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Joakim Soria settling down after rocky start

The setup reliever is now looking like the guy the A’s signed.

Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports

Rumors of Joakim Soria’s decline may have been greatly exaggerated.

Last winter the Oakland A’s gave Soria their biggest free agent contract of the offseason, hoping the former All-Star would give them another lights-out setup man to go along with bullpen aces Blake Treinen and Lou Trivino. However, the veteran right-hander got off to a tough start to the season that saw his ERA in double-digits in mid-April.

Here’s the thing, though. Soria has pitched in 19 games so far this year. Stop for a moment and think about how many of those games you think he allowed runs.

The answer is four. He’s only allowed runs four times, and the other 15 times out he’s been dominant. Don’t get me wrong, those four slip-ups were costly — three of them led to blown leads, and two of those were absolute meltdowns featuring four runs apiece. But the point is, Soria hasn’t been getting consistently torched over and over every time out. Most of the time he’s been exactly the excellent pitcher we expected.

Most recently, since blowing a save on April 24, Soria has put together seven scoreless frames in his last five appearances. He’s struck out nine batters over that span, with two hits, a HBP, and no walks. They’ve been important innings, too, as he’s appeared in all three of the A’s extra-inning games over the last week — last Sunday he threw the 9th and 10th against the Pirates, Wednesday it was the 8th against the Reds, and on Friday he retired all six batters he faced against the Indians in the 11th and 12th to set up Matt Chapman’s walk-off homer.

“You can see it. He’s got some confidence, got some life in him,” said manager Bob Melvin after Friday’s performance. “You get off to a slow start with a new team, and it can be a little bit demoralizing. But he has a long history of doing what he’s doing right now.”

Take it back a bit further, and Soria has allowed just one run in his last dozen innings, with twice as many strikeouts as baserunners. In that time, his ERA has dropped from 11.05 to 4.66.

Soria’s ERA will bear the mark of those four-run blowups all year, because relievers don’t throw enough innings to fully overcome that many early-season runs. But if you look at just his 15 scoreless outings, then his totals are as such: 17 innings, 19 Ks, 3 BB, 7 hits. The bad games still count, but the point is to show that he’s not just scraping by in the games when he avoids runs, only to have the odds catch up with him the next time out. He’s utterly unhittable 80% of the time, with the bad games now serving as outliers.

The underlying stats see a star performer. Soria’s minuscule 2.35 FIP ranks 25th among 215 MLB relievers with at least 10 innings, helped along by the fact that he hasn’t allowed a homer yet this year. It’s also the best FIP on the A’s, even beating out Treinen and Trivino.

Meanwhile, Statcast has Soria with a .265 xwOBA. That’s not the best on the team, but it’s good for 58th in the majors out of 261 relievers (min 30 plate appearances). If I have to believe either 19 innings of shaky ERA, or 19 innings of spectacular FIP plus xwOBA, I’ll take the latter without a second thought.

As for his stuff, Soria doesn’t seem to have lost anything as he approaches his 35th birthday next weekend. His fastball is averaging the same 93 mph velocity that it has for years, and on Friday he dropped a nasty slow curve to earn one of his swinging strikeouts against Leonys Martin.

Still, the fact remains that Soria’s rate of blowups is too high. He’s entered in seven save/hold situations and blown three of them, though technically one of the blown saves was credited to Ryan Buchter. Officially Soria is 4-for-6 in save/holds, but functionally it should be 4-for-7. Even factoring in the five games in which he’s held a tie, 9-for-12 in high-leverage is not good enough for a setup man.

But all signs point to that success rate improving as the sample size increases. Soria won’t be perfect for the rest of the season, and at some point he’ll blow another game or three, but when he’s on he’s on and we’re beginning to see a lot more of that Vintage Soria. The A’s might just have their third bullpen ace after all.