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Joakim Soria was good, bad, then good again in 2015

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Things you want your closer to do: be lights out. Things you do not want your closer to do: give up lots of home runs in a short period of time. Joakim Soria did both of those things in 2015.

Jesse Johnson-USA TODAY Sports

In an alternate Tigers universe, Joe Nathan didn't tear his UCL at the very beginning of the 2015 season, Joakim Soria was used in a much more limited role because "Joba's our eighth inning guy," the Pirates completely forgot about Soria and never traded for him at the deadline, and Chuck Berry never invented heavy metal, which means Metallica never existed, which means Mariano Rivera never made it out of the minor leagues. The moral of the story is that I shouldn't be allowed within 15 feet of a laptop, especially one that's turned on and connected to the Internet.

Meanwhile, in the version of reality we all experienced this season, Joakim Soria did become the Tigers' closer after Joe Nathan's year ended in April, and for the most part, Soria was very, very good. It may not seem like that, of course, because there was a stretch of ten games where he was very, very disappointing and unreliable more times than not. Bad pitches were thrown, saves were blown, home runs were given up with alarming regularity, naughty words were said, feelings got hurt, and a lot of Sarah McLachlan music was played on infinite loop. Slumps like that, no matter how brief, tend to color everything else -- especially when you're the one guy who was supposed to be better than this but you're just like the rest of them why oh why oh whyyyy ...

I like to judge relievers based on their RE24 stat. A quick refresher: every number-of-runners/number-of-outs situation has an expected number of runs scored attached. Nobody on, nobody out? An average of 0.48 runs usually score by the end of the inning. Runner at first, nobody out? Expect an average of 0.84 runs to score that inning. Move that runner over with a bunt, so now it's a runner at second, one out situation, and the expected number of runs drops to 0.65 -- which is exactly why bunting is usually a foolish strategy except in rare situations, such as when the batter has been legally declared dead.

When a pitcher successfully records an out, he is awarded credit for some of the expected run value of that specific runners/outs scenario. A lock-down closer like Joakim Soria should be expected to have a rather high RE24, because as we just saw, shutting down the opposition in 1-2-3 fashion is worth nearly half a run in RE24 value. If a reliever threw 40 innings and never allowed a base runner, he would be worth an RE24 of about 20 -- or if you prefer real-world examples, consider that top-shelf closers like Jeurys Familia, Zach Britton, and Andrew Miller racked up RE24 stats anywhere from 16 to 19 runs prevented.

Where did Joakim Soria fit into that tapestry of elite closers? His RE24 between the Tigers and Pirates was 10.8, which made him less effective than Joaquin Benoit (11.6 RE24), and only slightly more effective than his half-season teammate Alex Wilson (10.4 RE24).

What gives? How do those numbers make sense when you're talking about a guy who is supposed to be one of the better closers in baseball?

Honestly, it all came down to that one horrible day in July, when the Tigers hwarked up a five-run lead in the ninth inning against the Twins. Soria was a part of that, and it cost him a whopping 5.1 RE24. If that game had never happened, Soria's RE24 with the Tigers would have been 10.6 instead of 5.5, and he would have finished the season closer to 16 RE24, placing him among the top five closers in Major League Baseball for the season.

One game. One lousy, stinking, season-altering game, both for Soria individually and the team collectively.

Or maybe it was more than just that one game, because I did say a moment ago that Soria waded through some murky waters for about a ten-game stretch in 2015. From May 21 to June 22, Soria threw 9 ⅔ innings, gave up six home runs, and posted a 6.52 ERA. Erase those games from his record, and his numbers with the Tigers in 2015 look incredibly sexy: a 1.72 ERA with a 1.053 WHIP, a 3.23 FIP to go with 8.9 strikeouts per nine innings, and a strikeout-to-walk ratio of 3.7 -- I do believe any one of us would accept numbers like that from the team's closer.

