What Can The Tigers Expect From Joakim Soria?

At this point in the offseason, even if the Tigers wanted to acquire an elite reliever, the well has essentially run dry. They can and will look to acquire some depth, but they have basically decided to go into 2015 with the bullpen they have at the moment. If that proves to be the case, the most critical component will certainly be last season’s big add: Joakim Soria.

While we have no idea how Joakim Soria will actually be used in 2015, it’s probably safe to say that if he’s healthy he’ll find plenty of innings due to a diminished starting rotation and the absence of Joba Chamberlain. He’s had an interesting career path through Kansas City, Texas, and Detroit with his runs allowed numbers shining early and tapering off over the last few years while his fielding independent numbers have been more consistent but never quite as impressive.

He missed all of 2012 due to a second Tommy John Surgery and some of 2013 while he recovered, leaving him ready for the standard “year after the return” bounce back. He was great across the board in 2014 even if his performance fluctuated (3.25 ERA, 2.09 FIP, 2.73 xFIP) and he’s still pretty young, entering his age 31 season in 2015. He’s been an elite reliever for most of his career and he was an elite reliever in 2014.

Tigers fans, however, don’t have the best taste in their mouths as Soria had a 4.91 ERA and 5.22 FIP with the Tigers in the regular season (in addition to missing time with an injury) and then got crushed in two postseason appearances. No one will pretend the results were good, but it was just 12 innings and 58 batters in total. It wasn’t pretty, but if you’re paying attention to a 12 inning sample of results and nothing else you’re doing analysis wrong.

With that said, what can the Tigers expect from Soria in 2015?

If we look to the Steamer projection system, Soria is slated to lose about three percent off his strikeout rate while watching his career best walk rate from 2014 pull back toward his career norms. Steamer also expects his insane HR rate and HR/FB% to regress back toward his career norms as well. This isn’t surprising, Steamer thinks a 31 year old reliever isn’t going to repeat his terrific age 30 season.

But there’s another angle to all of this. While Steamer thinks his 2.09 FIP from 2014 is going to turn into a 3.47 FIP, his ERA projection (3.22) is basically the same as his 2014 mark (3.25). What’s going on there? Soria has always been able to run slightly below average BABIPs, but that’s not it. It’s actually about his left on base rate.

In 2014, Soria’s LOB% was 62.5% which is way below his career average (79.4%) and league average (73%). Soria’s batting line against was .218/.254/.351 (.261 wOBA) but he allowed a disproportionate number of runs given that line. The average pitcher would have allowed about 20 runs in Soria’s shoes (he allowed 19, 3.86 RA9). But a pitcher with a .261 wOBA against in those situations should have allowed 13 runs (2.64 RA9).

What do I mean by “should have” though? Essentially, the hits and walks against Soria bunched up in a way that led to more runs than you would expect if they were distributed among his innings in a more typical way. In general, we might refer to this as a sequencing problem which is either totally random or a problem pitching with men on base. And he’s never demonstrated any problem with the latter in his career.

All this means is that Soria’s ERA was above his FIP in 2014 for reasons we don’t think will repeat. But also, based on Soria’s history and the history of similar pitchers, Steamer thinks his FIP will regress and will balance out with a similar run prevention profile. This offers us a baseline. Soria is slated to sit just under 1 WAR, but should we take the over or the under on that projection?

One common reason to worry about a pitcher is their velocity. Not only has Soria’s average velocity been pretty consistent over the years, but it didn’t change in any noticeable way as the 2014 season went on. Even as his results faded, Soria wasn’t losing heat. From a movement perspective, his changeup seemed to get better and his slider/cutter seemed to get worse after coming to the Tigers, but again the samples are small and classification can get tricky.

There’s nothing much in movement or velocity that jumps out, but what about release point? If you squint, it actually looks more consistent after coming to the Tigers but it’s probably nothing. So if we’re looking for signs that something was wrong with his stuff or his delivery, we find don’t find anything.

Soria got fewer swinging strikes as a Tiger, especially as batters swung less at pitches outside the zone and made much more contact when they did. Still, 12 innings is 12 innings. It could be random, it could be poor pitch sequencing, or it could be that he happened to run into a series of hitters who were particularly prepared to face him.

What’s the takeaway? Soria’s not going to pitch as well in 2015 as he did in 2014 because his BB% and HR% were simply unusually high and will likely regress. But that won’t hurt the bottom line run prevention very much because his LOB% will likely regress in the other direction. And beyond that, we can’t find any signs of trouble in his velocity, movement, or release point near the end of 2014 that indicate his poor showing down the stretch was anything more than a mild funk rather than a concerning trend.

The Tigers are likely going to get a 31 year old version of the Joakim Soria we’ve seen over the years in other uniforms. He’ll be a solid reliever for a team that desperately needs them, although how he’s used and who fills out the pen around him will determine how well the Tigers hold leads in 2015.

Neil Weinberg is a Senior Analyst for TigsTown. He is also the Founder of New English D, a contributor to Gammons Daily, the Associate Managing Editor at Beyond the Box Score, and the Site Educator at FanGraphs. Follow and interact with him on Twitter @NeilWeinberg44

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