Joakim Soria heard the boos. He could be like thousands of professional athletes before him, and undoubtedly thousands more in the future, and pretend he didn’t hear it.
The Royals’ relief pitcher could evoke the athlete’s privilege in which outright nonsense is presented as a real answer, by saying he doesn’t care or didn’t notice. Nobody gets booed at home during the good times, and it’s human nature to be defensive in the bad times. Had he done that, we all would’ve nodded our heads and moved on because we’ve become accustomed to hearing such fibs. It’s just sports, anyway.
But Soria didn’t do that. He heard the boos Tuesday, and the next day he was asked about the boos and gave what might be the perfect answer. It is an answer that should be taught in the media prep classes leagues and teams put on and applauded for its perspective, humility and maturity.
“This is a show,” Soria said. “This show is for them. It is a show. They come to the game, and if they feel they want to boo, then they do. They boo. We work for them. If they think a boo is OK, then it’s OK. As a human being, you try to do the best. That’s it.”
It’s mentioned that Soria — now in his ninth big-league season — has been around long enough to handle this.
“If you put that in your mind, that’s bad,” he said. “You take that out of your mind. Obviously, I want them to cheer better than boo, but if they feel that way, that’s OK. At the end of the day, this is a show for them.”
OK, now let’s talk about why fans were booing him in the first place, what the Royals should do now and the opportunity — yes, opportunity — they’re presented with.
Royals pitching coach Dave Eiland called Soria into a room early Wednesday afternoon. Eiland had noticed something the night before and confirmed it by watching slow-motion video after the game, but he waited for emotions to settle to meet with Soria.
In baseball speak, Soria has a “lazy front side.” In normal-people speak, his front arm is drifting off to the first base side, which isn’t generating the guidance or power needed for his throwing arm. It is a problem, affecting both movement and location, but coaches would love for this to be the extent of their pitchers’ problems.
“ ‘Yeah, yeah,’ ” Eiland remembered Soria saying while watching the video. “ ‘I see it, I got it.’ ”
Now Soria has to fix it. He has to feel the problem playing catch, repeat the fixed mechanics on side sessions and then take the improvements to game situations.
Soria is not being hit particularly hard — his problems have come more from walks, and grounders finding holes — but he’s surrendered runs in half of his appearances, and his 7.71 ERA looks too much like the price of a club sandwich.
The Royals gave Soria a three-year, $25 million contract because he is talented and consistent with a proven track record. Royals manager Ned Yost has always liked defined roles for all his players, particularly relief pitchers, and has used Soria as the eighth-inning setup man for Wade Davis.
Yost is trying to downplay Soria’s struggles, saying he finds overreaction to two weeks “amusing,” but he’s concerned enough to say that Kelvin Herrera is “probably” the eighth-inning reliever in the interim — and here’s where that opportunity comes in.
Herrera should have been the eighth-inning guy from the beginning. He is more overpowering, misses more bats, and now that he’s added a slider — important for a lot of reasons, none more than he now has a pitch that goes away from right-handed hitters — is good enough to close for most teams.
But, like Soria and every other human who throws baseballs for a living, Herrera has certain ticks and periods where he loses his command or movement. Last September, for instance, Herrera gave up a total of seven runs over 1 2/3 innings on back-to-back appearances. That’s more damage than Soria has surrendered across his eight outings.
We used the word “opportunity” earlier. That’s because, for now, Herrera will be used in the more difficult situations, whether they come in the seventh or eighth inning. If the middle of the order is due up in the seventh, Herrera will be deployed. If it’s the bottom of the order, Soria will come on and Herrera will be ready for the eighth.
Whoever is pitching better, with cleaner mechanics and more confidence, will handle the tougher task.
“So in two or three days, that could change,” Eiland said. “Then maybe it’s flipped back. Or if they’re both down, it could be (Luke Hochevar). That’s the luxury we have.”
This is, simply, brilliant. It’s what teams should do, particularly teams with such a wealth of high-quality relief pitchers (though that’s a pretty short list). This is the opportunity.
The Royals can make this new setup a permanent one. The goal should be to use your best relief pitchers in the most important situations, and it’s plain baloney to think either end of that equation is static over 162 games.
Right now, Herrera is the best reliever in front of Davis. By next Tuesday, it might be Soria. Or, like Eiland said, Hochevar. The most important moment might come in the eighth inning one night, and in the sixth the next. Use your best bullet for your best shot.
Few teams have the bullpen depth to make this a viable strategy, but the Royals happen to be one of them. Keeping bullpen roles so fluid would go against traditional thinking, but the Royals are well positioned in more ways than personnel.
Yost has talked over and over about his biggest growth as a manager coming from trusting his coaches more, so this is something he and Eiland should be able to navigate together.
Doing it like this means inviting criticism for overmanaging, but Yost and Eiland carry the security of a world championship and the respect of their players. As long as Herrera and Soria can handle it with humility, everyone benefits. The relievers’ good moments are amplified, their bad moments diminished. The bullpen improves, and the Royals are stronger for it.
Much of the Royals’ rise from trash to trophies came by turning failures into grand successes. Alex Gordon goes from a bust at third base to a star in left field. Zack Greinke demands a trade, so the Royals get Lorenzo Cain and Alcides Escobar. Davis was a bad starting pitcher and now a historically great closer.
This wouldn’t be as important or obvious as any of those. But it is an opportunity to turn a letdown into a strength, and the new Royals don’t often miss on these.