When the Royals were on a run of winning back-to-back pennants, even the most ardent Royals fans would admit it wasn't exactly with the most talented team in baseball. The Royals were a team short on superstars (despite the All-Star voting results!) with a pop-gun offense and an underwhelming pitching rotation. What they had, however, was a formula for success - timely hitting based on high contact, a defense that converted a ton of outs, and a dominating bullpen to shut things down.
When those variables aren't up to snuff, however, the formula doesn't work. The Royals have seen their high-contact approach suffer this year, with a significant increase in strikeouts that has led to them being near the bottom of the league in runs scored. The defense has still been good - the second-best in baseball - but not the dominating defense it was last year.
Then there is the bullpen. Joakim Soria has not been the worst reliever in baseball by any stretch. But he has not been particularly good either. The average American League reliever has an ERA of 3.88 with a 3.95 FIP. Joakim Soria has a 4.13 ERA and a 4.50 FIP. Overall, the Royals bullpen, which last year featured the terrifying trio of "HDH" - Kelvin Herrera/Wade Davis/Greg Holland - is not as dominant as it once was. The Royals do lead the league in reliever ERA, but they are just 19% better than the league average, compared to last year when they were 28% better than league average. Last year, the Royals won 92% of their games when leading after six innings. This year, they are 87% of such games. It is not a huge margin, but it could mean the difference between making the playoffs and staying home.
This is not to put all the Royals troubles at the feet of Joakim Soria. Fans will put last night's loss to the Twins at his feet, and he certainly deserve a bulk of the blame. But if the Royals get some timely hitting in the eighth (failing to score Terrance Gore from second base or third base) and ninth (stranding the tying run at second to end the game), the Royals have a better chance of winning. If the Alcides Escobar doesn't air mail a routine throw to first base on a ground ball, a run doesn't score and the Royals have a better chance of winning.
Other teams have bullpen issues, bigger issues than the Royals face with Joakim Soria. Texas has a 4.81 bullpen ERA, worst in the league. But they're cruising to a playoff spot, because they have a terrific offense and some excellent starting pitchers. Detroit showed their bullpen issues last week against the Royals, when Alex Wilson blew a 4-1 lead in the seventh inning on Sunday. But the Tigers were able to overcome that with Justin Upton drilling a two-run home run to regain the lead.
The Royals don't seem to have that kind of margin for error. They have been running their ship on shoestring and gumption. Their formula requires Joakim Soria to be near perfect, the way Wade Davis has been the last few years. The formula requires Royals hitters to have a 15.9% strikeout rate, as they did in 2015, not a 19.9% strikeout rate as they do this year. Their formula requires Alcides Escobar to have the defense for a 7.1 UZR as he did in 2015, not a 0.3 UZR as he has this year.
The margin of error is small for the Royals, requiring near-perfect execution and a little luck. Their title run was remarkable, and perhaps so extraordinary because it is so difficult to replicate. Joakim Soria is just one reason why.