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Soria Out As Closer

After three blown saves in less than a week, I’m sure you’ve all turned here to get my expert opinion on Joakim Soria and what is wrong with him. What’s that? You all realize that I’m not an expert? Well this is embarrassing. Still, it’s something that has to be addressed, and after Ned Yost announced that he’d be pitching Soria in some lower leverage situations, we need to talk about exactly what is going to happen moving forward. In his post game press conference yesterday evening, Yost indicated that Aaron Crow would get the majority of save opportunities, which came as no surprise to anybody who has watched games this season. Crow has been fantastic with the exception of two hiccups. My guess is that he’ll perform very well in the closer’s role and might even hold on to it through the rest of the season, though my guess is that Soria takes it back around the All-Star break.

The struggles with Soria have been startling and slightly upsetting, which I know is a weird emotion to have when talking about a team’s closer, but it’s been tough to watch. Early in the season he was showing decreased velocity. That was explained by the use of a new cutter that he’d been working on, but his command with the cutter was not especially good. Then, after a rough outing against the White Sox in April when he gave up four runs in the ninth and blew what looked like an easy win, he really settled down. The next game he pitched he gave up a run, but from April 10 through May 22, he was 2-0 with five saves in six chances and a 2.13 ERA. He wasn’t vintage Soria, but he was getting the job done, striking out 10 in 12.2 innings. The interesting number was the number of walks he was allowing, and had been a topic of concern all season.

Questions were asked of Soria and the Royals were very forthcoming with the fact that he was having some mechanical issues that stemmed from adding that cutter to his repertoire. He was still effective, though, so it didn’t seem to make a huge difference to fans other than the fact that his ninth innings were bringing up memories of Jeff Montgomery and the Houdini act he often had to employ to get out of ninth innings unscathed. Then, a week ago today, the wheels came off in Baltimore and Soria blew a save to the Orioles costing Danny Duffy his first big league win. He pitched a scoreless 14th inning in Texas on Friday, but blew a save to the Rangers on Sunday and of course yesterday to the Angels. In his last four outings, Soria has pitched 3.1 innings allowing 11 hits, eight runs and most disturbingly three home runs. If you want to look for encouraging numbers, he did strike out seven and walk nobody in that stretch.

To that note, there has been a difference in Soria in his last four games compared to the few prior when he wasn’t allowing runs or hits at quite the alarming rate. The strikeouts are back. The lack of walks is back. But now he’s getting hit around. Without knowing anything about situation, I’d assume that he wasn’t entirely confident in his stuff prior to this run of games when he’s gotten destroyed, so he nibbled and he just didn’t quite have the command to get it exactly where he wanted, which was where he used to get his pitches. The problem is that while he appears to have confidence in his stuff back that he is still struggling with the command and leaving too many pitches over the plate. Hopefully being pushed back into middle relief will help him work on some of these issues that he’s been having and will get him back to being the Soria of old. I don’t think it was just manager speak when Yost indicated that Soria was not that far away, but it’s definitely the right decision to back off him for a bit while he works through his struggles.

For now, Aaron Crow is the closer of the Royals. Anyone who predicted that needs to hang out with me more and give me lottery numbers because this is about the most unlikely development of anything that has happened on the Royals this year. He was drafted as a starter and was touted as being ready to be a top of the rotation guy as soon as this year. Well, as you all know he struggled in the minors last season and surprisingly opened the year in the Royals bullpen. He’s been lights out, and here we are. I’d caution Royals fans about two things. The first is one that I don’t really think is a worry with Crow, but you never know. The closer’s role does some funky things to a guy’s head. Some pitchers just don’t have the mentality to finish games, and get scared off by the ninth inning. I don’t know why that is, but it just is. Crow does not strike me as the type of guy to have these issues, but they pop up at odd times and sometimes with players who you would never expect. The second is that Crow is due for a bit of a regression. His peripherals are excellent, but a 1.33 ERA is not often sustainable, no matter how many guys they strike out or how few they walk. I’m not saying he’s going to be terrible, but at some point he’s going to give up a few more runs, and now that he’s in the closer’s role, they’ll be magnified runs.

I mentioned before that I think Soria will be back in the closer’s role by mid-July, but there are a couple other things that could happen. One is that Soria has inexplicably lost it and will never return to the ninth inning. I don’t think that’s likely, but it’s certainly possible. The thing that scares me, and I almost hesitate to bring it up for fear of having to have the same argument, is that Soria excels in his middle relief role in two or three inning stints and Crow excels in the closer’s role. People begin to see Soria facing the same batters twice in a game and getting them out and get the idea that it might be time to revisit him to the rotation. Often, the argument against it has been that he’s such a shut down closer that you can’t take him out of that role as it’s so vital for the development of the team. At this point, that argument has pretty much been shot. My argument will remain the same and it’s that he’s simply not durable to start 30 games a year and pitch 200 innings. He hasn’t spent a lot of time on the disabled list in his career, but someone with his injury history is not a great candidate for the rotation. I don’t want to get too deep into this argument now, but it’s something that might be on the horizon.

Interestingly enough, this move gives the Royals two bona fide Rookie of the Year candidates, which doesn’t ultimately mean much, but it’s nice to get the publicity. It isn’t often that setup men get consideration for the award, and if Crow can run off 10 or 12 saves in his time as closer, then he’ll have some of the numbers that the voters like. My concern is that if Crow does well that he’ll be looked at as only a reliever. I understand that he might have to be a reliever to have a successful career, but I think he deserves at least one more shot at the rotation before he’s stuck in the bullpen for the rest of his baseball life. The difference between Crow and Soria is that Crow doesn’t have the injury history, and has started at higher levels of the minors. I just don’t want his future inclusion in the rotation to be entirely put to bed. Plus, the Royals have a plethora of closer candidates in their system if Soria never makes it back and they move Crow to the rotation next year. Collins would scare me, but I think he’d actually do pretty well in the role. Either way, there are always closers on the open market if they need to go out and get someone. Let’s hope they don’t, though. Best case scenario is that Soria pitches in middle relief for awhile and finds what he’s been missing and things go back to the way they were.  


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