The Detroit Tigers made a significant trade to address the inadequacy of their beleaguered bullpen by acquiring Texas Rangers’ closer Joakim Soria. With this trade, the Tigers acquired one of the most reliable relief pitchers in the game, or did they?
Soria’s numbers for the 2014 season were impressive. An ERA of 2.70, a walks plus hits per inning (WHIP) ratio of just 0.86 and an fWAR that is fifth best among relief pitchers in the American League. Soria had the lowest fielding independent pitching (FIP), just 1.06, of any pitcher with at least 30 innings pitched in the history of the American league, ever.
The numbers that Soria had posted in 35 games were easily better than any relief pitcher in the Detroit bullpen, and among the best for relief pitchers in the game of baseball. Moreover, Soria came with reasonable salary terms. He’ll cost about $2 million for the remainder of the 2014 season, and has a team option for $7 million for 2015.
When Soria was traded to Detroit, Tigers' President and General Manager Dave Dombrowski said that Soria would not be used as the closer, nor even the primary setup man. He was to be used mainly in the seventh inning. In the first opportunity to use him, manager Brad Ausmus passed, bringing in Al Alburquerque in the sixth inning in Anaheim while trailing 2-1 with runners on base. So, Soria would be coming in during the next inning, right? Nope. Left-hander Blaine Hardy was called -- still with a one run deficit -- and Soria waited to make his Tigers’ debut. Fortunately, no further damage resulted.
Soria made his Tigers debut in his third game with the team, but it didn’t go very well. He faced four batters and gave up two hits, including an RBI double into the gap. The run was unearned. He also struck out one and issued only his fourth unintentional walk of the season.
When Soria made his home debut in Detroit on Monday, matters turned from bad to worse. He faced seven batters and gave up six hits, including two home runs and a bases clearing double. This resulted in four earned runs, plus the two that were on base when he entered the game (charged to Anibal Sanchez). He recorded one out and was replaced by Ian Krol. All totaled for his two games as a Tiger, Soria worked two-thirds of an inning. He has faced eleven batters and allowed four earned runs on eight hits (including two home runs), one walk, and one strikeout. Not exactly what the Tigers had hoped for.
So, what was so radically different about Soria with the Tigers than he was with the Rangers? You’ve read the quotes -- Soria says that the appearance was the worst of his career, and Brad Ausmus says that this isn’t the real Soria.
What went wrong? Obviously, he was leaving the ball up over the plate and getting killed. BYB's Fielder's Choice broke down Soria's location issues in this article. This didn’t happen with Texas, did it?
Soria appeared in 35 games for the Rangers this season. In the first 27 games, he allowed five earned runs on 13 hits in 25 2/3 innings, striking out 35 batters and walking three. In the last eight games, he gave up five earned runs on 12 hits in 7 2/3 innings, with seven strikeouts and a walk. His ERA went from 1.75 in the first 27 games to 5.86 in the last eight games.
Over his last ten games -- a span of 32 days between Detroit and Texas -- Soria has a 9.72 ERA, a 5.41 FIP, and has allowed 20 hits in 8 1/3 innings of work. This is more than just two bad outings to be concerned about.
What about the previous season? Soria missed the first half of the season following his second Tommy John surgery, and made his first appearance on July 7, 2013. In 23 1/3 innings, he allowed 18 hits, two home runs, and posted a reasonable ERA of 3.80. No sign of trouble there. In fact, these numbers are very encouraging, considering the fact that most pitchers struggle with command in their first season following Tommy John surgery.
The list of pitchers who have had Tommy John surgery is extensive, and the "comeback" rate is anywhere from 75 to 87 percent. But the number of pitchers who have had two Tommy John surgeries make up a short list. Bleacher Report's Will Carroll wrote an interesting article this past spring about players who have had multiple Tommy John procedures, and he concludes that there is no reason that a pitcher can not come back after their second operation and be successful. Soria, Brian Wilson, Chris Capuano, Jason Frasor and Kyle Drabek are among the nine current players who have gone under the knife twice and are in the game today.
Ten games of struggle are a small sample, but then so are the two months of sheer dominance. Relief pitching, by its very nature, is a world of small samples, and a pitcher is as good as his last month. It didn't take ten games for the Tigers fanbase to go into full panic mode when Joe Nathan gave up five runs in his first three games as a Tiger. Such is life in the bullpen. It's too soon to draw any conclusions about Soria.
Whatever the reason for Soria’s recent troubles -- and they’re more than just two outings with the Tigers -- let’s not fool ourselves into thinking that one trade is going to fix the problems in the Tigers’ bullpen. If Soria can return to the form that he showed in his first 27 appearances this season, the Tigers have got themselves a dominant relief pitcher, and should use him in the highest leverage situations. Even if he can put up the numbers that he posted in 2013, the bullpen has been significantly upgraded. But if Soria’s last ten games are any indication of things to come, nothing has been solved.