked too many guys and allowed too many base runners, and as a result, he has had some spectacular high-leverage blowups. Among the 69 relievers in the American League with at least 40 innings pitched, he ranks 48th in ERA.

On the other hand, Soria posted a 1.35 ERA in May, and a 2.84 ERA in June, and a 2.84 ERA in July. In his 58 appearances, he has logged 44 without allowing a run. Which got me thinking. If you think about Soria’s season as a whole, it feels like he has been responsible for quite a few losses. But how many? In 75 percent of his appearances, he has not allowed a run.* In some of those games, the Royals won anyway.

*For comparison, Cyborg Kelvin Herrera (1.77 ERA) has recorded scoreless outings in 86.8 percent of his appearances.

So this is an impossible thing to calculate, of course, but I was curious enough to look a little deeper. So here we go. Consider this the official account of Soria’s season. Again, he has allowed runs in 14 games this year. In five of those, the Royals won anyway. That leaves nine games.

Here’s a closer look at those appearances:

1. April 17: 3-2 loss to the Oakland A’s

The situation: With the Royals leading 2-1, reliever Kelvin Herrera allowed a run in the seventh. One inning later, Soria came into a 2-2 game. Billy Burns opened the inning with a soft triple down the line, and he scored on a one-out sacrifice fly from Josh Reddick. 3-2, A’s.

The conclusion: Soria did allow the decisive run to score. But in this case, Herrera and an offense that managed just two runs were just as culpable.

2. April 25: 6-1 loss to the Los Angeles Angels

The situation: With the Royals losing 5-1, Soria entered in the seventh and allowed a solo homer to Mike Trout.

The conclusion: Yeah, pretty understandable.

3. May 10: 10-7 loss to the New York Yankees

The situation: With the Royals ahead 6-5, Soria entered in the bottom of the seventh. He allowed three singles and committed a costly balk, allowing two runs. One inning later, Lorenzo Cain tied the game at 7-7 with a solo homer, his third of the day. But Herrera allowed three runs in the eighth inning.

The conclusion: It was not a pretty performance from Soria, of course, and to lose a game in which Cain hit three homers was a killer. But this game was just as much about Kris Medlen allowing four runs in two innings and Herrera’s rare blowup late.

4. June 2: 5-4 loss to the Cleveland Indians

The situation: The Royals led 4-2 before Herrera allowed a run in the eighth. With the lead at 4-3, Soria entered in the ninth — as did Paulo Orlando, who came on as a defensive replacement. The move would backfire. Soria allowed a leadoff single to Carlos Santana, who advanced to second after an error by Orlando. A sac-bunt moved a pinch runner to third. And Francisco Lindor followed with a hard hit ball toward the gap in right-center. Orlando made the ill-advised decision to dive for it, and Lindor ended up on third. One batter later, Mike Napoli ended the game with a sacrifice fly.

The conclusion: Soria was hardly sharp, allowing two hits, but a defensive disaster expedited this loss. It was a tough one, too. It snapped a six-game winning streak and started an eight-game skid.

5. June 22: 4-3 loss to the New York Mets

The situation: In a 3-3 game, Soria allowed a solo homer to the Mets’ Matt Reynolds in the bottom of the sixth.

The conclusion: The offense couldn’t rally over the final three innings, and the homer proved to be the decisive run.

6. July 17: 4-2 loss to the Detroit Tigers

The situation: The Royals had an early 2-0 lead and then stopped scoring. Yordano Ventura allowed the tying run in the sixth on a triple and a wild pitch. Soria entered in the bottom of the ninth with score still tied at 2-2. He allowed a leadoff single to Tyler Collins before Jarrod Saltalamacchia ended the game with a mammoth shot to right.

The conclusion: This loss came during a woeful offensive stretch in July. It also came during Soria’s worst month of the season.

7. July 23: 7-4 loss to the Texas Rangers

The situation: With the Royals trailing 3-1, Soria came on to face the Rangers in the top of the sixth. He threw one scoreless innings, and what followed, I think, was one of the most questionable decisions Ned Yost has made this year. Just one outing after the Detroit debacle, Yost sent Soria out for a second inning. He allowed four runs, which looked even worse after the Royals scored three runs in the ninth.

The conclusion: While Yost makes plenty of bullpen decisions that backfire, there is usually a reasonable explanation supporting the move. But this time, asking Soria to go two innings against the Texas lineup seemed a bit much, especially considering what had happened the game before. Then again, it’s also hard to say the Royals would have come back and won this game if Soria hadn’t given up those runs.

8. Aug. 4: 3-2 loss to the Tampa Bay Rays

The situation: With the Royals holding a 2-0 lead, Soria came on in the eighth and allowed a three-run homer to Brad Miller. The blowup squandered a great performance from Ian Kennedy, who had thrown six scoreless innings.

