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.
More squeezing the coronaries in the ninth
The twitterverse showed similar disdain for Soriano:
Even if Storen gets this last out... You know who starts the 9th. Because god forbid we keep the good pitcher in.— Chris Needham (@needham_chris) April 19, 2014
Rafa Soriano. The crowd goes...uneasy.— Luigi de Guzman (@ouij) April 19, 2014
Wish I could have more confidence in our closer. Actually I wish Droooooo stayed in.— Mary Brick (@maryb889) April 19, 2014
Even the Nats beat writers were getting in on the action.....
Soriano vs. Molina, Ellis, Robinson. Could certainly argue for Storen returning for 9th after needing only 5 pitches to get out of 8th.— Mark Zuckerman (@ZuckermanCSN) April 19, 2014
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.
- 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.