Royals closer Joakim Soria may be 3-1 with seven saves, but as you dive deeper into the numbers it makes you begin to wonder if there is an issue. Royals broadcaster Frank White blamed the early start on cold weather. Well now that the weather has warmed up enough, the concern is still there. Manager Ned Yost acknowledges that Soria has struggled, but has been adamant on two issues: 1) Soria will remain the closer 2) Soria is not injured
Yost believes that it's just a phase Soria is going through and he needs to pitch his way out of it. Seemingly that is nothing more than "coach speech" at the moment, as we are now two full months in and the concern is there amongst fans wanting to know answers.
On a team with the recent history of the Royals, the concept of a star closer isn't as valuable as if you are a team regularly contending for the playoffs. Proof of that is last summer there were serious rumors of the Yankees wanting to acquire Soria. While we may never know what package of players were discussed, or even if a trade was discussed, it's widely speculated that the Royals turned down a Soria trade that included Jesus Montero and possibly Joba Chamberlain or Brett Gardner as well. Montero was ranked the third best prospect in baseball before the season began by Baseball America. Montero's power may be down so far this season, but the prized catcher is a career .313/.369/.503 hitter in the minor leagues. It may have been a public relations hit, but if you are a building team and are offered the third overall prospect in the game for your closer, you do it.
Now fast forward to the present and while many teams would still love to trade for Soria, his value is currently at an all-time low (since he joined the Royals). His strikes are down from a 9.65 k/9 rate to just 6.05 this season. His walks have increased from 2.62 BB/9 to 4.66 this season. He simply is not getting ahead in the count like in previous seasons. While 19.1 innings pitched this season may be a small sample size, it doesn't seem so small when you realize he only has averaged 63.2 innings pitched over the last four seasons. He's a third of the way into his average season.
Last season 48% of Soria's out were ground balls, while this year he sits at just 40.4%. With more balls being left up the home run to fly ball ratio has increased to currently 9.1%, an all-time high. Coming into this season he was throwing 1.9 strikes for every ball thrown. That number has fallen to 1.57 this season. The proof is there.
What may be the most concerning is the average pitch speed for Soria as decreased between last year and this year on all four pitches he throws. Last year the fastball averaged 91.9 mph, while this season it is down to 90.4. When velocity is decreasing across the board, it becomes a reason to be alarmed.
You can continue to go over the numbers only so much before it becomes frustrating. Again though, the proof is there. That makes the biggest question become them, what is wrong? Yost and Soria himself have said Joakim is healthy and they are not sure why he is struggling. It would be one thing to identify a health issue, as you go to the disabled list and get treatment for what is ailing your All-Star. It is a completely different issue when there are no answers for the production thus far.
The only direction that seems right at the moment is sending Soria to the disabled list, no matter if the trainers have identified a health issue or not. The Royals are not going to be competing for a division title this year, so there is no need to keep running Soria out there for each save opportunity at the moment. Hopefully with rest and the ability to take some time and mentally refocus, Soria would be able to come back as the dynamic pitcher we have grown accustomed to seeing. Aaron Crow has obviously shown the stuff so far this season to fill the closer role, and he actually would be better suited for the role at the moment until the team can figure out how to get Soria's pitching back to where it consistently has been. The unfortunate thing is Yost may not do anything about it, until the time is too late.