Rafael Soriano Struggles Again

On Friday night Rafael Soriano blew another save, and by all accounts Nationals manager Matt Williams has seen enough. In the postgame press conference, Williams said, “We’ll address it, yeah. We need to address it.” If you’ve listened to Williams at all this year, a staunch supporter of his veterans in all situations, this is akin to saying Soriano will soon join Terrance in the bleachers to keep the crowd energized.

Much has been already said about Soriano’s 6.98 ERA since the All Star break, but that’s just a number. A low number, really, if you consider just how awful Soriano has looked in all but a handful of his outings. We can play magic with arbitrary timeframes, but if we select July 28 as our starting date in a game against Miami when Soriano surrendered a three-run lead that was about as bad as an outing could be, Soriano has allowed 14 earned runs in 15 1/3 innings, equating to an 8.22 ERA. In those 17 games, he’s allowed 22 hits, five walks, and struck out 15, which comes more from the quantity of batters faced than the quality of pitches made. Batters are hitting .328/.387/.537 in that time with an absurdly high .380 average on balls in play. Is that luck? The only unlucky part of that statistic is that line drives weren’t hit directly into upraised mitts. There was one time I was afraid for Adam LaRoche’s life when a liner off of Travis Snider’s bat nearly decapitated him.

These aren’t Texas leaguers or seeing-eye grounders. These are baseballs screaming through the field like in a Bugs Bunny cartoon.

I don’t know if Soriano is through as a closer. Baseball history is littered with successful closers who suddenly lost whatever it was that made them unique and special. For the rarity of Mariano Rivera, there are dozens of closers such as Bobby Thigpen or Jim Johnson whose stuff just went away seemingly overnight. Eric Gagne won the Cy Young in 2003 (no, seriously, it’s true) and then had but one good year left in the tank. Perhaps it’s the physical toll of gearing up for 15-20 pitches a night or the psychological toll of having the game come down to your arm night after night after night. Francisco Rodriquez was K-Rod, then he wasn’t, then he reinvented himself, but no one would claim that he’s the same guy that pitched so brilliantly in his burgeoning flower of youth.

I do know that Soriano’s arm now looks dead. There’s no life in his fastball, and his slider sort of spins lazily to the plate. If he threw mid to high 90s he could get away with just one usable pitch, but when you regularly hit 91 and have been living middle of the plate and up you’re going to get pasted.

Before the All Star break, Soriano had the numbers to back up the chatter about his possible inclusion on the NL squad. He had a WHIP of .811, allowing just 19 hits and 11 walks in 37 innings while striking out 36. He had 22 saves with an ERA of 0.97 (FIP of 2.42). Batters were hitting just .153/.222/.226 with a BABIP of .207 (indicating that he was more than just a little lucky and would regress). But if you take a look at his zone profile from BrooksBaseball.net, you can see a pitcher begging to be hit hard:

soriano_preAllStarSoriano Zone Profile pre-All Star Break

That image represents the pre-All Star break Soriano. Notice that there’s an awful lot of red in the middle of the plate.

soriano_postAllStarSoriano Zone Profile post-All Star Break

He still throws mainly middle of the plate, though now he’s been throwing more up and in (a lot of those are him overthrowing).

In the press conference, Williams went on to say:

We’re certainly going to have to take a hard look at it, Williams said. It’s not an easy decision. None of them are. But we want to be able to close those games out. Sori understands that, he’s been around the block.

Do the Nats have viable options in house? Tyler Clippard has been a popular name to add to the mix, but he hasn’t exactly shined in his few chances to close. In fact, he’s blown three saves just since the middle of August, all on game-tying home runs where he left a pitch hanging like ripe fruit in the middle of the plate. He was lights out in the eighth inning, so perhaps Williams should do the right thing and leave Clippard just where he is. Matt Thornton is a possibility since he has the upper 90s fastball that can just humiliate a batter, but he’s the one competent left-hander Williams has in the pen. Eventually, in the playoffs, the Nats will need to get past Adrian Gonzalez or Freddie Freeman.

Drew Storen is a more viable option, but I still have flashbacks to his attempt to close out the Marlins on July 30.

Williams has to do something, and it sounds as though he knows it too. I say this with the utmost confidence and despair that if Soriano closes games for the Nats come postseason time the Nats will not make it to the World Series. I’d love to see him find his inner Keith Foulke and gut his team with diminishing stuff to a Series title, but at this point, with a month left to play, it’s hard to bank title hopes on an act of God.

The players are saying the right things, backing their guy. You’d expect nothing less. These are men accustomed to success, to always being able to rely on ability and hard work to get through the inevitable ups and downs of the season. Sometimes, though, even when you really dig deep, there’s just nothing there.

The Nats have a seven game lead, which should be plenty to hold off the Braves, barring a 2007 Mets or 2011 Braves like collapse. After living through the 2007 season, suffering through every one of those losses and smarting still with every Cole Hamels quip, I can never quite say it’s time to celebrate. Good enough for the East was fine when the team was struggling through injuries, but with this lineup, and those starters, the Nats should be laser-focused on winning the first title in franchise history.

We can only hope they’re not the best for eight innings at a time.

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