Joakim Soria and the Value of a Postseason Relief Ace

The Tigers, as they seemingly always do, have a bullpen problem. They rank 26th in the majors in bullpen ERA (4.37) and 25th in FIP (3.92), as Joe Nathan has been a disaster in the ninth inning, and Al Albuquerque, Phil Coke, and Ian Krol haven’t been very good at protecting leads before Nathan takes the hill either. When your most reliable reliever is Joba Chamberlain, you know there’s some issues.

So on Wednesday night, the Tigers did what contending teams with bullpen issues do; they paid through the nose — giving up Double-A starter Jake Thomspon and rookie reliever Corey Knebel — to get an experienced, high-quality closer, acquiring Joakim Soria from the Rangers. Soria has been fantastic this year, posting a ridiculous 1.07 FIP, thanks to the lowest walk and highest strikeout rate in his career. Oh, and the fact that he hasn’t allowed a home run yet. That helps too.

Of course, not allowing home runs in Texas is a neat trick that Joe Nathan pulled off last year, and that hasn’t really carried over to his pitching this year in Detroit, but even when the home runs return, Soria should still be pretty big upgrade for the Tigers relief corps. However, even very good relievers only pitch about 10 innings per month, and with just a little over two months left in the season, there just aren’t that many innings left for Soria to make a significant difference in the standings. Besides, the Tigers were extremely likely to win their division even without Soria, as they currently hold a 6 1/2 game lead over the Indians and a 7 game lead over the Royals.

In terms of moving the playoff odds needle, perhaps no significant trade made this month will have less of an effect that the Tigers acquiring Soria. But this trade isn’t about the regular season. This trade is about the postseason, and the potential impact Soria could have in October.

We’re all pretty familiar with the fact that relievers just don’t pitch enough innings to be highly valuable in the regular season, but the game is played differently in the postseason. The increased frequency of off days makes it easier to lean on your best relievers more often, and the importance of each game provides an incentive to make sure that the best pitchers are on the mound the most often. And this shows up in their usage patterns.

For illustration, the most frequently used relievers throw about 5% of a team’s total innings over the course of the regular season; that’s ~75 innings out of around 1,450. Most are a bit under that, but if you’re really aggressive with your closer usage or have a relief ace working in a setup role, you can give him 5% of the total innings pie from April through September.

Now, let’s take a look at the percentage of innings pitched by elite relievers in last year’s postseason. Eight of the top 20 relievers in 2013 WAR made it to at least the division series and pitched in multiple games. Here are their percentages of innings pitched for last postseason:

Player IP Team IP %/IP
Koji Uehara 13.2 142.1 9.6%
Sean Doolittle 4.1 44.0 9.3%
Trevor Rosenthal 11.2 152.0 7.7%
Mark Melancon 3.2 52.0 6.2%
Jason Grilli 3.1 52.0 6.0%
Joaquin Benoit 5.2 96.0 5.4%
Kenley Jansen 4.1 90.1 4.5%
Drew Smyly 3.0 96.0 3.1%

After throwing 5.1% of the Red Sox innings in the regular season, Uehara threw nearly double that amount in the playoffs. For reference, 9.6% of a team’s total regular season innings would equal out to about 140 innings per year. Based on the fact that the average leverage index when Uehara entered the game was 1.76, you could equate the impact of the innings he threw in the postseason to a starting pitcher that threw 246 innings in the regular season.

Yeah, elite relievers can matter an awful lot in October, which is why teams continually trade legitimate prospects to acquire them in July. Of course, Uehara carried the heaviest workload of the elite relievers, so this is basically the absolute best case usage scenario for a relief ace in October. The A’s managed to use Doolittle similarly, but only through one round, and every other team who advanced beyond the division series gave a lighter workload to their best bullpen arms. The average percentage of innings pitched for these eight relievers was 6.5%, which still translates a regular season workload of about 95 innings, but doesn’t match what Boston got out of their closer.

But, again, we have to factor in that while these pitchers are throwing fewer innings, they are pitching in innings that have a greater impact on wins and losses than a starting pitcher does, and we can’t simply equate one reliever inning with one starting pitcher inning. The way this is handled in reliever WAR is through chaining, which gives the reliever credit for pitching in higher leverage situations but doesn’t incorrectly assume that those innings would have gone to a replacement level reliever instead.

So, yes, Soria might only throw a handful of postseason innings, and reliever performance is volatile enough that perhaps he won’t end up making a significant difference for the Tigers. In that case, they’ll have just punted one of their best pitching prospects and a power arm who might have been a useful reliever himself. Certainly, this is the kind of deal that could easily backfire, and the Tigers may very well regret this deal in the long run.

