In defense of Nationals' closer Rafael Soriano

Rafael Soriano shakes hands with Jose Lobaton after converting his 16th consecutive Save Opportunity. - Joy R. Absalon-USA TODAY Sports

Given the fear and sense of impending doom that we hear both on Federal Baseball and Twitter every time Rafael Soriano comes in, you would think that Soriano blows a save every time he comes in. In fact, he hasn't allowed a run in 19 appearances dating back to August 23 of last season.

As I watched Friday night's thrilling 3-1 victory over the St. Louis Cardinals, I saw what we seem to see every time there's a save situation heading into the ninth inning.  Here's a small sampling of some of the comments from the game thread:

Score some runs...

Hoping to keep Soriano out of this one…

I nominate Storen for closer...

Guy can deal when the team isn’t burying him.

Soriano?

More squeezing the coronaries in the ninth

The twitterverse showed similar disdain for Soriano:

After Storen escaped the jam in the eighth....

Even the Nats beat writers were getting in on the action.....

No... Soriano was not the most dominant closer in the game last season.  In fact, among the Top 20 pitchers in Saves last season, Soriano wasn't in the top half in most categories.  His 3.11 ERA ranked 16th.  His 1.23 WHIP ranked 16th.  His 6 Blown Saves ranked him 15th.  He certainly wasn't the shutdown closer that the Nats were looking for in 2013, but let's not completely dwell on last season.  All in all, he converted 43 of 49 save opportunities (87.75%), which is about what you would expect from an average closer*.

*The MLB team average Save Percentage last season was 68.8%, but that accounts for any blown save... including middle relievers and setup men blowing a lead in the middle innings.  Since I'm using the Top 20 in saves to illustrate my point, that group converted 774 of 867 chances, or 89.3%.... not that far a cry from Soriano's 87.75%.

The fear of Soriano most likely comes from his struggles in July and August of last season.  In reality, this came from five bad outings.

  • He entered a game against the Pirates last season with a 7-3 lead in the ninth inning.  Soriano proceeded to walk the first two hitters.  He then allowed an RBI double.  After striking out last season's NL MVP, he allowed another RBI single before being pulled. Ian Krol entered and allowed both inherited runners to score. Bryce Harper won the game in the bottom half of the inning with a two-run blast, but the damage (to Soriano's image) was done.
  • Soriano allowed seven runs in four outings from August 14-August 20, allowing at least one run in each game.  Two of those four appearances resulted in a blown save.

It's brutally obvious looking at Soriano's splits last season that these five outings were the problem.  He didn't exactly endear himself early in the year, but managed an acceptable 3.60 ERA in ten April outings.  He allowed just 5 earned runs in 24 appearances between May and June.  Then there was the middle of the summer..... Soriano had a 5.23 ERA in July of last season, largely inflated by one bad (OK... awful) outing.  He followed it up with a 5.84 ERA in August of 2013, which was pretty much all from his poor week in the middle of the month.

As I said in my article last week when I discussed the Nats record against the 2013 playoff teams, baseball's a funny game.  Sometimes everything breaks wrong for a few weeks.  Other times, you can't do anything wrong no matter how hard you try.  Soriano had a couple of weeks where he just didn't have anything go right for him.  Right now?  Things are breaking completely in the opposite direction.  You'd never know it from the fanbase's reaction to him on a nightly basis.

Three days after that awful August 14-20 run, Soriano entered a shaky situation that Drew Storen had left for him.  Storen started the ninth inning with an 11-7 lead against the Royals, but allowed the first two runners to reach, walking one hitter and allowing a double to the next.  Enter the struggling Soriano, who was still recovering from the worst stretch of his career.  Soriano would allow a couple of knocks, and both inherited runners plus one of his own would score.  He then settled down and got a couple of shallow fly balls to end it.

Why am I telling you about this outing, you ask?  That's the last time Soriano allowed a run in a regular season ballgame... August 23, 2013! In 19 appearances since, here are Soriano's numbers:

19 Appearances, 13 Hits, 5 Walks, 20 Strikeouts, 14 for 14 in Save Opportunities, 0 Runs Allowed.

Am I playing with sample sizes a bit?  Sure... Of course, I am.  He's had a nice two month hot streak....... which followed a brutal cold streak.  Both represent small sample sizes.

What Exactly Were We Expecting?

When you heard that the Nats signed a veteran closer with a career 2.74 ERA and 1.05 WHIP who generally struck out a batter an inning (a little more than that in his career, actually..... 9.45 K/9) before last season, what was your reaction?  I can't say how the rest of you reacted, but my personal opinion was this: I don't know how much they really need him, but it never hurts to improve the bullpen.

