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Joakim Soria is not your typical relief pitcher

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The Tigers traded for Joakim Soria at his peak. Can Soria maintain his recent excellence?

Joakim Soria points to third baseman Adrian Beltre after making a catch to end the game on May 28, 2014 against the Minnesota Twins at Target Field.
Joakim Soria points to third baseman Adrian Beltre after making a catch to end the game on May 28, 2014 against the Minnesota Twins at Target Field.
Jesse Johnson-USA TODAY Sports

The Tigers doubled down on Rangers' relievers by trading recent first and second round draft picks for another "proven closer." Joakim Soria is not just proven, but leads all pitchers with at least 30 innings in FIP. If you are not familiar with FIP, it is like ERA but more effective at predicting future performance. Compared to Clayton Kershaw's 1.74, Soria's 1.07 is fantastic. But Kershaw has pitched more than 100 innings this year, and more than 1,000 innings of domination since 2010. Soria has only pitched 33 innings this year, not exactly long play.

The top five pitchers in FIP last year were Greg Holland, Dellin Betances, Craig Kimbrel, Aroldis Chapman, and Kenley Jansen. Soria was ninth. Which one of these is not like the others? Soria's fastball averages 90 mph. The others all average at least 95 mph. Chapman has actually increased his velocity this year to average 100 mph. Instead of throwing heat, Soria mixes up four pitches. He throws a fastball, slider, curveball, and changeup. Depending on whom you ask, he mixes in a cutter as well. He throws each pitch more than 10 percent of the time, and all of the pitches except the changeup are above average.

Soria pitches like a starting pitcher rather than a closer, and adds excellent command. He has only walked 3 percent of opponents, while striking out 31.6 percent. This is reminiscent of Dennis Eckersley in his prime with the Athletics. It is also significantly better than his career rates. Soria has always had a strikeout rate over 25 percent, except for 2011 as he was nearing his Tommy John surgery. His walk rate has always hovered around 7 percent, except for 2013 as he emerged from surgery and walked nearly 14 percent of opposing batters. Command is typically the last part of Tommy John recovery, which is why the Tigers need Soria rather than hoping for Joel Hanrahan to be ready by October.

Soria is valuable even if he walks a few more batters, but another major component of his success is keeping the ball on the ground. Historically he allows more ground balls than fly balls, and this year none of the fly balls have gone over the wall. An unusually low home run rate is not sustainable, just ask Joe Nathan who is allowing more than four times as many this year as last. But Soria's ground ball tendencies and career average indicate that his home run rate will not regress too far.

Putting it all together, the Tigers bought Soria at the peak of his game. But this is not another Jarrod Washburn moment. Soria can be expected to strike out more than one batter an inning, walk less than one every three innings, allow a home run every 16 innings, and have an ERA around 2.50. That sounds like a closer that will minimize our collective heartburn.