The conclusion: The offense, of course, could have scored more than two runs. But if you’re looking for a clear-cut game to pin on Soria, this is probably it.

9. Aug. 30: 5-4 loss to the New York Yankees

The situation: In some ways, the Royals were lucky to be tied at 4-4 after nine innings. Soria entered in the 10th and loaded the bases with two singles and a walk. And with two outs, he couldn’t handle a comebacker from Jacoby Ellsbury. In the bottom half of the inning, the Royals put runners at second and third with nobody out. They couldn’t tie the game.

The conclusion: Soria had recorded 11 straight scoreless appearances before this one. His ERA was 2.70 during the month of August. In some ways, this was just bad timing.

The final analysis: This is all an inexact science, of course. In most cases, games are not won and lost on the performance of one pitcher or one player. When a reliever allows a run in a loss, he has by definition contributed to said loss. When a reliever pitches for a team that doesn’t score many runs, those runs can be costly.

Bu after compiling this list, I think it’s fair to say that Soria has contributed to four or five (maybe six) losses this year, with a couple of instances being especially egregious. But this is all fuzzy math, and then again, you can’t expect any reliever to be perfect.

Maybe except Matt Strahm.

OK, onto the mailbag. The podcast recommendation is this old Gene Wilder interview on Fresh Air. The random music recommendation is this new single off the upcoming Bon Iver album. It is both weird and good and would probably be right at home on “Life of Pablo.”

Here is how the Vargas insurance situation was explained to me. The Royals’ insurance policy covered all but the first 60 days of the season and was based on the number of days that Vargas missed. If he would have missed the whole season, the policy would have covered about $6 million of his $8.5 million salary. But Vargas returning in September won’t affect the policy at all. The insurance payouts will simply stop if and when he returns to the active roster.

Royals officials have been consistent that financial considerations would not play a factor in his return.

Barring injuries or some kind of unforeseen development, I think four spots in the 2017 rotation are near locks, at least entering the season.

Danny Duffy

Ian Kennedy

Yordano Ventura

Jason Vargas

The question is the fifth starter, and I use the term “fifth” loosely. I’m just thinking of the person that rounds out the rotation. Among the options: Matt Strahm, Mike Minor, Chris Young and maybe Edinson Volquez, who will be a free agent.

There are many moving parts with Volquez, but I think the most logical scenario is this: The Royals give him a qualifying offer, Volquez declines, and he signs a multi-year deal somewhere else.

I would expect the Royals to comb through the free agent market for a possible starter. Maybe a bounce-back candidate. But the finances could be tight. Speaking of a finances, there is also the idea that the Royals could save some money by trading a member of their core, in which case, a starter would be high on the priority list for a possible return. But at this point, this is all speculative.

There do remain some scouts that think Strahm profiles as a reliever in the long run. But man, if he can retain most of his velocity as a starter and polish his change-up, he could provide some serious value as a starter.

Regression, man.

Orlando’s batting average on balls in place is now .378, which ranks fourth in the major leagues among players with at least 350 plate appearances.

The bad news: His BABIP was over .400 as recently as the middle of August, and the Royals surely would have taken some better luck on Wednesday, when Orlando ripped three line drives in a 5-4 loss to the Yankees. (If the final liner finds a hole, the Royals would have another victory.)

It’s only September and perhaps something change. But I think these two awards are mostly decided. Danny Duffy will win the Royals’ pitcher of the year award. Salvador Perez will likely win player of the year honors.

Perez has been worth 2.4 WAR, according to the FanGraphs’ version of the stat. Among catchers in the American League, only Boston’s Sandy Leon has a higher WAR — which actually seems really weird. Sometimes I don’t get the WAR stat.

Anyway, Perez has been a force behind the plate, even when he’s been slumping at the plate. I tweeted the other night that Lorenzo Cain is the Royals’ best player, and I still think that’s true. But Cain did miss a month with injury, which displayed how valuable he is.

Cain still leads the Royals in WAR — 2.5 in 102 games — and there is a month left. So I suppose he could make a solid case for the award with a monster September.

Probably as the fourth starter. But I’d like to see how he’s pitching at the end of the month. Volquez’s performance in the 2015 postseason is still burned into my head. But his August was rocky, to say the least.

I can understand the debate about “Die Hard,” which is a Christmas movie, by the way. But “Home Alone?” Do people think it’s not a Christmas movie? If the plot revolving around the holidays wasn’t enough, the scene with Old Man Marley in the church puts it over the top, as does the plot line involving the mom trying to get home to see Kevin.

It’s a Christmas movie.