Appreciating Rafael Soriano

Soriano has been more than anyone could have asked for.

Like him or not, there’s no denying that Rafael Soriano has done a bang up job taking over for Mariano Rivera. He’s sixth in the majors in saves with 29, and has only blown two opportunities.

When Mariano went down in early May, there was plenty of panic in Yankeeland. Rivera has been a fixture in the bullpen since 1996, closing since 1997, and is the greatest relief pitcher in the history of the game. David Robertson was given a short leash in the closer role, and relinquished it to Soriano after blowing a save against Tampa Bay on May 9th, just a few days after Rivera’s injury. D-Rob allowed four runs, including a three-run jack by Matt Joyce. The very next day, Soriano got the ball in the ninth and never looked back.

Rafael had been doing a nice job in the seventh and eighth innings up until becoming the closer. He allowed three runs over twelve innings, striking out twelve batters but walking eight. Soriano never has been a fan favorite due to his big contract which also cost the team a first-round selection. Most noticeably, his demeanor after finishing a game has drawn the ire of many. Soriano’s untucking of his shirt to signal the job is done is a stark contrast from the always cool and collected Rivera. Daniel Barbarisi of the Wall Street Journal wrote a fascinating article on the differences between the two, from music to personality.

Now for the numbers: as the closer, he’s allowed just six runs in 35 1/3 innings, good for a sparkling 1.53 ERA. Overall, his season ERA is a robust 1.71 ERA, his K/9 is 9.13, and BB/9 is 3.04. Most remarkable is his 2% HR/FB rate (he’s allowed one home run in 47 1/3 innings). Seth Smith hit it in one of Rafael’s two blown saves, during that brutal four game sweep in Oakland.

How do the ERA estimators see Soriano’s performance in 2012? FIP, xFIP, and SIERA have him at 2.42, 3.67, and 3.21. Based on watching Soriano this year, FIP and SIERA are probably the best two stats to look at, as xFIP adjusts his home runs allowed to a league average HR/FB rate, which is currently 11.4%. Perhaps Soriano has gotten lucky on the home runs to some extent, but he certainly shouldn’t be adjusted all the way to 11.4%.

Interestingly, Soriano’s opponents are hitting line drives off him at an all time high (27.9%). Because of this, his BABIP is .295, well above his .250 career mark. On the positive side, he’s inducing ground balls above his career norms (34.1% vs. 31.7%) and has reduced his fly ball rate significantly (38% vs. 48.1% career).

Admittedly, I am a bit surprised to see that many line drives off of Soriano just from watching him this season; it seems that he’s been much more dominant. Looking at splits, it is clear to see that this is more of a recent trend. Since the calendar turned from June, Soriano’s opposing line drive rate is 29.3%. He’s definitely been the benefactor of luck, considering a .205 BABIP and .145 opponent BA. Ground balls and fly balls have taken a big decrease over this timeframe, at .55 GB/FB.  He had been 1.17 in April, 1.00 in May, and 1.17 again in June. We need to keep in mind, though, that since relievers throw fewer innings, these rates fluctuate constantly, as one outing of three fly outs or a couple line drives can make noticeable increases.

For now, I wouldn’t be too concerned about his batted ball changes since July, but it is something to watch out for. Soriano has been so good since July, allowing just three runs in 18 frames (1.50 ERA), so he deserves some benefit of the doubt. A sample size of SIERA concurs, at 2.17. Take it with a grain of salt because it’s a twelve inning sample size, but his SIERA since July is better than his season mark because Soriano has actually struck out more batters (11.92 K/9) and walked fewer (2.17 BB/9). For further reference, his FIP is 1.94 over the same period.Again, and I can’t stress this enough, we can’t get too wrapped up in sample sizes especially for relief pitchers. If you take out a few line drives over a month or two, it makes a big difference.

It’s clear the stuff and control haven’t gone away in the last month an a half, it’s only gotten better as illustrated in the previous paragraph in terms of K/9 and BB/9.Soriano clearly passes the eye test, too. Without looking at any of these numbers, from watching games it has been easy to see that Soriano has been reliable. In general, closers in the regular season aren’t going to make a big difference unless your closer is absolutely atrocious. For instance, even closers considered shaky like Frank Francisco generally get the job done (19/22 in save opportunities this season). It’s the postseason that matters most, when the leverage is the highest. We’ll see what happens with Soriano when push comes to shove, and it’s obvious that he cannot stack up against Mariano’s October brilliance.

For now, appreciate that Soriano for what he is an the stability he’s provided: blowing just two saves in 31 opportunities is nothing to bat an eye at. Although losing Mariano has weakened the bullpen’s underbelly, it’s almost as if the club hasn’t missed a beat in the 9th inning. Hopefully, Rafael’s run of success can continue into October.By

Keith Allison [CC-BY-SA-2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

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