When he made his debut with the St. Louis Cardinals in 2015, Miguel Socolovich was, to put it generously, an afterthought. He was 28, had spent the previous two seasons in Japan and the New York Mets minor league system, and had not been especially effective in 2012 while with the Baltimore Orioles and Chicago Cubs.
Socolovich has spent the last two seasons alternating between St. Louis and Memphis. And while his resume with the Cardinals is relatively sparse, amounting to 47 2⁄3 innings in relief, he has been undeniably effective during this time—his Cardinals ERA stands at a sterling 1.89. Since 2015, no pitcher with as many innings as Socolovich has a lower earned-run average—even Seung-hwan Oh, lauded for his dominance in 2016, was a shade worse at run prevention than Socolovich.
But earned-run average is just about the only metric by which Socolovich looks better than Oh (unless age counts). While Oh’s fielding-independent pitching, which measures factors a pitcher can control without the assistance of his defense, was at 2.13, higher than his ERA but to a palatable degree, Socolovich’s FIP as a Cardinal stands at 3.10.
While a 3.10 FIP isn’t necessarily bad, it is a dramatic departure from what a 1.89 ERA would imply about his level of talent. Rather than ranking as the best pitcher on the Cardinals over the last two seasons at his innings level (though, to be fair, Alex Reyes had a slightly lower ERA in slightly fewer innings; the superior ERAs of Jordan Walden and Marcus Hatley can more easily be chalked up to microscopic sample sizes), Socolovich is sandwiched between Trevor Rosenthal and Matthew Bowman over the last two seasons.
And this is fine. It is great if you assume that Miguel Socolovich, who will begin the 2017 season in the MLB bullpen, will be depended upon not as a shutdown closer but as middle relief who will generally not be utilized in the highest leverage situations.
But digging slightly deeper into the numbers beyond fielding-independent pitching reveals concern for Socolovich beyond regressing from great reliever to good reliever. His home run to fly ball percentage was an astonishingly low 6.4%, and unsurprisingly, his 3.10 FIP looks less favorable if you were to assume he surrendered home runs on fly balls at a league average rate, which xFIP does. His 3.80 xFIP since 2015 is (slightly) worse than more maligned Cardinals relievers such as Randy Choate, Seth Maness, and Jonathan Broxton.
Socolovich is a far less overwhelming pitcher than the Trevor Rosenthals of the world, with his peak velocity in 2016 registering at just 93.1 miles per hour, fairly mediocre for a modern Major League reliever (though Joe Schwarz, who understands pitching mechanics far better than I do, has noted that Socolovich utilizes movement and his release point to atone for this shortcoming in his repertoire). All of this begs the question—is Socolovich merely a product of small sample size luck?
The answer is “kind of, probably, a little, but not totally.”
Nothing in Socolovich’s past, whether it is his 2012 stint in MLB or his minor league track record, suggests that he is truly a sub-2 ERA pitcher. But there are factors which suggest he is not a complete flash in the pan.
Socolovich has managed to induce an above-average number of ground balls; while the league average over the last two years is 45%, his stands at 49.6%. In addition, Socolovich has been above-average at inducing soft contact. While the league-average line-drive rates for 2015 and 2016 were, respectively, 20.9% and 20.7%, Socolovich’s were 17.4% and a staggeringly low 7.0%. His SIERA, a metric similar to FIP but more nuanced in that it considers contact quality, still has Socolovich as a regression candidate, but less so than xFIP—his SIERA as a Cardinal stands at 3.48.
And this is probably about what to make of Miguel Socolovich. He’s almost certainly not going to be an elite reliever—if he had the tools for that, he would likely have established himself as a Major League pitcher before his 30s—but he may also be slightly better than his more pessimistic peripherals might suggest.