Joakim Soria (via MindaHaas.net)

Whither Joakim Soria?

On Wednesday, Joakim Soria toed the rubber in familiar surroundings at Kauffman Stadium in a familiar situation, protecting a 6-3 lead.  After eight pitches, he’d gotten two groundouts and quickly went to 0-1 against Juan Pierre.

Through 4.2 innings in 2011, this was the same Joakim Soria we’ve always known since he came to the Royals in 2007.  He’d surrendered two hits and one walk to that point.  Pierre dropped a hit into right field but the Royals were still in a good position to get the win.  A one run lead should be automatic for Soria most days.  Three is a luxury.

Then he walked Gordon Beckham to bring up Alexis Rios.  He hit a chopper to the left side that Mike Aviles dove for and knocked towards the outfield grass.  Pierre scored and Beckham moved to third.  The Royals still had a 6-4 lead.  Then Paul Konerko singled in Beckham.

6-5.

Soria’s had some tense saves over the years, but ultimately, he usually locks down a lead when he gets one.  When he got to 0-2 on Carlos Quentin, he seemed to have things back in control.  Then, with the 0-2 pitch, he left it up a bit and Quentin drove it into the left field gap.  The White Sox scored four runs with two outs against one of the premier closers in the league.

Royals fans were left to wonder what just happened.

Wednesday marked the one week point in the 2011 season.  To that point, Soria had appeared in every game except opening day – five games in six days.  In 2009, he appeared in five games in April.  Five total games.  In April 2010, he appeared in nine games all month.

Perhaps Soria was fatigued and overworked.  In his first two outings, he threw a combined 14 pitches in two innings.  Not bad.  He’d thrown 49 pitches before starting that ninth inning on Wednesday.  That’s not too bad, right?

Not at first glance, but when you consider that Soria has to a) warm up in the bullpen, b) throw warmups when entering the game and c) THEN has to pitch to batters, that adds up to a lot of extra tosses that don’t get logged in the boxscore.

On Wednesday, Soria’s average fastball velocity was 89 mph.  Last year, his average fastball hit 92 mph.  In 2009, it was around 90.5.  His fastball was clearly not at its best, and fatigue may have been a factor.

Then again, Soria’s average fastball through his five appearances has been 88.9 mph.  That’s a little concerning.  But hey, it’s early in the season and a lot of players are still getting loose and the weather can sometimes hamper performance when going from the Cactus League to the Midwest in early April.

That’s all, just a little problem getting set up for the new season.  Phew.  That’s a relief.

So I went back and checked out how Soria looked in Aprils of yesteryear.  I wanted to compare his velocity in the past to his early 2011 numbers.  In 2009, he averaged 90.5 mph in five appearances; in 2010 the fastball averaged 92 mph in April.  Soria hasn’t had velocity issues in the early parts of past seasons and when his fastball speeds for one month are compared with a whole season, they come out pretty similar.  In 2009 and 2010, his fastball averaged 91.7 mph.  He’s almost three full mph below that right now.

But hey, there’s more to pitching than velocity.  Pitch movement is just as important, if not more so.

Joakim Soria's pitch movement, April 2011. (via TexasLeaguers.com)

Joakim Soria's pitch movement, April 2010. (via TexasLeaguers.com)

Joakim Soria's pitch movement, April 2009. (via TexasLeaguers.com)

The three images above show Soria’s pitch movement for the months of April over the last three years.  It’s a little weird because there are always differences in how pitches get classified, but what’s important to look at is the FF in the 2009 image and the FC in 2010 and 2011.  In ’09 and ’10, the fastball moves a lot, being released from Soria’s right hand and ending up on the outer half of the plate to righties (and inner to lefties).  In both cases it ends up on the corner.

