Rafael Soriano, interim closer with Mariano Rivera out for the season, blew his first save of the year on Sunday. Entering a 4-3 game in the top of the ninth inning, Soriano allowed a lead-off double to Lucas Duda and a game-tying single to Ike Davis, though the Yankees took the lead and the win in the bottom of the inning. Unable to return to action on Monday with a blister, Soriano did convert a save on Tuesday – his tenth of the season – and maintains a 2.01 ERA on the year.
By all accounts, the right-handed reliever who struggled so mightily in his first season after signing a three year mega-deal has been great this season, filling in admirably for the injured Rivera and for David Robertson. But while, as Soriano says, “nobody’s perfect in this game,” longer term skill deterioration remains on Soriano’s resume. Despite the strong ERA and 10 saves out of 11 chances, there is reason to believe a meltdown or two could be looming; that perhaps another Yankee reliever will be closing games by the All-Star break.
On the surface, 2012 has been much kinder to Rafeal Soriano than 2011. After posting a 4.12 ERA in his first season with the Yanks, Soriano has yet to allow more than one earned run in any appearance and has shut down the opposition in 19 of 24 trips to the hill. Some have argued that the right-hander’s renewed success is simply a regression to his true skill level (after all, he does have a career 2.82 ERA) while others have pointed out his abandonment of the cutter and increased fastball usage. Whatever the case, Soriano’s approach has been working, allowing the Yankees to shoot to the top of the AL East standings even with two of the league’s best relievers injured of late.
A slightly deeper analysis of the relevant statistics is more troublesome. Last year was a career worst and Soriano appears slightly better across the board. His strikeout rate, 8.46 on the season, is better than the 8.24 he posted last season (or even his 8.22 strikeout rate from 2010) but nowhere near his early career level of 11-12 strikeouts per nine innings. This would be ok if the control he demonstrated with Tampa Bay in 2010 were to reemerge, but it hasn’t. Again, his walk rate is better than it was last season (4.03 versus 4.12) but only slightly. While his FIP is quite strong, this is largely the result of an unsustainable HR/FB rate (0% versus a career level of 7.5% and an 8.3% rate last season as a Yankee) and his xFIP of 4.12 is just six points better than it was in 2011. Soriano’s ERA presently appears to be unsustainable, at least when compared to his 2011 record.
If Soriano, 32 and one of the highest paid relievers in baseball, were to regress to a performance level in line with his current skills and similar to that he demonstrated in 2011 the Yankees might be in some trouble. Yet even worse is the continued deterioration in Soriano’s skill set that points to an even further slide in the near future.
Always a power pitcher, Soriano’s velocity is down, from a 92.9 average two years ago and a 92.6 average last season to a 91.9 average this year. His swing strike rate – which has hovered between 11 and 13 percent over the past seven seasons – stands at 9.7% on the year. Soriano is throwing a first pitch strike just 54.7% of the time, his lowest level since his rookie year, and is pitching in the zone at a career low 41.9% (that’s more than 10 points below his career average). Despite seeing fewer strikes, batters have made more contact off Soriano than ever before, with a 77.2% rate on the season. The line drive rate Soriano has suffered this season, 23.5%, is four points above his career average and batters are hitting the righty at a career high .258 clip. PITCHf/x places the outside the zone swing percentage of batters facing Soriano this year at just 27.4%, which is also a career low.
If Soriano is failing so miserably to fool batters and is demonstrating control worse even than his early career levels, why is his ERA so low? Despite one of the lowest strikeout rates of his career, Soriano is stranding 84.9% of batters, an unsustainable career high. That means that despite allowing nearly a baserunner and a half per inning, Soriano is able to hold his opponent scoreless almost four out of five times. And while the many hard line drive and groundball singles he’s surrendered have hurt his WHIP, Soriano has miraculously evaded the long ball all season. With a 0% HR/FB rate, most of the 25 flyballs he’s surrendered have been harmless.
Evaluating relievers is an exercise in small sample size analysis. If Soriano throws another 30 innings this season, he may very well evade a signficant correction and if Joe Girardi is careful to give his interim closer a short leash everything could be fine. But now is not the time to celebrate the return of an elite relief pitcher. Soriano is pitching well and his track record will allow David Robertson to play a relief-ace role upon his return. Yet with this kind of skill deterioration, the Yankees may not have that luxury for long. Thankfully, with Robertson and Boone Logan and Cory Wade waiting in the wings, a Soriano implosion could be quickly remedied.
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