Starter or reliever? Joakim Soria (Part 1)

Today, I introduce Joakim Soria via PITCHf/x. Next week, I’ll look at other converted relievers. The Royals haven’t said anything to indicate Soria’s days as closer are limited, but the idea isn’t new among the Royals faithful. I think the “why doesn’t he start?” question is a natural for a four-pitch reliever. By the end of Part 2, we’ll have an idea about what the upside may be. For now, Soria’s stuff:

A brief history of Joakim Soria

Signed by the Dodgers in 2001, while just 17, he ended up having Tommy John surgery just two years later. Soria was released after making just four appearances in 2004 and spent 2005 pitching for Mexico City—mostly in relief.

The Padres signed Soria in December of 2005, but lost him one year later in the Rule 5 draft. Two days later, in the Mexican Winter League, Soria tossed a perfect game. That spring, he made the team and was tucked away in the bullpen. Soria made his major league debut on April 4, 2007, and eventually starting closing games. Two seasons and one All-Star Game later, Soria is now under a three-year contract and considered an elite closer.

But should he start? Considering his record, and his stuff, it’s a reasonable question.

PITCHf/x profile

Soria, a right hander, throws four pitches: a four-seam fastball (F4), a change-up (CH), a slider (SL) and a curveball (CU). He comes right over the top, maximizing the backspin and “rise” on his 91.8 mph fastball. That’s not gaudy velocity, and that’s working in short spurts.

The beauty of Soria is not the fastball, which he throws consistently for strikes, but his off-speed and breaking stuff. His change-up (84 mph) sinks and tails, his slider really slides (79) with a lot of horizontal movement and his overhand curveball is a big breaker, floating in at just over 69 mph.

Click each image for a larger version.

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While he has four pitches to go to, he really works each at bat as a three-pitch guy, since he essentially abandons his change-up against righties and his slider against lefties.

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His pitching pattern is fairly similar to both batter hands, simply swapping out the change-up and the slider as appropriate.

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Look for fastballs, unless he’s ahead.

Before wrapping up, take one look at where he locates his pitches. Or three looks. Soria tends to work up with heat and down with the rest—which you can see in the flight paths.

These graphs depict “slices” and “layers.” The extremes are out of the zone, while the middle three slices or layers are within the strike zone. See below for more explanation on how I arrive at and measure the segments.

The first look combines all four pitches, while the last two separate the fastball from the others.

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Soria clearly keeps away from hitters, especially with the slider and change-up. That makes sense, given how those pitches are used against left- and right-handed hitters.

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Looking at the three “other” pitches in isolation, the curveball stands out as the only one that sees all slices and layers with any regularity.

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Finally, the isolated fastball locations. You can now spend the next week contemplating Soria’s pitching style, checking out the links in the Resources and References, and then meet me back in this spot next week.

Up next

Now that we know what he throws, we’ll explore some pitchers who abruptly left the bullpen for the rotation, see what it meant to their teams (WAR), and, in some cases, what it meant for their stuff.

References & Resources
Batting zone slices are defined as follows: The plate is considered to be 24 inches across. Wide and Tight are off the plate, Fat is the middle 10 inches, In and Out comprise seven inches a piece.

Batting zone layers are defined as follows: Each hitter has his own strike zone, with the top and bottom set as the average of all PITCHf/x operator values for that hitter. The High and Low layers are out of the zone, and the remaining layers each comprise one third of a hitters vertical strike zone.

PITCHf/x data provided by MLBAM. Pitch classifications by the author.

Biographical and statistical data on Soria from: Fangraphs and Baseball Reference

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