The Detroit Tigers pitching staff has, with only a few exceptions, been a mess in 2015. While the rotation has finally joined the party of doom this year, the bullpen is playing a familiar and infuriating role in the Tigers' season. The Tigers president and general manager Dave Dombrowski has once again failed to provide his manager with enough high quality options to handle the late innings. What's worse, Brad Ausmus shows zero signs of having figured out how to make use of the few solid pieces he has to work with.
The rest of the bullpen has been in disarray for most of the year, but Joakim Soria has held up his end of the bargain as the Tigers' closer. He has 22 saves in 25 opportunities this season, including a four-out save on Wednesday in a 9-4 Tigers win. However, if Soria continues to give up home-runs at his current rate, it may be that nothing short of Aroldis Chapman is going to turn this bullpen around.
When May ended, Soria has given up just two home runs in 21 1/3 innings, a rate of 0.84 homers per nine innings. That very respectable number, coupled with an ERA under 1.30, had many fans confident that the closer role was in the best hands the Tigers have had in years. These were good times, where leads felt relatively safe despite the usual volatility in the set-up positions. Soria's first blown save of the year, which came via home-run against the Astros on May 21, seemed a mere aberration at the time. Instead, it was a warning sign of the disastrous stretch of outings on the way.
It began June 5 against the White Sox, when Adam LaRoche launched a ninth-inning bomb off Soria to tie the game 3-3. Over his next five appearances, Soria proceeded to give up a home run in four of his five outings. He did not blow a save in any of those outings, so the damage was minimized. Despite four scoreless outings to close the month, Soria allowed five home runs and a 5.23 ERA in 10 1/3 June innings.
That wouldn't be all, though. Soria allowed another home run -- Brian Dozier's crushing walk-off blast -- just before the All-Star break. Including Wednesday's outing, Soria has allowed six home runs in his last 15 2/3 innings. This is bad, but is it something we should be worried about? Or is this simply a blip on the radar for an otherwise excellent reliever?
Of Soria's eight home runs allowed this season, six have come on thigh-high fastballs. He is not repeatedly hanging breaking balls, but leaving fastballs over the plate isn't a good idea either. There's no real smoking gun to dissect. He has left fastballs in the center of the zone and they have been crushed.
If there's any hope in this, it's that Soria is not a guy who has typically given up many home runs. Some bad luck may be at play. The movement on his fastball registers as well as it ever has via PitchFX, and he's throwing his fastball harder this season than in his entire career. Those should be things in his favor.
One potential explanation for the home runs may be in how many fastballs Soria has thrown this year. Last season, Soria threw his heater 34 percent of the time. This year, he has thrown fastballs 59.1 percent of the time. He approached but never surpassed a 50 percent fastball usage in 2011 and 2013, on either side of his 2012 Tommy John surgery.
Soria currently owns a 3.19 ERA, a number more indicative of his true performance than his 4.91 FIP. He has benefited from a meager .227 BABIP and a superb strand rate, but these statistics don't normalize as quickly for relievers. Soria's RE24 stands at 2.95, slightly better than last season, but still a far cry from his heyday with the Kansas City Royals. It may be that Dave Dombrowski has once again acquired a closer a few years beyond his best ones. Perhaps Soria is simply adjusting to having more velocity at his disposal and his fastball is flattening out. Maybe we will see him start to mix in a higher percentage of breaking balls so that opponents don't sit on the fastball.
By other measures, Joakim Soria is having a solid season. His strikeout rate is down a bit, and his walk rate is up, but he still boasts a quality 3.67 strikeout-to-walk ratio. He has been very successful in save situations. If he is able to keep the ball in the park down the stretch, he may look every bit as good as we saw early in the season. The Tigers need him to be; he's the only one capable of holding this bullpen together going forward.