I hope Soria someday stands in Royals gear hoisting this trophy.

Is So the New Mo?

Joakim Soria stares down the soon-to-be-defeated.

There’s been another boom of talk about Joakim Soria after he asked for fans to decide on a new nickname earlier this week. There have already been a ton of posts and articles written about that. I’ll just add my two cents and say that it’s absolutely a legitimate request. If you aren’t considerate of terrible things like the recent killings in Mexico, then there’s basically nothing you won’t do. I had never thought of that angle of his nickname before, so, while I love the sound of “Mexicutioner,” it’s time to let that one go.

Soria’s good enough to just be Soria. He’s been a stellar closer for Kansas City for the past four seasons and is always the first example of how Rule 5 picks can end up as a special piece of a team. He seems to be a great teammate and it’s always fun to watch him come out of the bullpen and nail down games. After seeing too many Joe Nathan shutdowns at Minnesota games, watching the Royals’ own pitcher have the same effect on a crowd is a great feeling. Soria truly is a huge part of this Royals team.

Now, if you know anything about Soria’s history, you’ll know this: he idolizes Mariano Rivera. Perfectly logical, right? “Mo” is the best closer of the last 15 years or so (sorry, Trevor Hoffman) and commands respect with every outing. If there’s a dominating pitcher to idolize in the game, Rivera is a definite candidate. And considering that Soria is 14 years younger and grew up when Rivera was establishing himself as a force to be reckoned with, it just makes simple sense that Rivera is an idol of his.

The tough part of it is that Rivera is getting up there in age. He’ll start Opening Day 2011 at the ripe young age of 41. Considering he’s still effective, that’s some great longevity. Nonetheless, he’ll likely be done before long, possibly as soon as his current contract ends after the 2012 season.

Who takes up the mantle of one of the best relievers, if not the best, that the game has ever seen? There are lots of candidates, sure. But is Soria the next coming of Rivera?

If you look at the two and their histories, there is a difference. Unless Bruce Chen becomes a closer (hey, he has one save already!) and pitches 15 incredible seasons in that role, as Rivera has done, Rivera will go down as the best Panamanian pitcher and reliever of all time. He was brought through the Yankees’ system in a fairly standard fashion over roughly four and a half seasons and began his career in pinstripes as a starter.

Soria was raised in Mexico and had an interesting minor league history before the Royals nabbed him in the 2006 Rule 5 draft. He had a few starts early in his career, but was quickly relegated to the bullpen and closer role.

Rivera uses fastballs exclusively. His cut fastball is his real weapon and he mixes that with the occasional two-seam or four-seam fastball. Without that cutter, though, he wouldn’t be the pitcher he is.

Soria has an arsenal that’s more typical of a starter or middle reliever. He throws a fastball, sure, but he also mixes in a changeup, curveball, and slider. Take a look at a comparison between the spin movements of Rivera’s and Soria’s pitches and you’ll see what I mean.

First, Rivera:

Then Soria:

You can instantly see what you’d expect to see. Rivera’s fastballs have a broad range of spins, but they’re all in the same general region. Soria, on the other hand, has distinct movements on his changeup, curveball, and slider. It’s pretty self-explanatory, but there is some very different pitching work being done here.

Okay, so they have different pitches. That’s all well and good, but you might be able to tell something from Soria’s graph: he uses his fastball much more than anything else. Much, much more. FanGraphs has him at about 73% fastballs over his career. So, even though Soria uses more pitch types, he still relies heavily on his fastball. This isn’t too novel, as most pitchers, especially closers, do this.

It’s interesting to note the difference, though. While Rivera pounds the cutter over and over again, relying on great movement and precise pitching to get outs, Soria uses a more typical technique. He starts with fastballs and only starts using a higher percentage of breaking stuff when he has two strikes on a batter. Soria will throw a fastball 83-92% of the time when he’s behind in the count or only has one strike, but only 44% on an 0-2 count. On 1-2, 2-2, and 3-2 counts, the story is much the same, as his fastball usage increases for each of those, but only to 67%.* It’s a fairly typical pattern – use the breaking pitches to throw batters off balance after you throw a few fastballs.

*These are just for 2010, but I bet the trend is similar throughout his career.

The style of these two is jarringly different. I think Soria gets some comparisons to Rivera for his settled demeanor in the game and his general ability, but their pitching styles are amazingly different. Calling Soria the next Mo might be a stretch for that reason, but there’s something else I want to show: pitch locations.



It’s hard to see the strikezone, but it’s right in the middle of those images. I saw that chart of Rivera’s location and was stunned. There is a clear cleft between the left and right sides of the strikezone; Rivera almost never throws down the middle. If you want success, that’s what you do. You paint the edges and bring the ball inside and outside. Whatever throws the batter off your track is the method to employ. That’s what Rivera does.

Looking at Soria’s reveals a very different picture. Soria tosses all over the plate area. There’s no defined overall pattern besides the slight overall diagonal that both he and Rivera show as right-handed pitchers. Soria seems to throw any pitch anywhere, except he likes to keep the changeup on one side of the plate. This sort of comes from having a full pitch arsenal, but Soria might just not have the same accuracy as Rivera. Don’t get me wrong, Soria is an amazing pitcher and I love watching him work. He just has a different style from his idol.

So, they’re different pitchers. They use different tactics. Soria varies his pitches and Rivera throws one of the best pitches in the game with accuracy. Are the results as different as their styles?

Their ERAs are typically in the mid-1.00 to low-2.00 range. They have that in common. Neither allows many home runs (both around 0.5/9 IP for their careers). Both normally strike out close to 10 batters per nine innings, though Rivera has faltered and been lower a couple times. Interestingly, Rivera has actually improved his strikeout rate as he’s aged. He didn’t consistently strike out as many batters as Soria does until he reached his mid-30’s.

Soria definitely has the age thing working for him. The biggest thing that’s working against him right now relates to that last chart I showed: Soria walks 2.5 batters per nine innings. That counteracts a lot of his strikeouts and sometimes gets him in trouble (though he usually works out of it). Given the pitching locations shown above, it makes sense.

Want to know something interesting? Rivera did the same thing when he was first starting. Then, when he reached his 30’s, his walk rate suddenly dropped. His strikeout rate improved. He became even more of a legend.

That’s not to say that I expect Soria to be exactly the same. Without Pitch F/X data for the beginning of Rivera’s career, it’s hard to really know what was happening. Still, it’s interesting to note the improvement.

That said, Soria’s style is different. He nets batters on his fastball and then literally throws them a curve. He plays the usual pitching game. Get ahead, get them adjusted to your fastball, and then break their wrists. It’s the way pitchers are usually taught.

So, while Soria looks up to Rivera (as he should), I have to say that he’s not the next Rivera. It may be that we never see anyone else like Mo. That’s a pitching style that’s difficult to succeed with and only certain players can get by with it.

You know what? I’m okay with that, though. I want Soria to be his own man. Just like simply calling him Joakim or Soria or Joakim Soria now instead of the Mexicutioner, Soria is his own style. I’d rather have him forge his own path to the Hall of Fame that stand in someone’s shadow.

Maybe someday there’ll be a kid coming up through a system that wants to be just like Soria. And when he gets here, I hope someone tells him, “Kid, you’re great. But Soria is Soria. You just be you.”

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