Going into last night's game, Joakim Soria had thrown seven innings this year and despite the small sample size, those innings have come with much hand-wringing. Kansas City Star beat writer Rustin Dodd tweeted out an interesting fact regarding the lack of soft contact against Soria despite a miserable ERA, now at 6.75 after his outing last night.
Now you look at that data and say "okay, so he's been unlucky", a reasonable enough conclusion. His average batted ball velocity this year is 83.9 MPH (going into last night). His average velocity last year was 87.5 MPH. Meanwhile his batting average on balls in play (BABIP) is .429 so far compared to a career average BABIP is .273.
We can look a little further into the surface numbers too. What does 83.9 MPH average velocity even mean in comparison to other pitchers? Soria has the ninth lowest batted ball velocity in the majors so far (minimum of 20 batters faced)
Above are Soria's batted ball velocity peers so far. Basically everyone there has an ERA under 2.50 except for Soria and Harvey and the pitchers all have a BABIP much lower than Soria's .429. However there is something else you should notice as well - Soria's FIP. It is also way out of line than the other guys but it is agnostic to Soria's batted ball velocity since it only measures essentially walks, strikeouts, and home runs. Soria is allowing a ton of walks and that single home run (which given his small number of innings skews things). I'm not that concerned with the home run blip but the walks are something.
Let's go a little deeper though still. Batted ball velocity is something nice to have and look at but it is a surface stat for the most part; especially this early into the season. The question is what happened to those softly hit balls. Were they ground outs? If so, then it doesn't really matter that they were softly hit necessarily in regards to a bad ERA. Were they singles into the outfield? That would be the BABIP gods perhaps talking.
Here is every ball in play for Soria this year:
Right away we can identify some balls in play that stand out. Those two singles down near the left field line are obvious candidates for bloopers. Maybe even the front single to center could be too. That really seems to be it though.
Now let's look at the exit velocities of those balls in play:
That really changes things. Those two singles to the left field line were very weakly hit and are definite bloopers. However that front center field single was hit with some speed. Staying in the outfield there is a line out that was hit softly in right, and two fly outs near it that were hit both soft-ish and hard-ish. Of course the two triples and home run were hit rather hard.
However when you shift to the infield is where it seems like a different picture that perhaps originally painted. The two hardest hit balls in the infield were outs and those two balls are also the 2nd and 3rd hardest hit overall.
This Jose Altuve line out was hit at 100 MPH
Then there's this basically non-threatening ground out from Danny Valencia to Alcides Escobar again that was hit at 101 MPH.
We can also take the easy route and just look at every ball in play in hard data:
I've highlighted all the hits against Soria and there is clearly a sweet spot there where the majority of his hits have been. As you can see they aren't weakly hit balls falling for singles. They fall between a ~10 MPH band 87-98. That seems like a wide range though. Here is how hitters in 2015 hit in those given exit velocities:
And Soria's distribution of batted balls by velocity:
10 MPH intervals
5 MPH intervals
~40%% of Soria's batted balls have been hit between 85-99 MPH and ~20% in the 85-94 MPH band where hitters did just okay with on a batting average basis. However also notice that ~25-30% of his batted balls fall in those two buckets where batters destroyed the ball last year.
Finally let's single out only the hits:
*Note that on Wednesday night the Tigers hit two balls at 100+ MPH that ended as outs too
To me, it doesn't really seem like poor batted ball luck is the issue with Soria, especially when it comes to soft contact. More so it could be a factor of where his pitches are ended up over the plate before they get put into play.
And again let's single out the balls in play that became hits:
It's not like opposing teams have gotten cheap hits off of him... Here is the pitch speed of those hits:
A bunch of low 90 fastballs in the zone and then a slider left over the plate. Those aren't really cheap hits or "booty knocks."
One final examination is the data we have provided by FanGraphs and Baseball Info Solutions in batted ball contact rate (sorted by soft, medium, and hard). They use exit velocity, launch angle, and batted ball distance to classify the quality of contact. Soria has actually been pretty "meh" in generating soft contact ranking at 46th lowest (out of 177 qualified relievers). Where he is in the front pack is in medium contact, ranking fifth-most in such contact out of qualified relievers.
For Soria, I am not convinced he is getting BABIP'd to death. When you don't throw good pitches (like he hasn't) they have a high chance of becoming hits. Meanwhile the walks aren't helping keep his runs down either (though his LOB% is very low too; however this is compounded by the hits).
*Much of the information courtesy of MLB Statcast