But they made this because of the potential for an Uehara-style impact. Uehara’s dominance over a very large workload was one of the primary reasons the Red Sox won the World Series last year, and despite their diminished importance in the regular season, relievers can matter an awful lot in the postseason. We shouldn’t diminish Soria’s potential impact on the Tigers playoff run just because individual relievers don’t matter as much in the regular season.

If Brad Ausmus learns from the mistakes Jim Leyland made last postseason — note the very low percentage numbers for Benoit and Smyly on that list above — and aggressively uses Soria this October, this trade could end up being a significant difference maker for the Tigers. The idea that relievers don’t really matter that much holds up to scrutiny in the regular season, but the postseason is a different game, and it’s one where guys like Joakim Soria can matter a lot more.



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Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.


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James
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James
1 year 10 months ago

“The idea that relievers don’t really matter that much holds up to scrutiny in the regular season”–unless your closer is Joe Nathan.

vivalajeter
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vivalajeter
1 year 10 months ago

I’m not sure I see your point. Despite having Nathan as their closer, the Tigers are 6 1/2 games in front of anybody else in the division.

You’d be better served finding a Nathan-like closer on a team that’s a game or two out of first place.

Jim Price
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Jim Price
1 year 10 months ago

Unless you are having to watch Nathan try to finish a game on a regular basis. Its OK when he’s used as a victory cigar but close games have been PAINFUL.

vivalajeter
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vivalajeter
1 year 10 months ago

Oh, no question that it can be painful watching a mediocre closer. Heck, it can be painful watching one of the better closers. They don’t call it the Rolaids Relief Award for nothing. But ultimately, they’re still the heavy favorites to win their division despite having him as their closer, so he’s not a good example of why the quote above is incorrect.

Craig Kimbrel
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Craig Kimbrel
1 year 10 months ago

I should be on that list, Fredi.

cavebird
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cavebird
1 year 10 months ago

For some reason he added a pitched in multiple games requirement. I am not sure why. He’d be a great example of not leveraging a great reliever. Had he been used for a two-inning save in Game 4 against the Dodgers, there might have been a Game 5.

jerry60555
Member
jerry60555
1 year 10 months ago

How about Huston Street?

Angels sent out three prospects of top 10 from thier farm system.

Including Taylor Lindsey,
Angels gave out a lot for Street.

But based on ZIPS and Steamer projections,they all give 0.0 WAR project for the Street’s second half of this season.

Trade out 3 top 10 prospects for 0WAR bullpen arm,did it make sense?

Even Angels might have some baseball games in October?

jdbolick
Member
Member
1 year 10 months ago

Three prospects of (the) top 10” is deceiving because the Angels’ system is so bad. I like the return Texas got for Soria significantly more than what San Diego received. Knebel is close to major-league ready as an impact reliever who I prefer over Alvarez, and Thompson is a more interesting starting pitcher to me than Lindsey is a middle infielder. I’m not sure where Lindsey fits for San Diego given that he’s stretched at shortstop and I don’t think Gyorko can move off of second.

Shut up, bat sixth and get your arse in left
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Shut up, bat sixth and get your arse in left
1 year 10 months ago

Yeah 3 of top 5 or 3 of top ten prospects vary largely on drafting, player development and recent previous trades. The Tigers have been selling for awhile and their drafting has been…..ehh. Neither the Tigers or Angels come close to the Cards, Red Sox, Cubs etc. Now if the Cubs had traded 2 if their top 5 we would all be screaming at them given where they are in the win cycle and who their top five prospects are. Still, The Sox are for all intents and purpose out of it. While they have a competitive core I’m left to wonder what Uehara might fetch. The Red Sox apparent reluctance to move him baffles me.

#KeepNotGraphs
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#KeepNotGraphs
1 year 10 months ago

Soria’s one of the few guys out there worth trading prospects for. And he has a lower salary for next year than Fister.

#KeepNotGraphs

#KeepNotGraphs
Guest
#KeepNotGraphs
1 year 10 months ago

Larry Andersen was huge for us in the post season. I’m glad you acknowledge the value of a stud reliever Dave.

Shut up, bat sixth and get your arse in left
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Shut up, bat sixth and get your arse in left
1 year 10 months ago

We shall never mention the trade for Larry Anderson again. I get night sweats thinking about that trade. That one magical piece that will bring the roided up bash brothers to their knees. Scott Cooper was the rationalization behind that trade. That trade along with the Boddicker trade haunt me till this very day. Oh their just prosects……Schilling, Bagwell, Brady Anderson may have made the Sox the team of the nnetees.