Let's examine Soriano's numbers in his tenure in Washington, including last season and the small sample we've got so far in 2014: 72.2 IP, 23 ER, 71 H, 18 BB, 61 K.
  • That's a 2.84 ERA.  This is a little bit higher than the career 2.74 mark he had before the Nats acquired him, but not egregiously so.  Given that we showed some of his bad outings above, it took quite a few good ones to try and balance them out.  Relievers are funny that way.  One or two bad outings can make it look like they had a horrible year when, in fact, they only had a few bad outings
  • That's a 1.22 WHIP.  This is certainly disappointing compared to his 1.05 career mark before joining the Nats.  He's actually walked fewer batters than he did earlier in his career (just 2.30/9 innings last season as compared to his 2.77 career mark), so it's simply that he's been more hittable.  Soriano's .287 BABIP allowed last season was about where we would expect for most pitchers to end up, but it was .031 points higher than his career BABIP allowed (.256).  There's some question regarding how much a pitcher can affect his BABIP (GB/FB rate, etc.), but it's safe to say that Soriano allowing a league average BABIP last season goes against what his entire career has told us.  Soriano had never allowed a BABIP of higher than .276 in a full season prior to 2013, so he was a tad unluckier than he typically has been.
  • He's also been a bit disappointing with his strikeout rate, which was 9.45 K/9 entering last season.  In 72.2 innings with the Nats, Soriano has a pedestrian strikeout rate of 7.55 K/9.  This (along with being partially responsible for the more hittable issue above) was probably caused in part by a 9.0% Swinging Strike rate last season.  The only season where his SwStr% was lower was his rookie season in Seattle, when he was actually still a starting pitcher.  It's well below his career rate (11.8%).  If there's a bright side to look at here, it's that Soriano had a 17.0% SwStr% coming into Friday night so far this season.  I would expect that to regress heavily, but I would also expect his SwStr% in 2014 to regress closer to his career norms than finish around 9.0% where it was last year... even with a little bit of diminished velocity.
So, in terms of ERA, he's been a little worse than we expected.  The components that help lead to his ERA have been disappointing, but he's outperformed them a bit.  Did the Nats get the guy we thought they paid for?  Not quite.  Should we be complaining about a 2.84 ERA and an 88.4% (46 for 52 when you include this season) conversion rate in the ninth inning?  Absolutely not.  There are only so many Mariano Riveras in the world.

The Narrative

I would love for this entire piece to be focused on statistics to dispel the myth that Soriano is a major trouble spot for the club.  If you want that (and only that), feel free to stop reading.  I get the feeling that much of the disdain for Soriano that we hear in the Natosphere is due to the narrative.  This appears to be the case on a couple of different fronts:

The lack of emotion during his outings seems to bother so many people here (regarding his emotions, I recall quite a few people last year talking about how they thought the untucking was childish and stupid, but let's focus on the lack of emotion).  To this, I say, isn't that his job?  One of the most important (and cliched) things for a closer to do is to have a short memory.  What happened has already happened, and getting frustrated about a missed call or a bad pitch isn't going to bring it back.  Getting amped up about a big out isn't necessarily going to help you get the next guy either.  The lack of visible emotion that Soriano tends to show out there isn't apathy... It's Soriano moving on to the task at hand... the next pitch.

The other narrative is DC's love affair with Drew Storen.  I'm not going to mince my words, so if you love Storen (I like the kid.... I want him to succeed just like the rest of you!), avert your eyes.  Storen was terrible in the first half last season and he earned his trip to Syracuse to help him turn things around.  He wasn't down long, but when he was sent down, it sure seemed like there was a growing rift in the clubhouse.  Bullpen-mate and best friend Tyler Clippard had words about how the situation that brought Soriano in was handled, and there was suddenly even more reason for some people to treat Soriano as a villain.  In reality, Soriano had nothing to do with this.  He signed a contract with a team that wanted to add his arm to their bullpen.  They installed him as the closer, and something that should never have been said to the press was said by Clippard.  It's not Soriano's fault, so don't punish him for it.

Back to the Task at Hand

Is Soriano our best bullpen arm?  My eyes would say no, and the statistics would back that up.  Tyler Clippard has been the best pitcher out of the bullpen on this team since 2009.  That hasn't changed over the past two seasons.  Clippard has a 2.60 ERA, a 0.86 WHIP, and a 9.82 K/9 since the beginning of the 2013 season.  How often has Clippard been the closer since 2009, though?  He spent a lot of time in the role in 2012 because Storen was hurt, but Davey (correctly, in my eyes) preferred him as a setup man.  Once upon a time, this was because he could work multiple innings.  At some point, that changed.  In reality, Clippard should be used in the highest leverage situation whenever possible.. That situation occasionally occurs in the ninth inning, but not all the time.  Sometimes it happens earlier in the game.  Storen, Matt Capps, and even Mike MacDougal have held the closer's role instead of Clippard, so I don't think it's that big a deal.

At any rate, we've seen Soriano struggle some in his time in DC, but hey... Let's appreciate his good times as well.  When Soriano next takes the hill, he'll be aiming to throw his 20th consecutive scoreless outing.  There's some great chatter going on about how Storen's off to a nice start with a 1.42 ERA thus far this season.  That's great news, but let's not forget that Rafael Soriano has a 0.00 ERA in that same small sample (plus the final 5 weeks of the 2013 season) when we're all saying that the Nats should put Storen in the ninth instead of Soriano.  Just don't tell Sori that.  He's only as good as his next pitch.
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