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The Twelve Days of Free Agent Relief Pitchers: Day Six, Joakim Soria

I have gone off the board with my Twelve Days of Relief Pitching, in picking Joakim Soria. Fight me, it’s what the holidays are about.

Photo by Ellen Adair.

The Twelve Days of Free Agent Relief Pitchers: Day Six, Joakim Soria


Estimated Reading Time: 5 Minutes

If I planted my flag with Trevor May, I understand that I may be going completely off the board with Joakim Soria. But while the first few days of my “Twelve Days of Free Agent Relief Pitchers” were decently straight-forward, my rankings from here on out have frequently surprised even myself. Many of these pitchers balance excellence with some caveats, and it was fun to ponder how to weigh those in the scales of this very, very scholarly and scrupulous holiday-themed ranking.

Ultimately, Trevor May is appropriately placed at five, so that we can sing “Five, Treh-vor Maaaaay” to the tune of “five golden rings.” And this, as I posited yesterday, is because no-longer-a-free-agent May is the one of these things that is not like the others. But also, Trevor May, number five, may be the Rubicon beyond which I may be engaging in a battle. “Five, Trevor Maaaaaay” is the moment of pause and reflection, before the six geese of my opinions lay proverbial eggs.

Joakim Soria

WHAT?! Yes. Indeed, Joakim Soria is going into his age-37 season. Yes, he has not been a team’s primary closer for a full season since 2011. But I can’t quit you, Joakim Soria.

And neither can baseball teams. Soria has played for seven different teams in his career—and has two different stints with the Royals—because teams have frequently wanted to trade for him at the deadline to shore up their pen. And this desirability is really the culprit for not having more full seasons as a closer under his belt. In 2015, he was the Tigers’ closer until they traded him to the Pirates, and in 2018, he got the saves for the White Sox until he was shipped to the Brewers. Suffice to say, his passport has been heavily stamped by the Central divisions.

One Soria a-Dealing

But Soria spent the last two years as part of the Athletics’ stellar bullpen, good for the second-best ERA and third-best WAR over that span. Though not as flashy as his ex-teammates and fellow free agents Liam Hendriks and Blake Treinen, Soria more than gets the job done. His 2.82 ERA in 2020 receives support from a 2.97 FIP, and his xERA was actually lower, at 2.76. That his xwOBA was in the top 10% of the league despite posting a career-high walk rate of 10.4% is a testament to his all-around abilities. (If you need a refresher on any of these advanced metrics, I got you.)

As for that 10% walk rate—contrast it with his career average of 7.3%—both his four-seamer and his slider did find the zone less in 2020. But I’m willing to dismiss this as the vagaries of a small sample size of 22 innings pitched. Especially since a lot of this damage was done in one game, on August 14 versus the Mariners (naturally), in which the slider, in particular, missed for strikes.

The small sample may also be to blame for Soria’s tiny reduction in strikeouts, bringing him to a 25% K-rate this year. But it wouldn’t surprise me if a longer season sees a return to the 27-29% of the last three years.

The old proverb: age before variability

The question, of course, with a veteran pitcher like Soria, is whether he might start to decline, which is why the one-year, $7 million deal averaged at FanGraphs makes sense. Age is definitely the caveat for Soria, and the main reason I’d expect someone to pick a fight with my ranking him here. But his lengthy track record of consistency represents the other side of that coin. And Soria has posted an ERA+ above 100 (ie., better than league-average) with every single one of the seven clubs for whom he has pitched.

Moreover, signs of age-related decline didn’t appear in 2020. His velocity has been steady and, with a fastball that averages 94, it isn’t a foundational part of his arsenal. This year, he mixed in an occasional changeup and curve to his fastball-slider combo, but he seems to constantly tinker with the usage of his secondary pitches, and having so many to work with helps him. All of his pitches have years with positive pitch values, over his career, and he seems to adjust.

As for injuries, he missed only a couple of weeks in 2019 with an elbow issue, and came back strong. 2012’s Tommy John surgery is not only out of the rearview mirror, it’s practically out of the range of a telescope. Do you remember what you were doing in 2012? We were all different humans.

But wait, one more caveat

The most concerning of his 2020 statistics is a career-low ground-ball rate of 27.4%, and this is the main statistical basis that nearly caused me to rank Soria lower. The culprit appears the changeup, which has lost an inch of vertical movement since 2018, when it was the driving force of his career-high 54.8% gound ball rate, by average launch angle.

My fears are mildly assuaged by the fact that his ground ball rate has widely fluctuated across his career (see: arsenal tinkering, above), but his results have remained reliable. The fact that his career-high GB% haven’t necessarily been his best seasons by a metric like ERA, or one like ERA+, make it seem not crucial to his success.

Soria to the World, the inning’s done

Now, I have mentioned that I’m only ranking, not positing landing spots, since every team needs relief pitching. (Although I do outline who needs relief pitching most in my first piece).

But with Soria, I’m even conflicted about the outcome I want most. Some part of me roots for him to go to a team that will use him as a closer, but another part of me roots for him to go to a team with a shot at a World Series title. Having started his career in Kansas City, and signed his first free-agent contract with them in 2015, I am sad that he missed the Royals’ glorious Octobers. And I wish you joy, Joakim Soria.

Okay, yeah. Not sure if the 2021 Red Sox may qualify as joy. But they could sure use him.

Ellen Adair is an actor, probably best known as Janet Bayne in “Homeland,” Bess McTeer in “The Sinner,” and Bridget Saltire in “The Slap,” but has been in a lot of other TV shows, films, and theater that the truly curious can investigate at www.ellenadair.com. As a human being, she is best known for her unhealthy love of baseball. It says so on her business cards. She loves baseball in general, but the Phillies are her life partner. She is the author of "Curtain Speech," from Pen & Anvil Press, and is working on bringing to life a TV series about baseball writers. Connect with her on Twitter at @ellen_adair or Instagram at @ellenadairg.

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