Diagnosing Rafael Soriano’s Woes

To say that Rafael Soriano has struggled so far this season would be akin to saying Babe Ruth was a decent ballplayer: you’d technically be right, but off by multiple factors of ten. Soriano has struggled mightily since making his Yankee debut, allowing at least one baserunner in nine of his ten appearances, and posting an “Ouch!” inducing 7.84 ERA and 5.55 FIP. He has three meltdowns already this season (only had four total in 2010), and he’s blown two Yankee leads: once on April 5th against the Twins and once last night against the White Sox. Last night was particularly painful, as Soriano plunked Carlos Quentin with a slider and then grooved a fastball down the heart of the plate to Paul Konerko. I don’t think I need to tell you where that pitch ended up.

Since it’s so early in the season, it’s easy to write off these struggles as relatively unimportant; odds are, this is just a slump and Soriano will be his normal, dominant self for the rest of the year. Soriano has only thrown 10 innings this year, so it’s way too early to begin putting credence in his ERA, FIP, or xFIP. But while that may be true, I don’t like leaving analyses at this level; I want to know why Soriano is slumping now. Is this simply a matter of bad luck? Has he changed his pitching approach? Is he struggling with any of his pitches?

To the Pitch F/x data we go!

The first thing you’ll notice when you look at Soriano’s Pitch F/x data is that there seems to some confusion over his pitch classifications. If you look at the Pitch Type section on Soriano’s FanGraphs page, it looks like he’s throwing a similar number of cutters this season, but throwing more sliders and fewer four-seam fastballs. This is data from Baseball Info Solutions (BIS). But if you then look Soriano’s Pitch F/x tab at the top of his player page, which uses the Pitch F/x data as released by MLB, it shows him throwing almost exclusively cutters instead of four-seam fastballs. Here’s the breakdown:

Which should you believe? After looking at the data himself, resident Pitch F/x guru Dave Allen believes the BIS data is more accurate in this case. While it would make for a compelling narrative if Soriano arrived in New York, got apprenticed to Mariano Rivera, and began throwing cutters over 50% of the time, it seems the filters for the Pitch F/x classifications are simply mislabeling his pitches. So if anyone out there was thinking of writing a story about Soriano’s newfound love of the cutter, you can scrap it.

Looking solely at the BIS data, it still appears as though Soriano has changed his approach slightly this season. He’s throwing his slider 31% of the time this year, up from 21% last season, and his four-seam fastball use is down to 52% from 63%. He’s using his slider as a knock-out pitch, throwing it around 50% of the time when he gets in a 2-strike count, while last season he would also frequently use his four-seam fastball in these counts. Whatever the reason for this change – different pitching coaches, his own decision, small sample randomness – the results haven’t been good.

Soriano’s slider is rated as his worst pitch by pitch type linear weights (-2.31 wSL/C), and it’s only generating 6% swinging strikes this season (14% last year). He’s also having a tough time controlling his slider, hitting Carlos Quentin with one last night, and he’s frequently missing with it high in the zone and over the plate. Compare these two strikezone plots of his sliders:

Courtesy of the Joe Lefkowitz Pitch F/x tool

I don’t think Soriano’s only problem is his slider, though. He seems to have much less control of all his pitches, as he’s walked eight batters already this year compared with 14 total last season. The fastball he threw to Paul Konerko last night was knee high and over the heart of the plate, despite the fact that Russell Martin was setting up outside. A lack of control was the same problem that got Soriano in trouble during the game he blew against the Twins: he couldn’t locate his fastball and missed his intended location on the majority of his pitches. Soriano is missing the zone 5% more often in 2011 than in 2010, and he’s getting a first pitch strike 8% less often. Simply put, I don’t think he has a good feel on where his pitches are going right now.

Also, there’s possibly some bad luck mixed in with Soriano’s poor results. He’s having lots of balls drop in for hits right now (.333 BABIP) and letting a large amount of runners score (61% LOB%). While BABIP and LOB% can be influenced by a pitcher’s skill level – if he’s missing his locations, it’s more likely a batter will crack a hard hit – there’s also this to consider. I mean, really now?

For Yankees fans, Soriano’s control problem is a mixed blessing. It’s infuriating as heck to watch Soriano continue to miss with his pitches, but at least it’s not something more serious like a drop in velocity (which could signal an injury) and it should be a problem Soriano can fix going forward. How soon? Well, that’s impossible to say. Until it happens, though, at least Brian Cashman can thumb his nose at Hank Steinbrenner and say, “I told you so!”

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Steve is the editor-in-chief of DRaysBay and the keeper of the FanGraphs Library. You can follow him on Twitter at @steveslow.

29 Responses to “Diagnosing Rafael Soriano’s Woes”

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  1. Matt Defalco says:

    There were many times last season when Soriano threw the cutter primarily, I watched a couple of them on MLB Gameday, and was taken aback by the number he was throwing.

