Kansas City Royals: Bullpen Regression and Joakim Soria

Oct 4, 2015; Pittsburgh, PA, USA; Pittsburgh Pirates relief pitcher Joakim Soria (38) pitches against the Cincinnati Reds during the seventh inning at PNC Park. Mandatory Credit: Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports
Oct 4, 2015; Pittsburgh, PA, USA; Pittsburgh Pirates relief pitcher Joakim Soria (38) pitches against the Cincinnati Reds during the seventh inning at PNC Park. Mandatory Credit: Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports /

Since 2013, no team has had a better bullpen than the Kansas City Royals, and it’s not all that close.

Certain metrics would suggest that other bullpens have outperformed the Kansas City Royals pen individually during that span, but none has been better during that duration.

During that span, the Royals lead all other teams in WAR, ERA, WHIP, and tied for the league lead in LOB% and saves. They have a significant lead in ERA- (72 compared to the next closest at 81) as well as being top-five in FIP, xFIP, and K%.

Despite this, Fangraphs projected the 2016 model Kansas City Royals as the 19th best bullpen, according to WAR, in baseball.

Much of this has to do with the loss/regression of Greg Holland, the loss of Ryan Madson to free agency, and a lack of confidence in Wade Davis‘ historic 2014-2015 awesomeness.

However, I’m not here to talk about Fangraphs projections or the idea of Wade Davis’ regression.

We all know that I’m not the best source for the topic of regression.

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What I am here to talk about is how Joakim Soria plays into all of this.

Soria is projected to be the Royals second most valuable reliever according to Fangraphs, who actually has him improving from a 0.4 WAR in 2015 to 0.7.

That is a feat in itself that shouldn’t go without recognition.

By their very nature, projections are made to downplay expectations and excitement to leave us with a reasonable expectation, not just an educated prediction.

For example, an educated prediction would say that Luke Hochevar can ride a steadily dominant 2015 postseason into a 2016 season that would resemble his 2013 season more than the 2015 version.

A reasonable expectation would be that a 32-year old with a colossal history of failure and a recent UCL tear doesn’t scream “dominant reliever”.

Despite this, Fangraphs sees a 31-year old Soria coming off of his worst full FIP season as a pro as a guy ready to take one last leap into possible excellence, and there are some real reasons to believe they could be right.

To start, Soria saw an uptick in velocity in 2015.

Soria has always been a unique late-inning bullpen arm in the sense that he never had the dominant fastball most of his colleagues shared.

His fastball generally sat in the 89-91 range, relying on an unusually large arsenal of pitches for a reliever to get outs.

However, in 2015, his average fastball sat at 92.1 MPH, a career high.

That type of velocity increase isn’t substantial enough to transform his skill set, but it is enough to suggest the arm speed is still there, something that soft throwing relief pitchers can’t afford to lose.

Directly correlated with arm speed is arm talent, something that Soria also saw encouraging strides made in 2015.

Royals fans are especially fond of Soria’s former knee-buckling curveball, sometimes forgetting that for portions of his first tenure of Kansas City, was his second best breaking pitch after his slider.

However, since his first dominate season in 2008, the consistency of Soria’s arsenal has been lacking.

2015 marked the first season since 2008 that each of Soria’s five pitches (wFB, wSL, wCU, wCB, and wCH) rated out as above average.

This includes both his curveball and changeup receiving their best marks since 2008 (1.8 and 2.5 respectively) while his cutter was rated his best pitch at 4.4 runs above average.

Soria also a dramatic amount of his pitches being chased out of the zone, getting opponents to swing at 34.3% of pitches out of the zone, by far his career best with the next closest being 30.9%.

Soria will no doubt be looked to as a major contributor out of the Royals bullpen, with so many questions surrounding the Royals rotation.

At some point, Wade Davis will cease to be a demi-god on the pitchers mound and if that happens to be this year, Soria’s contributions will be even more important.

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Pairing that with the Royals being minus Madson and without Holland for much of the year, a consistent and effective Soria would do wonders for the Royals pursuit of a second consecutive AL Central title.