Imagine this... a reliever with a K/9 greater than 11, a BB/9 less than 3.5, and a HR/9 rate less than 0.5.* Your imagination might lead you to an All Star-type reliever, as it should. For evidence, there have only been eight relievers in baseball to achieve those numbers this year. This includes Kenley Jansen, Craig Kimbrel, Andrew Miller, and Wade Davis. It also includes Joakim Soria.
Joakim Soria’s second go-around with the Royals has been... less than ideal. He blew seven saves last year with an ERA of 4.05. His surface stats aren't all that eye-popping this year, with an ERA of 3.34 and a WHIP of 1.31. But this year, Soria has been far more reliable, blowing only three leads out of his 37 outings this year. Let's take a look at what has changed.
*-all stats through July 4
Look, by most accounts, Soria had a bad season in 2016. The Royals didn’t pay for a 4.05 ERA and 4.36 FIP. Most of his struggles last year came with the long ball (career high HR/9 of 1.4 last year) and walks (career high BB/9 of 3.7 last year).
You could say some of his struggles came from bad luck, and that would be true. His BABIP last year was .323, way above his career norm of .283. None of the metrics would say he deserved this too, as he gave up an average exit velocity of 85.7 in 2016 (pretty normal).
But the walks weren't a factor of luck at all. Soria just had control problems last year.
His ERA is still higher than it should be this year, currently at 3.34. The blame for that is simple. Somehow, Soria has a BABIP of .367 this year. Imagine what kind of year he would be having with even a .315 BABIP. Also, his LOB% being 11.4% below his career average doesn't help.
Soria has made tremendous improvements year. As I mentioned above, his FIP factors all look great.
- K/9- 9.2 in 2016, 12.1 in 2017
- BB/9- 3.7 in 2016, 3.3 in 2017
- HR/9- 1.4 in 2016, 0.0 in 2017
Obviously he is faring better this year. I did some quick and easy research to find out why Soria has been much better this year and I found some interesting things.
The first thing I noticed was his batted ball profile has changed a lot from previous years. His GB/FB ratio is easily the highest of his career, as it currently stands at 2.68. It was pretty easy to see the cause of this too, as these heat maps do all the explaining.
Soria is keeping the ball down a lot more, causing him to generate a lower launch angle. Also putting himself at the leas risk for home runs.
The next thing I looked at was his pitch usage. Some noticeable changes include his fastball usage (61.9% in 2016 to 52.2% in 2017) and his changeup usage (18.6% in 2016 to 31.5% in 2017). To summarize, Soria is subtracting fastballs and adding in changeups. The changeup is generating ground balls too. Minimum 200 pitches thrown, Soria ranks fourth in % of pitches that have been ground balls produced by changeup.
The difference-maker for Soria though has been his fastball. Last year, his fastball was torched. The wOBA on his heater was .400, one of higher marks in all of baseball. This year it is .280, one of the lower marks in all of baseball. Clear improvement.
Another thing I wanted to touch up on was his velocity. Obviously the narrative in baseball is that when you get older, your fastball MPH decreases. This is the exact opposite for Soria. In 2014, his fastball bottomed out at 90.2 MPH. In 2015, it rose to 92.2 MPH. In 2016, 92.7 MPH. This year, he is at 93.1 MPH. Not to mention, he has added 1 MPH to his slider and 1.5 MPH to his already hard changeup.
So whether you go by FIP, xFIP, SIERRA, etc., you will find Soria is having a terrific year. The ERA is meh this year, standing at 3.34. But all factors should leave you to believe that even that will start trending downwards.
In short, we shouldn't have to go to the edge of our seats when Joakim Soria enters the game. Because this year, he has been one of the best relievers in baseball.