You may remember this award winning post from last year where I pointed out Zack Greinke wasn't nearly the same pitcher as the previous Cy Young winning year and how I showed by digging deeper into the numbers than just wins, ERA, and WHIP that he was clearly off. Some people called me an idiot, but you may recall he finished out the year with significantly worse numbers than the year prior, as I predicted. Now I must turn my attention to another pitcher who has caught my worrying eye, coincidentally another Royal, in Joakim Soria.
Soria has been a fullly dominant closer for the past three years, never posting an ERA over 2.12 or a WHIP above 1.13 while saving an average of 38 games and striking out more than a batter per inning. He started out the season pitching in 4 of their first 5 games, going 4 total innings and allowing just two hits and no runs while picking up a win and a save. All sounds great. But the number that really stood out to me was he had just one strikeout. For a pitcher who averaged over at least one per inning in his career this looking like a minor red flag - maybe simple variance could account for it - but it was something I meant to look into. Then came yesterday, when Soria entered the game with the Royals up 6-3 on the White Sox and after getting two ground outs allowed four hits and four runs to blow the save. Worrisome from a guy like him. I don't know where to find this info but I'm willing to bet he's rarely if ever blown a 3-run save.
Looking at ERA and WHIP would be meaningless here since our sample size of just five innings is so small and he has that monster of a blow-up on his resume, so like Greinke last year, let's look a little deeper.
Checking out his profile page at Fangraphs one thing immediately stands out: velocity. Soria's fastball has always been at 91-92mph throughout his career, this year it's at 89.6mph, over 2mph slower than last year and as we've seen with Nick Blackburn if your fastball is under 90 you can't miss or that thing is getting pounded, and it's even worse when that fastball is your best pitch as in Soria's case.
Due, at least in part, to that change in velocity he's also getting hitters to chase balls out of the zone far less and missing fewer bats. Last year batters swung at 30.3% of his pitches that were outside the zone, this year that number is far lower at just 21.7%. That 30.3% number ranked him in the top third of relievers last year, while that 21.7% number would put him dead last if it held up the entire year.
Obviously it's easier for batters to hit the ball hard if it's in the strike zone, so if you can't get them to chase you need them to miss - something Soria isn't doing this year either. Overall contact rate on balls swung at is up, from 75.8% in his career to 84.2% this year, while the % of strikes he throws that are swinging strikes is way down (from 11.0% to 2.6%).
Finally, let's look at his approach. Perhaps due to that drop in velocity he's relying far less on his fastball. In his career he's thrown the heater 72.6% of the time, but this year he's thrown it just 55%, increasingly relying on his slider and his changeup, throwing both at more than double his career frequency. Unfortunately for his career if you rank the effectiveness of his pitches it goes fastball, curveball (although it was bad last season), slider, change-up.
Basically Soria has lost velocity on his best pitch and is throwing his lesser pitches more often, causing batters to chase less and make more and better contact on the balls they do swing at which are more consistently in the zone. Ouch. And although regression to the mean works both ways and suggests he's going to get better, the changes detailed above coupled with a completely reasonable .316 BABIP make me think that this may not be a regression to the mean case - we may be at the mean already.
I hope not. I like the guy, he's fun to watch, and he's on our fantasy team. But I'm worried.