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Bullpen Becomes A Soria Subject

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Hokkaido Nippon-Ham Fighters v Oakland Athletics
“I’ll Joakim and then go for the double play.”
Photo by Masterpress/Getty Images

It’s a game of inches all right. One moment Chad Pinder is missing a 9th inning go-ahead HR off the tippy top of the LF wall and Blake Treinen’s warm ups take the form of “in case the A’s take the lead” instead of “getting ready for the save opportunity”. Because the A’s don’t have a Babe Ruthian force like Brandon Drury in their lineup, Pinder is stranded and a tie game goes to the bottom of the 9th.

Robbie Grossman’s dramatic pinch hit HR that tied the game in the 8th, and the A’s inability to break the tie in the top of the 9th, forced Bob Melvin to make choices about how to handle a tie game on the road without Lou Trivino in the fold.

I’m genuinely curious, not critical, as to why Joakim Soria was bypassed not once but twice as J.B. Wendelken pitched a scoreless 8th and Yusmeiro Petit pitched a less scoreless 9th. These decisions are hardly easy for Melvin because the bullpen situation is cloudy at best, with Soria at the forefront of the enigmatic collection of arms.

Now if the A’s were managed by AN consensus, the answer would be obvious: Soria is considerably persona non grata amongst a fan base traumatized by two horrific early outings and Wednesday’s blown 8th inning lead on the wildest of wild pitches.

But the A’s front office, manager and coaches are undoubtedly more committed to Soria in the face of a mere handful of early blips. Interesting that even sans Trivino, with Treinen held back for a possible save situation, Soria apparently remained behind both Wendelken and Petit on the Friday night depth chart.

I am, of course, presuming Soria was available because I have not heard otherwise. The question is a little bit why was he not used and more who is he going to be for Oakland going forward? It is honestly hard to tell. Here’s what I see...

Soria may be in his mid-30s but there does not appear to be any worrisome decline in his stuff. His fastball is averaging 93.3 MPH, which is actually 1 MPH higher than his career average and matches his career best. If anything, you might wonder if Soria is over-throwing but certainly he is not suffering for a natural decline in his velocity.

What has changed, in this early sample, is Soria’s control. For his career Soria has walked just 2.73/9IP, meaning that this year’s 5.11/9 IP is nearly double the “going rate”. Of course when looking at all of a 12.1 IP sample those numbers are going to jump around a lot, but watching Soria it has been more than evident that he is not hitting spots like a control artist so much as he is splattering the canvas like Jackson Pollack on crack.

To my own eyes, I wonder if Soria’s difficulties begin with a reluctance to trust his fastball. Wednesday’s appearance stood out to me because his fastball was pretty electric, yet after getting ahead of Jeff Mathis 1-2 he tried three different kinds of breaking pitches only to walk Mathis. Mathis hits like a pitcher and that’s not really an exaggeration: His career slash line is .197/.257/.304, good, or should I say bad, for a 49 wRC+. How do you not, three times in a row, challenge with your excellent fastball — especially once the count reaches 3-2?

I feel like this is at the crux of Soria’s early troubles with the A’s, along with the constant changing of his arm slots. On this I am more ambivalent because there are times Soria drops down a little or a lot and unleashes exceptional pitches. Yet overall he is struggling to command his stuff and varying arm slots do not help pitchers to find consistent command.

Make no mistake about it, the A’s are going to need Soria to be a high leverage weapon. Petit is a good and valuable reliever, capable of pitching multiple innings, but with his average stuff he is going to “give up runs now and then” more than he is going to dominate. Wendelken is intriguing and is pitching himself into more and more “plus” situations, but his track record does not yet show what level of consistency or dominance will be his norm.

So while Wendelken could potentially push Soria for high leverage innings, for now it seems clear that Soria is the A’s #3 reliever and with Trivino on the shelf you would expect Soria to be front and center in a game like Friday night’s. He wasn’t, for whatever reason, and you can draw any or no conclusions from that. A safer conclusion to draw? The A’s are going to need Soria in 2019, which means they are going to need to trust Soria in high leverage, which means Soria is going to have to earn that trust sooner rather than later.

Personally, I think Soria will be fine. The stuff is there, the track record is there, and his biggest achilles heel so far — control — has been a strength, not a weakness, throughout his career. He’s had a troubling 12.1 IP for sure, but that’s against 646.2 career innings that suggest he can throw quality strikes.

But Soria’s struggles have been enough that apparently he was not the obvious choice Friday night, and it remains to be seen how his role is defined going forward. You don’t move up the depth chart by walking Jeff Mathis and then uncorking an absurdly wild pitch. Likely after the next 12.1 IP, we will know a whole lot more about what kind of season it’s going to be for Soria. May they be dominant enough to earn the trust and comfort of the A’s coaches and fans.

Poll

What do you think the rest of 2019 will look like for Joakim Soria?

This poll is closed

  • 14%
    Mostly dominance: he’s had a great career and he still has the stuff to thrive in high leverage
    (45 votes)
  • 37%
    He will be good, but disappointing to any fans expecting greatness
    (119 votes)
  • 34%
    He will have his moments, but the A’s offered him too much money to be an "ok" middle reliever
    (108 votes)
  • 14%
    What you’ve seen is what you’ll get: the guy is not ‘plus’ reliever and shouldn’t be protecting small leads
    (45 votes)
317 votes total Vote Now