Honoring Joakim Soria

Jamie Squire

An attempt to revive a Freneau classic.

The Texas Rangers signed Joakim Soria to a two-year deal worth roughly $8 million last Tuesday that received a polite round of applause from the baseball world. Soria gained guaranteed money and a multi-year deal, while the Rangers bought low on a potential replacement for Joe Nathan once Soria recovers.

The Kansas City Royals don't have any business spending $8 million dollars on a reliever, so it makes sense that the team let Soria walk. While some Royals fans held out hope that Soria would return next season at a bargain, he clearly is held in high enough regard by the rest of baseball to pursue better opportunities elsewhere.

Soria missed all of 2012 with his second Tommy John surgery, so Royals fans have had plenty of time to come to grips with his departure. Still, the finality of the deal aroused some bittersweet emotions; I'm happy that Soria will finally get a chance to play for a competitive baseball team, but I wish that opportunity happened for him in Kansas City. Soria had an electrifying and dominant tenure in Kansas City, but one that is surrounded with "what if?" questions.

The Royals selected Soria with the second pick of the 2006 Rule V draft, claiming him from the San Diego Padres. Ryan Goleski of Cleveland Indians went first in the draft, selected by the Tampa Bay Devil Rays. Josh Hamilton went third that year, selected from the Devil Rays by the Chicago Cubs.

Although Hamilton is easily the most successful player to come out of that Rule V draft, Soria made headlines first. Two days after Kansas City selected Soria with the pick, the then 22-year-old tossed a perfect game in the Mexican Winter League. General Manager Dayton Moore raved about the selection, stating:

"He throws three above-average pitches, and his mound presence was outstanding, He was almost too good to be true when we saw him."

Soria made the team's Opening Day roster in 2007, so Kansas City did not send him back to the Padres. For fun, here is the Royals Opening Day lineup in 2007:

1.

David DeJesus

CF

2.

Mark Grudzielanek

2B

3.

Mark Teahen

RF

4.

Mike Sweeney

DH

5.

Alex Gordon

3B

6.

Ryan Shealy

1B

7.

Ross Gload

LF

8.

John Buck

C

9.

Tony Pena

SS

Gil Meche

P

There are plenty of potential jokes, but seeing Ross Gload starting in left field really needs no further commentary.

Soria settled in quickly behind Octavio Dotel in the set-up role. Although Dotel racked up the sexy save numbers, Soria pitched far better that season. When Moore shipped off Dotel for Kyle Davies, Soria shifted into the closer's role, a job he dominated for the next three seasons.

From 2007-2010, Soria could stake the claim as the best relief pitcher not named Mariano Rivera in baseball. Fangraphs Wins Above Replacement ranks him as the fourth-best reliever from that time frame, behind Jonathan Broxton, Jonathan Papelbon and Rivera, while their RA9-Wins places Soria second by Rivera. Looking at his statistics from that time frame help illustrate the dominance.

Season


K%


BB%


LOB%


ERA


FIP


ERA-


FIP-


Saves


2007

27.80%

7.00%

74.40%

2.48

2.50

54

56

17

2008

25.40%

7.30%

89.50%

1.60

3.25

36

74

42

2009

31.10%

7.20%

87.30%

2.21

2.74

49

62

30

2010

26.30%

5.90%

88.70%

1.78

2.53

43

60

43

Not only did Soria dominate statistically, he did so in an appealing manner. It's impossible to bring up Soria without discussing his looping curveball, one that froze countless hitters, regardless if they knew the pitch was coming. Jeff already discussed Soria's curveball when news of the injury broke, and his take on his curveball is definitely worth a visit.

Soria's excellence on the pitching mound went beyond his curveball. He had an easy, repeatable motion that became associated with his calming presence on the team. From 2008-2010 Soria stranded a ridiculously high percentage of runners who reached base against him. He looked completely unflappable on the mound, regardless of the situation. When Soria came in with a lead, the game felt as good as won.