In 2011, so far, Soria’s fastball moves less and is finishing right over the middle of the plate.  With diminished velocity AND less movement AND bad placement, it’s surprising that he wasn’t hit hard in any of the other appearances.  His changeup also looks to have lost movement.  According to the charts, it moves towards the corner of the plate after release, fading away from lefties and cutting in on righties.  This season, it’s also coming across the middle of the plate.

Joakim Soria's pitch movement, 2010. (via TexasLeaguers.com)

Joakim Soria's pitch movement, 2009. (via TexasLeaguers.com)

Again, the changeup is moving towards the corner and the fastball shows movement towards the edge too (especially in 2010; 2009 is noisy with so many varying pitch types being classified).

Soria threw 87 pitches in April 2009 and 182 in April 2010.  He’s at 76 this April.  These are all small sample sizes, true, but Soria’s pitch movement for April is similar to his full season movement, according to the graphics.  If the trend continues, that could be a bad omen for Soria.

To this point in his career, Soria’s been consistently dominant as a reliever:

Period ERA K/9 BB/9 Opp. OPS
April 2009 1.80 14.4 3.6 .523
2009 2.21 11.7 2.7 .614
April 2010 2.53 13.5 2.5 .528
2010 1.78 9.7 2.2 .568
April 2011 7.20 1.8 3.6 .714

The funny thing about all of this is that had Soria gotten a weak groundout from Pierre or Konerko or Rios or even if he’d gotten the third strike on Quentin and gotten the save, there wouldn’t be nearly as much hand-wringing over Soria.

In a case like this, it’s better to look at the 259.2 innings he’d pitched and 1038 batters he’d faced until Pierre’s line drive landed in right field and started the rally.  The six batters between outs two and three are, to say the least, a small sample size.  And yet, looking at his pitch characteristics so far in 2011, something seems amiss.  Maybe it is as simple as thinking he’s not quite loose.  Over 8.1 spring innings, Soria struck out 12 and walked just one while compiling a 3.24 ERA.  He was fine in Arizona.

And of course he was fine through 4.2 innings in 2011.

In blowing the save Wednesday, though, it points out the differences in Soria’s performance so far when compared to years past.  The decreased velocity is concerning.  Often, that’s the first warning sign that something may not be right with a pitcher’s arm.  There haven’t been any reports of arm troubles with Soria, but the Royals downplayed whispers of injury in May 2009 until they put him on the DL for 25 days with a minor rotator cuff strain.  The only blip on the injury radar comes from early spring workouts, when Soria threw an extra side session in lieu of throwing batting practice.

At the time, Ned Yost said he was allowing his All-Star pitcher to take an extra session because he’d earned the right to prepare how he felt comfortable.  That sounds perfectly reasonable, but who knows.  They Royals don’t have the best track record when it comes to being open when discussing player injuries.

If Soria doesn’t implode Wednesday afternoon, maybe it’s business as usual.  If he retires Pierre and puts up his fifth scoreless inning in the first week of the season, there’s not much reason to change the script.  Now, after the blown save, the Royals might take a look and see that Soria’s velocity is down, his movement is off and he’s been overused to start the season on top of it.  If there is an injury (and I hope there isn’t), they can identify it now.  If there isn’t, they can start to look at why Soria’s velocity is down and make whatever tweaks are necessary.

Some may consider Soria a luxury on the Royals – and on a team that’s probably destined for last place (much as it pains me to say that), it’s an accurate statement – but with team options through 2014 and still a month away from his 27th birthday, he should be the closer locking down wins for Mike Montgomery, John Lamb  and the rest of the talented pitchers coming up through the Royals minor league system.  If the Process works like it’s supposed to, he could throw the last pitch in a Royals World Series win.

Maybe there’s some good to come of a blow 6-3 lead if it leads to the Royals finding (and correcting) a problem now, rather than down the line when it could have a greater impact.

Assuming everything’s fine, though, would anybody be surprised to see Soria get the save in his next 30 opportunities?  Hopefully, Wednesday’s implosion is a one-time event and not a harbinger of opposing rallies (or injuries) to come.

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