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    • phoenix2042 says:

      and i believe the article said to not trust MLB classifications, which is what gameday is made up of…

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    • David says:

      Sorianos’ manner of pitching reminds me of Kenny Rogers style. They both show no emotion giving the impressions they could’nt care less the outcome of their pitching. With the salaries being paid the fans expect some kind of emotion when screwing up. When Kenny Rogers pitched for the Mets he showed no emotion, meanwhile Mr. Bobby Valentine the manager was angry as hell. The pop-up behind the pitching mound was Sorianos’ ball all the way. He made no gesture what so ever to Rodriguez and/or Jeter that it was a mistake on his part. Again, no emotion whatsoever.

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      • onceindc says:

        as a former HS pitcher I can tell you right now that the infielders are responsible for INF flies, including around the mound. If you’re ON the mound and tracking a ball in the air it’ pretty easy to fall down, trip, et cetera.

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  2. Mike H says:

    He has thrown ten and a third innings.

    Ten and a third.

    31 Outs.

    He has walked eight batters.


    The change in performance this year could be explained by one cramp, or a particularly unpleasant bowel movement.

    Ten and a third.

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  3. I’d agree with Dave that BIS is more accurate in this case. Of the 204 pitches tracked by PITCHf/x on Soriano this year, I re-classified and found 122 (59.8%) four-seamers, 62 (30.4%) sliders, 13 (6.4%) two-seam sinkers, and 7 (3.4%) cutters. I’m not positive about the split between the four-seamers and cutters; Soriano’s four-seamer has some cutting action as it is. The main difference is some extra movement and less velocity on the cutter.

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  4. Anthony says:

    Watching Soriano go out there and ruin the night just fills me with despair.

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  5. Phil says:

    Wow, Soriano is pitching so poorly this season that his meltdowns can be predicted eight days in advance! Be sure to alert the Twin’s fans not to turn off the game.

    I think you meant April 5th :P

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  6. Disco says:

    thumb his nose at Levine

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  7. Phil Privitera says:

    There is something stats can’t give you and that is the guy shows no heart out there. His attitude is very poor and there is no emotion physical or mentally. Unless that changes we will pray he ops out at the end of the year.

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    • 28 this year says:

      To be fair, Mariano doesn’t really show emotion either. But yes, Soriano seems to have a “I don’t give a f***!” mentality.

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    • Dixon says:

      There’s also something you can’t tell from watching a game from the sofa, and thats the amount of “heart” a guy has. You cant say he has no mental emotion, or bad attitude or whatever, quite simply you have absolutely no idea what he thinks.

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    • Rick Rude says:

      So when a Yankee relief pitcher shows no emotion and struggles we will call him Rafael Soriano.

      And when a Yankee relief pitcher shows no emotion and dominates we will call him Mariano Rivera.

      Got it.

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      • phoenix2042 says:

        it’s true. mariano is a robot that dominates. soriano is a robot that sucks. we should scrap the sucky one for parts and keep the awesome one! haha just kidding. but seriously, it kind of feels like soriano is trying to be mo, judging from his spring training regimen, lack of emotion and apparent use of his cutter. before you jump on me, yes i realize the article says not to trust the MLB cutter classifications and yes i know he had the same spring training regimen for years. it just kind of feels like he’s trying to be mo and trying too hard…

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      • For what it’s worth, Soriano was the *exact same* last season with the Rays. No emotion on the mound – looked like he was bored sometimes – and he didn’t throw his first pitch in spring training until it was well over halfway done. He’s simply on a bigger stage now and people aren’t used to it…he’s a very particular guy that likes to keep to himself.

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  8. andrew says:

    Just another guy who can’t handle the NY pressure…

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  9. Yirmiyahu says:

    He’s a reliever who just signed a $35M contract. For him not to completely suck would be unprecedented.

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  10. Rick Rude says:

    The Yankees better hope he pitches well because that is the only case where he might opt-out.

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  11. Llewdor says:

    A loss of command with no corresponding loss of velocity?

    I call elbow injury.

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  12. Phantom Stranger says:

    Weren’t there rumors he was pitching through back pain or issues? Back problems can be a nightmare for a pitcher. It would affect the movement on his breaking stuff and maximum velocity.

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    • Preston says:

      He was unavailable in one game because of back stiffness. They are saying it’s because he’s not used to the cold weather in New York.

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  13. LirianoIsKillingMyFantasyTeam says:

    Personally, I would have rather spent $35 million trying to figure out how to clone Mo. Hopefully Hank will actually listen to Cash in the future.

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  14. CircleChange11 says:

    On that pitch to Paulie, I have an anonymous source that confirmed that Soriano did, in fact, “hold it like an egg”.

    Clearly his shockers are jammed, and he’s breathing through the wrong eyelid.

    He just needs to rediscover the relationship between his right arm and his left testicle. Don’t we all?

    Loss of control could be due to any number of things.

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  15. Robert Thacher says:

    The reason is this. He is a closer, not a setupman. It’s his own fault for not grabbing a closing gig somewhere in the off season. He could have done this by lowering his price. Must be a Scott Boras client.

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