QLB
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QLB
1 year 10 months ago

While Soria is having quite a good season, he has barely logged 30 innings this year and is coming off of a significant arm injury. He probably can’t handle the sudden workload increase required by the post season, and he’s actually fairly expensive too. They gave up two pretty good prospects for a guy who is basically a crapshoot going forward when there were other, more reliable arms out there with slightly worse stats for a much smaller price.

This was just a bad, bad trade by Detroit no matter how you look at it.

george
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george
1 year 10 months ago

it’s a high risk trade, but soria can be a game changer…i don’t want another veras, tigers needed to go big.

vivalajeter
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vivalajeter
1 year 10 months ago

But isn’t the workload increase due to all of the off-days in October, rather than having the relievers pitch more frequently? Seems like they pitch just as often – but since the games are spread out more, they can log more innings.

Kevin
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Kevin
1 year 10 months ago

Does it matter, especially, why there is a workload increase? Uehara still pitched 9.6% of the innings? So he still had that impact no matter the reason.

vivalajeter
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vivalajeter
1 year 10 months ago

As a counterpoint to QLB’s post, yes, I think it does matter. He was saying that Soria might not be able to handle the increased workload. My point is that if the increased workload is due to the extra off-days, then he should be able to handle it just fine, which is good for Detroit.

wallysb01
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wallysb01
1 year 10 months ago

I highly doubt that’s the ONLY reason, through we’d have to have more information than what is shown above.

The 2IP save seems much more common in the playoffs too.

Ned
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Ned
1 year 10 months ago

Exactly. His % of total innings will go up mainly because the denominator (total Detroit innings) is decreasing, not because his innings usage is increasing.

Zack
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Zack
1 year 10 months ago

He’s not that expensive at all. He’s making $5.5M this year and has a club option for $7M next year. That’s below market value for a guy who’s produced 1.7 WAR already this year.

I don’t see how this was a bad, bad trade for Detroit. Top ten prospects in the Tigers system are not equivalent to those of some of the better systems. The two prospects have the upside of a back-end starter and a middle reliever, and in return they received the best reliever on the market with another year of club control.

RSF
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RSF
1 year 10 months ago

I agree that the trade is not terrible, but the industry consensus on Thompson and Knebel is way higher than you indicate. Thompson is viewed anywhere from a potential 2-4 by various sites, and most sites view Knebel as a potential closer.

Matt C
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Matt C
1 year 10 months ago

I’ve yet to see anybody say that Thompson could be a 2, everything I seen said back end starter. As for Knebel I guess he has the potential to be a closer but even that maybe a stretch, usually closers have atleast one dominating pitch and he doesn’t. His curveball is plus but it isn’t a true wipeout pitch.

the fume
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the fume
1 year 10 months ago

Thompson may have been viewed as a 2 at some point, but I think the consensus is that he’s raised his floor significantly this season but is probably a 4 or maybe a 3.

Knebel could easily develop into a high-leverage guy. His stuff is very good and with command improvements he could be that guy.

Frank
Member
Frank
1 year 10 months ago

Jim Callis sees Thompson as potential number 2 and Knebel as a closer https://twitter.com/jimcallisMLB/status/492299901045579777

Everybody needs to get over this obsession with picking the winner and loser of a trade. Tigers don’t want a repeat of the Jose Valverde implosion a few years back, they went and got the best reliever per dollar remaining on the market to add some certainty to their postseason picture.

I think commentators generally undervalue what it means to win in the current season, stockpiling prospects, I don’t think has been a successful strategy for many teams in recent years. The teams that have won the world series dating back to the 08 Phillies have all made successful trades and given up prospects and continued to contend in the years after that. Contrast that with prospect stockpilers like the Nats, who valued future wins with Steven Strasburg over their big chance in 2012, and missed out big time.

Patrick
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Patrick
1 year 10 months ago

The same effect is true for starting pitchers. A team’s top starter can easily account for 20 to 25% of his team’s innings.

I suspect this is the reason so many people believe “pitching wins pennants”. A hot post-season pitcher really does have a disproportionate impact.

novaether
Member
novaether
1 year 10 months ago

Realistically, this will probably only save a couple of runs in the postseason, but how much are late-game postseason runs worth? For 85-year old Tigers’ owner Mike Ilich, I’m guessing he pegs that value to be several million per run.

