Apr 6, 2014; Washington, DC, USA; Washington Nationals relief pitcher Rafael Soriano (29) is congratulated by Washington Nationals catcher Sandy Leon (41) after earning a save against the Atlanta Braves at Nationals Park. The Nationals won 2-1. Mandatory Credit: Brad Mills-USA TODAY Sports
Few closers in baseball get less love from their own fan base than Rafael Soriano. Fewer still get consistently torched on social media despite posting seasons of 40+ saves and a not terrible 3-ish ERA (with a 3:1 K/BB ratio). Look, I’m not blind to the fact that he always seems to let at least one or two guys on in the ninth, thereby raising the collective blood pressure in DC a few ticks. And, yes, he did blow a career-worst six saves last year. [Although his save percentage of 88% was league average, mitigating the lowlight somewhat.] But he’s no Marmol or HRod…
So why all the hate? Is it the demonstrative finishing move? No, because people would eat that stuff up if he was a fan favorite. How about the always serious facial expression? Unlikely. Perhaps, it’s some sort of subconscious xenophobia? Gosh, I hope not.
What about that contract he signed last year? Let’s be honest. The difference between handing a player $5 million and $15 million annually in a contract is negligible when it’s not your money. And since the Nationals don’t seem to operate under tight payroll constraints these days (in other words, signing Soriano to a deal had little effect on the moves Mike Rizzo could make with the rest of the 40-man roster), I have a tough time allowing others to justify this argument. However, this is usually the point when Soriano-phobes mention how the entire deal could have been avoided since we had a former forty-save closer on the roster already: Drew Storen. And there’s the rub.
This whole thing is about folks loving Drew Storen more than anything Soriano has done or will do. I unapologetically don’t get it. [See my preseason article here for added depth into my perspective.] In 2011 the kid looked good. No doubt. But since his surgery in 2012, I’ve held my breath with increasing frequency when I’ve seen him warming up in close games. His mental state seems constantly on edge, whether because of the Playoffs in 2012, losing the closer role before ’13 even started, being demoted later on last season, or struggling in Spring Training this year. And while there is no stat that can really measure what’s going on inside a guy, there is one that shows the results of a lack of focus: Pitchf/x.
If you have watched most of Storen’s games in the last year, you’ve noticed that he can’t seem to keep the ball out of the belt high part of the strike zone. Worse than that, it appears he grooves his fastball across Broadway entirely too often. Pitchf/x confirms this. The system measures pitch location in a 5 square by 5 square grid, where the central quadrant of all 25 potential spots is considered right-down-the-middle. For sake of ease, I am going to refer to this spot as a “meatball.” If you throw a pitch under 95MPH in this location, hitters will usually hurt you. In Storen’s case, he threw 76 meatballs last year (nearly 50% more than Soriano), which means it happened once out of every 12.5 pitches. In 2011, that rate was 1 out of 20. This year, albeit with a tiny sample size, he becomes Chef Boyardee once every 6.5 pitches!
I could go on and on analyzing these numbers, but it would dilute the basic premise. Storen has not turned a corner in 2014 — he has gotten lucky thus far. Pitchers seem to be ahead of hitters around the majors right now, and it doesn’t hurt when the biggest name of the nine guys you have faced is an 8th-place hitter (Andrelton Simmons). For the Twitterverse to ignore or be ignorant of the underlying information is frustrating. Doing it while blasting Soriano during his first save attempt of the year is indefensible.
In closing, my hope is that this roundabout post gets at least a few Nats fans to lay off Soriano a bit while simultaneously tempering calls for him to be replaced by Storen. I doubt I’ll convince too many folks, but I can’t go another day without putting something on the record, especially when MASN is unwilling to verbally point out poor pitch location during its broadcasts.