Happy Trails, Joakim Soria

Last week, veteran reliever Joakim Soria hung up his spikes. In his typically understated fashion, he didn’t so much as announce his retirement as have it done for him, through his agent and a Ken Rosenthal tweet.

Soria was a two-time All-Star. He pitched for nine teams during his 14-year career, racking up 15.4 WAR and 229 saves, alongside a tidy 3.11 earned run average. In his first spell with the Royals, Soria established himself as one of the sport’s premier closers and was a bright spot on several forgettable Kansas City teams. He never quite recaptured that early-career form after an elbow injury in 2012, though he remained a dependable late-inning reliever for most of the last decade.

For all his success, Soria’s unusual path to stardom remains perhaps the most notable part of his career. Born to schoolteachers in Monclova, Soria grew up in Mexico. He signed with Los Angeles as a teenager, but pitched only four times for the Dodgers, all in the AZL back in 2002. After going two seasons without appearing in a game, Los Angeles released Soria in 2004 and he spent all of the 2005 season in the Mexican League. After posting solid but hardly spectacular numbers, San Diego took a flier on him. He only threw 11 innings in Low-A that next summer, though, and the Padres understandably left him off of their 40-man roster.

That November, Soria returned home to pitch in the Mexican Winter League. From the jump, he was one of the best pitchers there, leading the circuit in wins while notching the second lowest ERA among all starters. Along the way, Kansas City diligently followed his progress. Special assistant to the GM Louie Medina flagged him as a priority for the Rule 5 Draft early that fall, and after sending a few scouts to Mexico, then-GM Dayton Moore decided to take him with the second pick of the Draft — one slot behind Ryan Goleski and one ahead of Josh Hamilton in a fascinating year for the Rule 5. As if to celebrate, three days later Soria threw a perfect game.

It didn’t take long for Kansas City to realize they had someone special. As with most Rule 5 picks, the Royals’ brass initially hoped that he’d just show enough to hang around as a functional reliever. But right away at spring training, Soria made a great first impression on skipper Buddy Bell and pitching coach Bob McClure and broke camp as one of the team’s setup men.

After debuting in a blowout, Soria’s second appearance came in the eighth inning of a two-run game, notching a hold. He picked up another hold two days later, and his first save two days after that. In a fantastic rookie season, Soria alternated between eighth- and ninth-inning roles until grabbing the closer’s job for good that August. While the Royals considered stretching him out in the rotation that offseason, they ultimately decided that a closer in hand was better than a starter in the bush.

“Our hopes were that he would turn into a No. 2 or No. 3 starting pitcher,” Moore said. “But he was just so dominant as a closer.”

In his five year heyday with Kansas City, few were better. He was sixth among relievers in WAR over that stretch, which perhaps undersells his production, as he substantially over-performed his FIP. Among pitchers who threw more than 300 innings during those years, only Mariano Rivera had a lower ERA than Soria’s 2.40 mark.

“There are two things you need to do to be a great reliever,” Moore said. “You have to throw strikes and you can’t pitch with any fear. Joakim checked both boxes.”

Soria went about his business differently than most closers. He thrived not with velocity and overpowering stuff, but with pinpoint command of a low-90s fastball and a devastating changeup. And while contemporary closers like Jonathan Papelbon and Brian Wilson imbued their performances with on-mound theatrics and headline-grabbing off-field behavior, Soria locked up the ninth in comparative silence. Unflinchingly poised, Soria was a master of the moment, efficiently painting corners and slowly draining opponents of hope with one well-placed pitch after another.

The combination of Soria’s success, heritage, and signature unflappability prompted Royals writer Rany Jazayerli to dub him The Mexicutioner. While the righty initially embraced the moniker, in 2011 he asked for fans to stop using it to avoid connotations with the gang-related violence roiling his native country.

Asked about the decision, Soria said “When people in Mexico watch TV to try to forget about all of the violence and then they see the nickname ‘Mexicutioner,’ that’s a bad thing.” In a decade that saw rejuvenated civic engagement from athletes, Soria’s plea was an early example of a player commenting on a social matter. In what now seems like a remarkably uncontroversial sequence of events, the nickname was quickly mothballed without any fuss.

The 2011 season wound up becoming a turning point in Soria’s career. A series of early-season hiccups briefly cost him the closer’s role in early June. While he soon reclaimed his job and posted strong numbers down the stretch, he was never again the same kind of pitcher. A barking elbow the following spring required Tommy John surgery, which effectively ended his first stretch with the Royals.

Prior to the 2013 season, he signed with Texas, beginning an eight-year run that saw him pitch for nine different teams. In that time, he periodically closed for second-division clubs but never hung around any one team for more than two years. With a 117 ERA+ and 3.27 FIP, he was one of the better and more durable non-closers of the era, and contending teams acquired him near the trade deadline four times in that span.

One of the keys to Soria’s longevity was his ability to reinvent himself as a pitcher. When the Royals plucked him from San Diego, he worked primarily with a fastball and change, complementing that combo with a cutter and an occasional eephus. While his curve would never be described as a power breaker, he tightened it up early in his KC days into the bat-missing weapon Royals fans came to know and love. In 2016, he dropped the cutter entirely, and by 2018, he’d adjusted his arm slot and started leaning more and more on his slider. The adjustments gave him a fresh look and yet another offering out of his deep arsenal.

Nothing works forever though, and in 2021, Soria battled through arguably his most difficult major-league season. He posted a 5.06 ERA, and even though his peripherals are much more flattering, there were a few signs of trouble under the hood. His change, a dominant out pitch for years, has been hit harder in recent seasons, and was taken out of the yard three times in 2021. He also dealt with a variety of setbacks throughout the year. He strained his calf covering first base in his first outing of the season, and then hit the injured list again just after arriving in Toronto with an inflamed middle finger (insert joke here). Just three weeks after returning, he was placed on the family medical emergency list, and a day after that he hit the COVID list, which ended his season.

The upshot is that the inning he threw to finish out Toronto’s 6-3 win over Tampa Bay on September 15 will go down as his final big league appearance. It doesn’t seem a particularly fitting end for a veteran All-Star widely admired throughout the game, but of course, even the greats aren’t in full control of their exit strategy.

When asked about Soria’s career and legacy, Moore touched on the usual high points: his poise, his command, his efficiency, his status as an elite closer in Kansas City, his kindness, his wonderful family. But one other detail stuck out. As Moore recounted Kansas City’s deliberations regarding Soria’s role, he recalled asking Soria whether he wanted to start or close. Each time, Soria had the same answer: “I’ll do whatever’s best for the team.”

Have a great retirement, Joakim, it’s been a pleasure watching you pitch.

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2 years ago

Joakim had quite the career despite some pitching issues, and I didn’t realize he pitched for 9 different teams after 2013 … wow. That said, are you *sure* we can cross him off as a possible closer for Arizona next year? I spent all year keeping an eye on Soria that I find it hard to believe that he’s truly gone.

2 years ago
Reply to  LightenUpFG

I got so used to him in Kansas City that every year, when he would pop up on another team, I’d think “he’s still here? why isn’t he in KC?”