Although his curveball gets the most love, I always enjoyed watching Soria throw his fastball. It did not excite the way Kelvin Herrera dialing up a three-digit fastball does, but announcers loved describing the pitch as "deceptively fast." Although the pitch only clocked in the low-90's, Soria placed it with impeccable location. He could paint either corner with the fastball, and used the pitch early and often in the count. Batters found themselves down in the count far too often against Soria and his mix of pitches left them little hope of reaching base.

Soria's peak coincided when the Royals had practically nothing positive happening at the major-league level. Zack Greinke blossomed into a top-flight starting pitcher, but Gil Meche and Brian Bannister rank as the next most valuable starting pitcher from 2007-2010. David Dejesus had a solid four seasons, but did not rank as one of baseball's 50 most valuable position players. Mike Aviles accumulated the second most position-player wins over the four year period at 5.2 fWAR.

The fact that Soria dominated his position at an utterly useless time for the Royals to own a shutdown closer fueled the endless discussion that is a large part of his legacy as a Royal. Two main arguments existed: "Should the Royals try Soria as a starter? and "Should the Royals trade Soria?"

The second Tommy John surgery likely makes the "Soria as a starter" discussion appear worse in hindsight, but it definitely strengthens the "Royals should trade Soria" argument. Both arguments are still interesting to look back on and wonder "what if?"

The Royals desperately need more starting pitching (sounds vaguely familiar) when Soria dominated the bullpen, and his easy motion and four-pitch repertoire made him an appealing candidate to shift into the starting rotation. The front office did not appear to consider the idea as seriously as much as the fan base did. Generally, management did not cite injury concerns as their logic behind the decision; instead, their thought process resembled "let's not mess with a good thing."

A game lost in the first inning counts the same as a game lost in the fifth, which counts the same as game lost in the ninth inning. At the end of the season, it does not matter how you scored less runs than the other team after 27 outs, only that it happened. When you are experiencing the game, however, it makes a huge difference. As a fan you feel like your team deserved to win a game that they blew in the ninth inning; you probably don't feel that way if Kyle Davies went full on Hiram in the first inning.

Soria protected everyone associated with the team from experiencing these emotions during his dominant stretch. Although Kansas City did not win often, they rarely blew games in the ninth inning, which provided some level of comfort. Heading into 2009 season, it's even possible to sympathize with this logic. The Royals clearly attempted to put together a competitive team, and having a dominant reliever could have helped the team compete.

Soria also wanted to stay in Kansas City, something that doesn't always happen with the team's best players. The closer signed a deal that could have kept him in Royal blue until 2014 if the team did not buy out his option this season. I understand reluctance to trade a good player who wants to play for your team, but the team's needs should come before loyalty to any player.

Once it became clear that the Royals had no chance of competing in 2009, Soria became an attractive and expendable trade piece that Moore never cashed in. A young, cost-controlled, dominant reliever is a valuable chip to hold, especially around the trade deadline when most contenders are looking for bullpen help.

Although the Soria for Miguel Jesus Montero rumors seem far-fetched, the Washington Nationals did turn Matt Capps into Wilson Ramos. Soria certainly had more trade value than Capps, and a different general manager would have capitalized on this value

It's likely the Royals planned on Soria still being the team's closer, but that line of thinking is foolish, regardless of the injury Soria suffered. Closers in the non-Rivera division have short peaks, as Soria showed in 2011. The Kansas City bullpen also survived the loss of Soria, even thriving in 2012 despite having Broxton close games for half the season. The team had an excess of pitchers in the bullpen, but failed to capitalize on them.

Even if the Royals did not have a strong bullpen, the Royals should have unloaded Soria anyways. I believe Joe Posnanski described Joakim Soria's relationship with the Royals like "having a $3,000 pool table in a house with broken windows." The Royals had too many flaws on their roster to not try an upgrade them with a valuable but replaceable trade piece.

The ultimate meaningless of Soria's career frustrates me the most about his legacy. I will always remember Soria's dominant years and appreciate the joys he gave me as a fan. But the Royals never had any chance of winning during his career, and never exchanged him for a piece that might help them win now.

Soria did everything in his power to help the Royals win during his tenure as Royals close, but the Royals did not do everything in their power to maximize Soria's worth. His gratifying peak as one of the best relief pitchers in baseball will always stick with me, but the Royals refusal use Soria in a trade will haunt them.

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