Looking at Soriano’s cutter against lefties

The importance of organizational players
Freddy Garcia's changeup is something else
For Horacio Ramirez, straight up. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)

About two weeks ago we learned that Rafael Soriano has something in common with Mariano Rivera beyond being a really awesome relief pitcher: he also throws a cutter. Mike Fast at Baseball Prospectus dug through the data and found that prior to 2010, Soriano would use the cutter almost exclusively against right-handed batters and go after lefties with a little two-seamer away, which sounds good in theory but it wasn’t really working for him. Lefties tagged Soriano for a .313 wOBA before last season, which is better than league average but far too high for a guy that’s supposed to be an elite reliever.

That all changed in 2010, perhaps with some help from the Rays coaching staff or just an adjustment on Soriano’s part. Fast found that Rafi started throwing his cutter to left-handed batters more than he had in the past, something we can now visualize thanks to the great new heat maps feature at FanGraphs

I’m certain there are some classification issues, with a few cutters being classified as sliders and vice versa by the PitchFX system, but the margin for error isn’t that big. MFIKY clearly threw more cut fastballs to lefties last season, and the early returns on the strategy were good. He held lefties to a .267 wOBA against and cut down on their line drive rate by almost ten percent compared to 2009. Of course we’re talking about a really small sample of data here (he faced just 118 LHB in 2010), so let’s not take this stuff to heart just yet.

The side effect of going with the cutter instead of the sinking two-seamer is the lack of ground balls. Soriano coaxed an infield pop-up out on a whopping 17.9% of the balls lefties put in play last year, and a regular old fly ball 45.9% of the time. An infield fly ball rate that high isn’t something that’s sustainable; he had been around 10% in 2007 and 2009, his two previous full and healthy seasons. The fly ball rate in general is high, which is Soriano’s forte, but the spray chart shows that he didn’t give up too many deep fly balls last year (that’s balls in play from Tropicana Field in 2010 overlaid onto Yankee Stadium). Not every fly ball has to be to the warning track.

Soriano won’t be as good as he was with the Rays in 2010 with the Yankees in 2011, and that’s fine. He’s going to give up a few more homers because of the ballpark, but he should be an excellent weapon out of the pen as long as he stays healthy. The thing to keep an eye on is that cutter against lefties, and whether or not he continues or maybe even increases the usage of the pitch. Perhaps Mariano Rivera could help him improve even more by showing him how effective the pitch can be when it’s thrown in their hands. At the end of the day, the results are what matters most, but Soriano appears to have found a process that worked for him last summer.

The importance of organizational players
Freddy Garcia's changeup is something else
  • Not Tank the Frank

    Had to look up the MFIKY reference. Good stuff.

  • http://twitter.com/AndrewLeighNYC Andrew

    I’m surprised by how often the heat graph has Soriano’s cutter in the middle of the strike zone to lefties, and the fact that it still managed to be more successful in 2010 than in years’ past for him. The pitch’s frequent location in the upper part of the zone might contribute to why his fly ball percentages remain high despite his increased usage of a pitch that is, I thought, usually meant to induce weak contact. Maybe some work with Mo/Rothschild helps him refine the cutter and allow him to move it around the zone a bit more, in terms of diving further in on lefties, or locating it in the lower third more often? Might help him stave off a correction to his home run rate, or even bring down his fly balls.

  • Yank the Frank

    I think Mo will be a huge positive influence on Soriano in how he pitches and goes about his business. I wish Soriano’s contract didn’t have those opt out clauses and we looked to groom him as the heir apparent.

  • Rey22

    Ah yes, one of Bavasi’s finest moves. Soriano for Horacio freakin’ Ramirez.

    • http://www.twitter.com/jordansmed JGS

      Worth noting that Ramirez was a starter at the time. It was still a lousy deal, but it’s not like Bavasi traded a good reliever for a bad reliever.

      • Ted Nelson

        Yeah, but this is why the hardline people hold about starters always being more valuable than relievers is just not a given. A good reliever can be a better piece, especially long-term, than a bad starter.

        Ramirez was also a lefty, but again you can’t overvalue a bad pitcher just because he’s a lefty. A good righty is better than a bad lefty.

        At the time of this particular trade, both players were coming off their 26 year old seasons and had struggled to stay healthy. The Ms probably thought they were selling high on Soriano after his only healthy season. When Soriano had been healthy, though, he had mostly been very good. When Ramirez had been healthy he’d mostly been average-ish. A little good early in his career, but all bad right before the trade.

        Ramirez was good in 2004, 3 seasons before the trade, but it was an example of sample size, luck, and not looking at stats in a comprehensive manner.

      • Accent Shallow

        Yeah, he traded a good reliever (with health issues) for a lousy starter (with health issues).


    • Ted Nelson

      This could be used as a case study for all the fans who cry that if the Yankees aren’t going to start Joba he should be traded for a starter, any starter.

      • AndrewYF

        Let’s get Jeff Karstens back.

  • http://ablogforarod.blogspot.com/ The Captain

    Imagine all the broken bats if Soriano does keep up the cutter rate and learn a thing or 2 from Mo. Between the 2 of them, the first base side of the infield and first base coach’s box are going to be a dangerous place to be in 2011.

  • http://procrastinationperfected.tumblr.com/ BigDavey88

    Ridiculous contracts aside, I’m incredibly excited to watch this bullpen obliterate lineups in the latter innings. Girardi has a lot of toys to play with and thankfully none of them rhyme with Glad NoSpam.

    • CS Yankee

      Me too…

      when you have Drob or Joba facing men-on-base in the 6th or 7th versus CHoP, Gaudin or Moseley…we won’t need to retake the lead in too many of those games (or so, i hope).

  • CS Yankee

    Seeing how one of the meat-trays (Mitre, Colon, or Garcia)…having Soriano to reduce our late inning risk is solid.

    Levine is like that blind squirrel whereas he still finds the nut once and awhile. The bigger issue might be that he opts out (ala Arod)…Boras can deal.