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What’s With Joakim Soria?

Relievers are a notoriously fickle bunch. But few closers have beaten opposing batters into submission more frequently than Joakim Soria since he became Kansas City’s stopper in 2007. Soria ranked fourth in the majors among relievers in Wins Above Replacement from ’07 to 2010, trailing only Mariano Rivera, Jonathan Papelbon and Jonathan Broxton. The only real concern with The Mexicutioner heading into the 2011 season was health, as shoulder problems put him on the DL in 2007 and 2009. But Soria appeared in a career-high 66 games last year and looked poised to dominate once again.

Instead, the 26-year-old has gotten torched. Soria blew his third consecutive save chance yesterday versus the Angels, as Torii Hunter hammered a 90 MPH pitch over the left field fence at Kauffman Stadium to put L.A. on top. In 22 innings pitched this season, the right-hander has -0.3 WAR. And for the time being, Soria has been booted from the closer role in favor of rookie Aaron Crow. What’s going on with Soria?

Soria hasn’t been as bad as his 6.55 ERA would indicate. His xFIP, based on strikeouts, walks and a normalized home run per fly ball rate, is 4.06. Still, that’s a far cry from his previous work. Soria’s xFIP was 27 percent better than the league average from ’07 to 2010. This year, though? It’s two percent worse than the league average.

He’s getting ahead in the count less often this season, with a 59.8 first-pitch strike percentage that’s two percentage points below his career average. Soria’s swinging strike rate has taken a nosedive, down to just 7.1 percent (10.8 percent career average). And hitters aren’t chasing his stuff out of the zone — Soria’s 18.5% outside swing rate is dead last among all qualified relievers.

In the MLB.com article linked to above, Royals manager Ned Yost said the following about Soria:

His fastball always had that little hop to it and it’s missing that little hop right now. Is that mechanical? We don’t know.

At first glance, it might seem like Soria has lost zip on his fastball. But a closer look reveals that in 2010, he began throwing a cutter-like pitch. Baseball Prospectus’ Mike Fast says Soria introduced the pitch last July:

The faster of Soria’s two fastball types is labeled “fastball,” and the slower of the pair is labeled “cutter,” though both are really cutting fastballs. The slower cutter has about two inches more cutting action and three inches more drop than the faster pitch, on average.

In 2011, Soria has thrown his cutter about 56 percent of the time, at an average velocity of 89.4 MPH. He has gone to his fastball about 24 percent, with an average velocity of 90.9 MPH.

That cutter hasn’t been effective. Soria has thrown the pitch for strikes 61.1 percent, below the 66-67 percent MLB average. His whiff rate with the cutter is 6.2 percent (8-9 percent MLB average).

Pitch F/X data from Joe Lefkowitz’s site shows that Soria has gotten hitters to chase his cutter out of the strike zone just 16 percent this season (27 percent MLB average). Soria’s ground ball rate with the cutter is 32 percent, well below the 44 percent MLB average.

A lack of grounders has led to lots of extra-base hits for the opposition: Soria’s slugging percentage on contact with the cutter is .595 in 2011 (.489 MLB average).

Soria’s fastball, meanwhile, has been thrown for a strike 65.6 percent of the time (64 percent MLB average) and has gotten whiffs 6.7 percent (6 percent MLB average). Those are quality marks, but consider that Soria threw his heater for strikes around 68 percent of the time and got whiffs better than nine percent of the time from ’08 to 2010.

While implementing the cutter, he has all but abandoned his once-wicked slow curveball. He has also gone to his changeup less often, with fewer strikes and whiffs than in 2009 and 2010:

(Data from TexasLeaguers.com. MLB averages are 58 strike% and 11.6 whiff% for the curve, 60.7 strike% and 12.6 whiff% for the change)

Soria’s slider has gotten fewer whiffs as well (6.7 percent, compared to the 13.6% MLB average and his 15.5% mark from 2008 to 2010).

Soria remained a top-shelf closer last season. He missed fewer bats than usual, but compensated with a career-high ground ball rate. But in 2011, his cutter is getting few chases, whiffs or grounders, and it’s getting hit hard when batters make contact.

When you couple the lousy cutter with Soria essentially scrapping his curve and getting worse results with his changeup and slider, you have a recipe for serious disappointment. A former starter known for possessing one of the deepest repertoires among relievers, Soria’s stuff at the moment consists of: a below-average cutter thrown well over half of the time, a good fastball (if less effective than in years past) used slightly under a quarter of the time, and a smattering of subpar changeups, sliders and curves.

Even so, the best thing that owners can do right now is to pick up Crow if he’s available and sit tight on Soria. You don’t want to trade a guy who cost a premium pick and who possesses a superb track record for fifty cents on the dollar. Soria might want to cut his cutter usage, dust off his curveball and get back to the approach that made him one of the best closers in the game.