Here was the thing: Joakim Soria seemed magical. That was the word. Magical. He came to the Royals as a Rule 5 draft pick, an almost complete unknown, and by the end of April he was already being asked to close some games. He had a nearly two month stretch -- from the end of May to the end of July -- when he did not give up a single run. By the end of the season, he was the Royals full-time closer. The next three seasons, he averaged 38 saves and had a 1.84 ERA for bad Royals teams and while his nickname around Kansas City was the Mexicutioner, he was known around baseball as "One of the Royals few bright spots."
The thing that made him magical, though, was that he succeeded subtly. Mysteriously, even. There was no OBVIOUS or BLATANT reason that he dominated hitters. He did not throw his fastball in the mid-to-high 90s like other dominant closers. Often, he did not even throw his fastball in the low 90s. He did not have a Mariano Rivera cutter or a Trevor Hoffman change-up or a Bruce Sutter split-fingered fastball. He did not have a wild-man act, did not stomp around the mound or glare batters down or intimidate in the slightest. He mainly looked like he had just woken up from a particularly refreshing nap.
How did he do it, then? That was wizardry. It wasn't one thing. It was, like a great witch's brew. He threw four pitches -- fastballs, slow curveballs, sliders, change-ups -- and he threw strikes with all of them. He did not just throw regular strikes either. He sliced corners. He burned the knees. He was a blur to hitters, coming at them from all sides, Sugar Ray Robinson flurry -- fastball for strike one, slider fouled back, Bugs Bunny curveball at 60 mph for strike three. At-bats were over before they began. For four years, batters hit .197 against him. They slugged .287. He struck out four times as many as he walked. He was the king of the 1-2-3 inning, the easy save.
And everyone was left to wonder how he it happened ... how had this perfect young pitcher just shown up, out of the blue, complete, and in Kansas City, no less. How? Around baseball, the Royals were a virtual non-factor and so the only people around the country who really knew anything about Soria were those who had him on their fantasy teams. And even they almost never saw him pitch. All they really seemed to know was that, if the Royals actually won a game, chances were that Joakim Soria had gotten himself another easy save. In three years, the Royals won 207 games. Soria won or saved 121 of them.
Magical, yes. And that's why I think this year came as such a surprise to many of us. He got his typical 1-2-3 innings his first two times out. He worked out of trouble but did not allow a run his third time. He got another 1-2-3 his fourth time out. He looked the same.
Then he gave up four hits and four runs against Chicago -- it was the first time in his career he had given up four runs in an outing. Next time out he got a save, but not before giving up a homer to Detroit's Ryan Raburn. Two outings later, he walked two and gave up a run. He wasn't terrible, not yet. But something seemed off. He blew a game at Yankee Stadium after a leadoff walk (though the Royals eventually won). He gave up a run in a tie game against Texas. He walked two and gave up a hit against the Cardinals.
And then it all fell apart -- three runs at Baltimore, two more runs at Texas, blown leads both. Then Monday afternoon, with the Royals up a run in the ninth, he allowed Bobby Abreu to punch a single the other way and then grooved a thigh-high fastball to Torii Hunter ... a pitch Hunter blasted into the left-field seats. It was then that Royals manager Ned Yost decided it was time to give Joakim Soria a little time away from the pressure of being a closer.
"There's a little bit of trying to understand exactly what the problem is," Yost told reporters.
"We have theories. Everybody has theories. ...
"His fastball is missing that little hop. ...
"He's not off by a whole lot. ...
"It's just not quite ..."
It's just not quite. The easy part is explaining why Soria is struggling.
1. Hitters are no longer swinging and missing Joakim Soria's pitches. Throughout Soria's career he would get swinging strikes 11 or 12 percent of the time. This year, they are swinging and missing less than 7 percent of the time. This is in part because ...
2. Hitters are no longer swinging at pitches Soria throws out of the strike zone. He could count on them doing that about 30% of the time in the past. Now, it's less than 20%. In truth, batters are just swinging at fewer Soria pitches, strikes or balls. This is in part because ...
3. His command just seems off. He's throwing the lowest percentage of strikes of his career. It used to be that when Soria was pitching, you might as well come out swinging because he was going to throw strikes. Now, he struggles with the strike zone sometimes. He gets behind hitters. The mushball fastball he threw to Torii Hunter was on a 2-0 count.