Luke
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Luke
1 year 10 months ago

The reliever chaining concept is interesting, but I have to wonder about how it “doesn’t incorrectly assume that those innings would have gone to a replacement level reliever instead.” This is obviously true. However, isn’t it also true that when you send in an elite reliever in the highest-leverage situation, the above-replacement reliever that does not get used in the highest leverage situation is now free to replace a replacement-level reliever in a less high-leverage situation? Ultimately, adding an elite arm to the bullpen should be bumping a replacement-level reliever out of SOME innings, right? Does this get taken into account somehow in reliever chaining?

Andy
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Andy
1 year 10 months ago

Detroit re-signs many of their big trade acquisitions… Chamberlin being a UFA next year & a struggling Nathan being in the last year of his deal, I see this as more than just a post-season move, even if that was the primary motivation

JD
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JD
1 year 10 months ago

Nathan is in the first year of his deal. He’s signed through 2015, with a team option for 2016.

Kaline's Ghost
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Kaline's Ghost
1 year 10 months ago

You could have put a period after “2015.” That team option is as meaningful as Jose Mesa appearing on a HoF ballot.

Joe Table
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Joe Table
1 year 10 months ago

So you’re saying there’s a chance!

Andy
Guest
1 year 10 months ago

I assumed they wouldn’t bring back a 41 year-old closer on a $10,000,000 deal, but if it means that much to you, yeah you’re totally right.

Andy
Guest
1 year 10 months ago

“Chamberlin being a UFA NEXT YEAR & a struggling Nathan being in the last year of his deal”. It helps to comprehend someone’s comment before correcting… Just a thought?

Andy
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Andy
1 year 10 months ago

Also, where was Thompson going to find a role?.. Verlander, Sanchez, Smyly & Ray will occupy 4/5 rotation slots in future years. Porcello, Scherzer or an UFA will likely fill the other, Thompson had no place to go, but elsewhere

vivalajeter
Guest
vivalajeter
1 year 10 months ago

If injuries or underproduction never happened, then I’d agree with you. Or if we’re talking about a position player blocked by a star, such as a 1B prospect on the D-backs, I’d also agree with you. But just because Detroit has 4-5 SP’s right now, that does not mean they can’t find a place for another SP in future years.

Andy
Guest
Andy
1 year 10 months ago

Detroit doesn’t have 4-5, they have 6 when including Ray who wouldn’t hurt you as a #5. Accounting for injuries & decline Thomson still would have to beat out EVERY other Tigers pitching prospect to earn a role… And we haven’t even discussed FA where the Tigers wield a large budget to potentially fill holes in the rotation

walt526
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walt526
1 year 10 months ago

Thompson is a much better bet to stick in a big league rotation than Ray. And given his age (20), he might not have started 2015 in the majors.

The Tigers paid retail for Soria. It was necessary given their weak bullpen, but both arms that they gave up have a very good chance of providing 6 (potentially very) valuable, cost-controlled years.

Andy
Guest
1 year 10 months ago

Considering Thompson just made it out of A ball last week & Ray already has a few promising starts in the bigs under his belt, Ray is easily the safer bet. If the Tigers saw it your way, why wasn’t Ray dealt for Soria?

Steve D.
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Steve D.
1 year 10 months ago

How long is Nathan’s leash?

Jim Price
Guest
Jim Price
1 year 10 months ago

We will find out very soon.

primi timpano
Guest
primi timpano
1 year 10 months ago

Re: home runs in Arlington. Before last season they made some changes to the park. Whatever they did, the old jet stream is gone.

Shin S.C.
Guest
Shin S.C.
1 year 10 months ago

NOW you tell me!

Prince F
Guest
Prince F
1 year 10 months ago

I know, right!

Kaline's Ghost
Guest
Kaline's Ghost
1 year 10 months ago

The new jet stream must push the ball into a weak path down the right side of the infield, eh Prince?

Well-Beered Englishman
Guest
Well-Beered Englishman
1 year 10 months ago

The fact that “Jake Thomspon” is misspelled, but still directs to “Jake Thompson,” makes me wonder if the “Johan Santa” links are deliberate, rather than the result of some computer thing which would not have known to link Thomspon’s name correctly.

#KeepNotGraphs

Kaline's Ghost
Guest
Kaline's Ghost
1 year 10 months ago

I know it doesn’t factor into hard analysis, but you can’t ignore the fact that DD is working for a guy who doesn’t much care what a prospect may bring to the Tigers in 2018. For better or worse, whatever you think the Tigers paid for Soria in prospects, you can slash the cost of that in the Owner’s mind.

TheoK
Member
TheoK
1 year 10 months ago

Hey, Al Alburquerque has been pretty good!

Bob Davidson
Guest
Bob Davidson
1 year 10 months ago

I mean, he leads the league in most walk-off balks committed this season! What’s not to like?

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