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The clock is ticking for Miguel Socolovich

Will a bad contract (Jonathan Broxton) and excitement associated with other bullpen candidates keep Socolovich off the Opening Day roster?

Chicago Cubs v St. Louis Cardinals Photo by Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images

When the St. Louis Cardinals head north at the conclusion of spring training, they will most likely carry seven relief pitchers. Barring injury, six of the spots seem all but locked up by Seung Hwan Oh, Trevor Rosenthal, Brett Cecil, Kevin Siegrist, Jonathan Broxton, and former Rule-5 draftee Matt Bowman. This leaves Sam Tuivailala, John Gant, Ryan Sherriff, Mike Mayers, and Miguel Socolovich battling for the final bullpen spot, with the not yet fully healthy Marco Gonzales and Tyler Lyons pulling up the rear. Similar to Lyons’ case last year, Socolovich is out of options, so if the Cardinals choose to exclude him from the Opening Day roster, his days in St. Louis will almost certainly come to an end.

Sure, Socolovich may already be entering his age-31 season, but over the extremely small MLB sample size (47.2 IP) he’s been given since his donning of the Birds on the Bat (after a forgettable MLB debut season with the Cubs and Orioles), he’s been nothing but successful. And given the state of the Cardinals bullpen at times over the last two seasons, it’s not really Socolovich’s fault for this small of a sample size, either. Frankly, it’s difficult to imagine Socolovich clearing waivers given he’d be a solid, cost-controlled addition to more than a handful of big-league bullpens. Let’s take a look at Socolovich’s career splits thus far:

Miguel Socolovich career splits

vs. L 122 .176 .273 .302 .259
vs. R 139 .202 .261 .313 .251

As I stated above, relatively speaking, we are dealing with a tiny sample size. In fact, Socolovich is nowhere near the stabilization points of the statistics included in the table. And for perspective, Cardinals closer Seung Hwan Oh faced more lefties (143) and righties (170) than Socolovich in his MLB debut season alone. But again, Socolovich should not be blamed entirely for his limited MLB experience. What’s most impressive is how successful the right-handed reliever has been, against batters on both sides of the plate, and remember, these splits include his miserable 2012 season (16.1 IP: 6.06 ERA, 5.67 FIP, -0.2 fWAR). For a pitcher with what many deem a “pedestrian” repertoire, you wouldn’t expect such MLB success, no matter the sample size. Speaking of Socolovich’s repertoire, what does he throw exactly?

Remember, regarding horizontal movement in right-handed pitchers, a negative value means arm-side movement, whereas a positive value means glove-side movement.

Miguel Socolovich repertoire, 2015-2016

Pitch Type Frequency Velocity (MPH) 2016 Dragless Horizontal Mov. (in.) Vertical Release (ft.)
Pitch Type Frequency Velocity (MPH) 2016 Dragless Horizontal Mov. (in.) Vertical Release (ft.)
Fourseamer 8.29% 90.68 -10.54 5.8
Sinker 35.50% 90.95 -10.58 5.75
Changeup 28.45% 82.13 -9.1 5.77
Slider 27.49% 82.61 3.54 5.74

Socolovich possesses the ability to throw four different pitches, utilizing two different velocities — the low 90’s and the low 80’s. Topping out in the low 90’s, it logically follows that he won’t blow any MLB hitters away, but when you look at his dragless horizontal movement and virtually seamless vertical release point, you quickly realize he doesn’t need to. I’ve been publicly analyzing pitchers for four plus years now, and to my recollection, I’ve yet to see a pitcher with as refined of a release point, across all four pitches, as Socolovich. The largest average difference is between his fourseamer and slider (as you’d expect), and even that only differs by less than one inch. Thus, though Socolovich may lack in overall velocity, he excels in deception and the utilization of different horizontal movements. That last sentence explains the concept of “pitch tunneling” in its very simplest sense.

While Socolovich can throw four different pitches, much of his success thus far has come from his devastating changeup. Since 2015, batters are missing on 38.39% of swings against the pitch, and its doesn’t matter if the batter is right-handed (37.84%) or left-handed (38.67%). Of note, Carlos Martinez — you really thought I was going to write an entire Thursday post without at least mentioning him? — has induced whiffs on 35.99% of swings against his changeup since becoming a full-time starter in 2015.

Beyond whiff rate, since joining the Cardinals, Socolovich has yet to allow a single extra-base hit (.000 ISO) to a left-handed batter versus his changeup. Further, righties have only been able to muster a lone double against the pitch. (.044 ISO). Much of the pitch’s success comes from its horizontal movement, the velocity drop-off from his fastballs, and his refined release point, but at the same time, I honestly haven’t seen cleaner heat maps, especially ones with this small of a sample size. I bring this part up because heat maps possessing a smaller sample size tend to have a much more diffuse core than the ones seen below:

As you can see, Socolovich does a masterful job at staying out of the middle of the zone with his changeup versus lefties. No wonder he has garnered so much success with the pitch. Bottom line, all of the pitchers competing for the final bullpen spot — with the exception of Tuivailala — have had a good spring thus far. But spring statistics don’t really tell us much, and more often than not, roster decisions are already made (just not made public). Fortunately for Socolovich, we have some real MLB regular season statistics to look at as well. Those MLB statistics, though small in sample, should help make his case for inclusion on the Opening Day roster.

I am giving you all fair warning that if Broxton’s boneheaded two-year contract is a contributing factor to Socolovich’s eventual release, I will become very mad online. Tell me all you want about Broxton’s leadership, but it is undeniable that his repertoire is (and has already been) on a steady decline. I’d hope the roster already has enough leaders to where it doesn’t subsequently lose a tangibly better pitcher due to a contract and supposed intangibles warranting a spot. Now, I understand that we are talking about the final spot in the bullpen — of which provides minimal value over the course of a season — and that we haven’t reached the point where the final 25-man roster has been announced, so I will end my mini rant now. However, the way the Cardinals have handled Socolovich in the past — along with the excitement they share with others also vying for the final bullpen spot — doesn’t leave me with much confidence.

To end this post on a positive, let’s take a look at two pitches from a Socolovich strikeout of Fowler last season. Individually, neither pitch looks particularly dangerous, but when you take into account the release points and their respective ball flights, you get a better visualization of why Socolovich is so difficult to hit.

Strikeout of Dexter Fowler (BrooksBaseball At Bat)

91.7 MPH fastball for a called strike one.

81.3 MPH changeup for a swinging strike three.

Due to my tardiness in choosing a topic, I was unable to get these GIFs overlaid, but you should still be able to notice that the two start on an identical path out of Socolovich’s hand. Horizontally, they land in almost the exact same part of the zone. Vertically, the pitches were nowhere close to each other. The things I would do for video from Yadier Molina’s mask of these pitches.

Happy March Madness day!

As usual, credit to @cardinalsgifs for the GIFs embedded above.