4. He has lost his ability to put hitters away. It used to be when Soria had two strikes on a hitter, the battle was over. Hitters hit .116 against Joakim Soria with two strikes coming into this season. Their OPS was .340. It made sense. Soria -- with a fastball he could put anywhere, a slider he could put anywhere, a change-up that looked just like his fastball coming out of his hand and that dizzying slow curve -- was all but impossible to beat with two strikes. This year, with two strikes batters are hitting .350 and slugging .600. Obviously that's in a very small number of at-bats but something drastic has changed.
So all that's easy. It's easy to see he's pitching differently than he did. But WHY is he pitching differently? That's the only question that really matters. And that question has no concrete answer. Ned Yost suggests, as you see above, that maybe his fastball just doesn't seem to hop like it did. Close observers say that he's just going through a stretch where he doesn't have the superhuman ability to put pitches EXACTLY where he wants ... and his confidence has been shaken a bit. A few fans say that hasn't been the same since asking everyone to stop calling him the Mexicutioner in response to the violence in his native country.
Maybe. But there's another potential explanation: Is this simply what happens to closers? That is the theory of one baseball man I talked with on Monday. The list of closers who were great for short bursts of time is daunting. Mark Davis won a Cy Young in 1989, he was all but unpitchable one year later. Bobby Thigpen saved 57 games in 1990, he was was minus-1 Wins Above Replacement for the rest of his career. Bryan Harvey ... Chad Cordero ... J.J. Putz ... Robb Nen ... Michael Jackson ... Derrick Turnbow ... Jeff Russell ... B.J. Ryan ... you can name two dozen others ... they had dominant seasons as closers, some of them had multiple dominant seasons, but then it ended, maybe because of injury, maybe because the league figured them out, or maybe because closers, like running backs and boy bands, live thrilling but short lives.
Another baseball executive kept asking me through the years why the Royals would not make Soria into a starter. I had written about that topic a few times, and he was adamant that the Royals were making a huge mistake keeping Soria in the closer's role. He had three reasons. His first reason was that the Royals, being a lousy team, did not need a closer. Made sense. His second reason was that Soria was worth SO MUCH MORE as a starter than as a closer, and it's the job of lousy teams to maximize their assets. Also made sense. But three, he believed that -- sooner rather than later -- Soria would become ineffective as a closer because that's what happens to all but the a handful of them. And when that happened, he said, the Royals would be stuck with the least valuable commodity on earth: A worn out closer.
I believed in the logic of his first two reasons -- I thought that the Royals really didn't need an established closer in their stage of development, and I thought that they owed it to themselves and Soria to at least find out if the guy could become a dominant starter. He had many of the attributes. He had four pitches. He had been a starter throughout the minor leagues. He seemed vaguely interested in becoming a starter again (though he never said anything publicly ... that's Soria).
But I have to say that I did not buy the third reason at all. I figured Soria would be a dominant closer for a long time to come. I figured that his kind of magic does not wear off, not until he was much older. Soria only turned 27 two weeks ago. Then, this year happened and Soria has been pulled as closer.
The magic could return. This could just be a dry spell. This could just be a blip. He could be hurting a bit. He could take a little time off from closing, regain his command and the swing-and-miss movement of his pitches, return to the closer role and be the old Joakim Soria again. Absolutely that could happen. Soria, above all else, is a driven young man who has handled beautifully every baseball challenge in his life.
But it's also true that the history of struggling closers is not kind. The Royals have become a fun team to watch in many ways. Eric Hosmer is a terrific young hitter. Alex Gordon seems to have found his groove after four up-and-down-and-very-down years. Alcides Escobar can't hit a lick, but he is playing breathtaking shortstop -- it's only 50 or so games but it's already apparent that he's remarkable throwing out runners from the hole. He gets to those ground balls deep in the hole, and you wonder if he has time to even make the play close, and he throws out hitters by two steps. It feels almost singular the way he does it.* The Royals have a bunch of promising young pitchers in the bullpen, and now that Danny Duffy has been called to the big leagues the parade of promising young starters that overflows in the system is arriving.
*This is one of those times when the eyes and stats match. Every game, it seems, Escobar makes a play -- especially to his right -- that blows the mind. And sure enough, Escobar is a startling +17 on the Dewan Plus/Minus, and +13 on balls hit into the hole.
There are many more prospects on the way which is why it should be fun to be a Royals fan for the next few years. But I think most Royals fans simply assumed Soria would be the dominant closer. He seemed like the one sure thing. But that's the thing about baseball isn't it? With closers there are no sure things -- at least no sure things not named Mariano Rivera.