A year ago, I advocated for the Yankees to kick the tires on an oft-overlooked, yet surprisingly effective, veteran reliever. A player like Will Harris rarely draws headlines, but with the Yankees set to lose Dellin Betances to free agency, I figured it only made sense to look at a player who had matched Betances in terms of run prevention over the past several years.
Harris is a National now, but he’s not the only rarely-considered, old relief head to hit the market in recent winters. I want to recommend another aged reliever, another who arguably should own a greater profile based on his track record. Joakim Soria may not make it to the top of any free agent rankings, but he could help any team’s bullpen right now.
Soria didn’t enter this offseason expected to generate much interest. MLB Trade Rumors neglected to place him within their top-50 free agents and thus didn’t gauge his market, while FanGraphs’ crowdsourcing efforts predicted an average contract of one-year, $5 million for the right-hander. To an extent, this is unsurprising. 36-year-old pitchers with diminished velocity typically don’t set the bar in the free agent market.
At some point, however, shouldn’t pure performance outweigh age concerns? Particularly on a one-year pact? With Soria, a record of excellent performance is the main draw, in the face of an advancing age.
Soria has pitched 13 seasons in the majors. By ERA+, he’s posted a worse than average season in terms of allowing runs once in his career. That was 2019 with Oakland, when his 99 ERA+ missed hitting the league average by a whisker. No matter, for his career, Soria owns a 3.01 ERA and 142 ERA+, with a 3.06 FIP to match.
At such a negligible cost, I’d be willing to sign Soria up for 2021 knowing nothing more than the fact that he keeps runs off the board so much better than most pitchers. Of course, in the modern age, we require more. Fortunately for Soria, a look under the hood only enhances his case, even beyond the flattering surface numbers.
Per Statcast, Soria has ranked in the 90th percentile or better in terms of wOBA allowed in three of the past four seasons, including his aforementioned down 2019 campaign. In the short-sample 2020 season, he simply dominated, holding opponents to .243 wOBA. If we stay focused on wOBA, the .260 figure Soria has allowed over the last four years combined ranks in the top-20 among the 218 relievers with at least 100 innings over that span. Soria comes in just ahead of Zack Britton, Craig Kimbrel, and our old friend Will Harris.
Soria’s batted ball profile looks just as spotless. He’s come in better than league average in terms of exit velocity and hard-hit rate in every year for which Statcast has data, going back to 2015. Over that span, he’s also generated expected wOBA figures near the top of the league in every season except for 2016.
Indicators of Soria’s performance and form are remarkably stable. Last season, he averaged 92.4 mph on his four-seam fastball. He averaged 92.8 mph on the pitch in 2015. He’s spun the fastball at a rate of near-2200 rpm in every year over that span. His slider spin rate his hovered tightly around 2700 rpm for the past four seasons. Despite progressing through his 30s, Soria has remained essentially the same pitcher both by results and by repertoire.
That kind of consistency bodes well for Soria’s chances of continuing to produce at a high level entering his age-37 season. With pitchers at that age, there’s obviously the chance of a significant drop-off. Yet given how little Soria has declined this decade, any signing team would have to feel confident that the veteran can still capably fill a high-leverage role.
Given how the Yankees appear to be actively cutting payroll, the team may argue it just doesn’t need a bullpen upgrade. As blasphemous as this may sound to fans who saw the unit struggle down the stretch in 2020, there’s some truth to the idea. No team in baseball can match a backend trio of Aroldis Chapman, Zack Britton, and Chad Green, and on the strength of those three the Yankees’ relief unit ranks second among FanGraphs projections for 2021.
But anyone who saw the Yankees’ pitching at the end of the last season and knows how even a staff with a fistful of elite arms can fail. Adding a vet like Soria helps insure against the kinds of blowups that even great pitchers like Chapman and Green are prone too, and reduces the need for lesser pitchers like Luis Cessa and Jonathan Loáisiga to carry heavy burdens. If cost were no obstacle, picking up a reliever as dependable as Soria would be an absolute no-brainer. As it stands now, we may have to consign ourselves to more nights of Loáisiga and Cessa pitching late in close games.