That awful stretch of games, though, that's the real head-scratcher. He gave up four of those home runs in four consecutive outings -- June 14, 17, 21, and 22 -- including a walkoff grand slam to Todd Frazier. The frustrating thing? A month later, Soria got dealt to the Pittsburgh Pirates, where he proceeded to post a 9.5 K/9 rate, a FIP of 1.93, and an ERA of 2.03. I get that it's the National League, where they hate offense so much that they force pitchers to bat, but come on. What happened?

First, take a look at those four home runs given up in four consecutive outings between June 14 and June 22:

June 14 (Brandon Moss)

Soria 6-14

That's a belt-high fastball to Brandon Moss, and that's a no-no. Brandon Moss loves those pitches. (I think most Major League hitters do.)

June 17 (Todd Frazier)

Soria 6-17

This one falls under the category of ARE YOU FREAKING SERIOUS HOW IN THE HELL DID HE HIT THAT? You're looking at a 70 MPH curveball that a) is dropping vertically to the tune of 17 inches, b) tailing slightly away from the batter, c) is both high and outside, and d) ... well ... hold on, look:

Soria 6-17 film

Todd Frazier is unnatural. He pulled that pitch. PULLED it, and to deep left-center field no less.

June 21 (Stephen Drew)

Soria 6-21

Stephen Drew, power hitter? I guess, if you say so. He posted a .180 ISO for 2015, which put him in the company of Yasiel Puig, Stephen Vogt, Brandon Moss (oh hai again, Brandon), and Rajai Davis, so it's-- wait, what? We're talking about Stephen Drew, who slashed an anemic .191/.266/.376 against right-handed pitchers in 2015. Still, that's a belt-high fastball again, and Stephen Drew is a grown-ass man who made it to the Major Leagues, so maybe don't throw that pitch there anymore.

June 22 (Roberto Perez)

Soria 6-22

Another fastball, just above the knees to Roberto Perez. Maybe there's a pattern here, maybe not.

I mentioned earlier that Joakim Soria seemed to find a cure for his dinger-itis after going to pitch for the Pirates, and some of that may or may not have something to do with his pitch selection. Soria threw four types of pitches in 2015: a four-seam fastball, a changeup, a slider, and a curve, with the fastball taking precedence. I thought about laying all of this out in a table chart, but with Thanksgiving just around the corner, it only seemed right to do a pie chart, so here is a tasty, tasty representation of the pitches Soria threw in 2015 while closing for the Tigers:

Soria Pie Tigers

The fastball is represented here by the "Oh God Why Did I Eat That Much, I Want To Die Now" portion of the pie (73 percent), while the leftovers are split equally among his three secondary pitches. But when he went to Pittsburgh, they said, "hey, Mr. Piggy-pants, leave some pie for the rest of us," so he did this:

Soria Pie Pirates

The fastball is still the clear leader, but now only at 70 percent, while his slider jumped from 9 percent to 14 percent, and opposing hitters slashed nothing but zeros against it.

Until he was traded at the July 31 deadline, Soria was the Tigers' bona fide closer. While with the team, Soria posted a 2.85 ERA but his 4.87 FIP showed obvious signs of degrading with the progressing season. His strikeouts dropped but he was able to maintain strength for the most part. In retrospect, Soria would have been one of the best, if not the best after the deadline as he went on to 2.03 ERA and 1.93 FIP for the Pirates.
There has been some talk of the Tigers showing real interest in bringing Soria back to Detroit for the 2016 season (and beyond, most likely), and Fangraphs predicts that he'll get around two years and $14 million on his next contract. The eight home runs he gave up in 2015 were kind of a big problem, insofar as you don't really want your closer giving up one-swing-of-the-bat runs in late/close games, but that eight home run total was also a career high. His career average prior to 2015 was more like four home runs per season, which is much more tolerable.

As long as the home run issue was just a weird fluke and not part of a permanent "new look" for Soria, Tigers could certainly do worse than to have him as a back-of-the-bullpen option in 2016.