Sunday, April 17, 2011

The Wild Ride of Alfonso Soriano

Has there ever been another player quite like Alfonso Soriano? Despite common derision for his play over the years, Soriano has amassed over 319 homers in his twelve year career and is one of the few guys to hit forty homers and steal forty bases in the same season. He came a homer away from doing so in another season and was a 30/30 guy another three seasons. According to, for every 162 games played, Soriano has hit 35 homers and stole 29 bases. He has a lifetime slugging percentage of .509 but an OPS+ of only 113. His contract with the Cubs is considered one of the worst in baseball. This Fan can't think of another player who has had this much good news/bad news attached to his career.

The sides stories over the years have provided much of the fodder for those who are puzzled by Soriano's career. Early in his career, he insisted at playing second base despite never being any good at it. It finally took none other than Frank Robinson to pry him off of that position and put him in the outfield. Then, for years, Soriano insisted on being a lead off batter despite the fact that his power suggested he should bat elsewhere. None other than Lou Piniella had to finally put an end to that. And it wasn't just the power. Soriano has one of the highest free-swinging reputations in baseball and the numbers back it up. And then there was the discrepancy about his age. The Yankees thought they had a much younger player when he first started playing with them. He ended up being two years older than they thought he was. Add all these stories to his obvious power and speed numbers and you get a lot of weird angles on his career.

It seems really hard to peg the kind of player Soriano has been over the years. has a feature where they give each player "comparables" to try to fit a player's stats against others that have played the game. Soriano's two closest "comparables" are Raul Mondesi and Aramis Ramirez. What does that tell you? It tells you just what the point of this piece is all about. A player like Soriano is all about the good news/bad news sides of his play. You need a good scale to be able to balance which side is stronger. This Fan is unsure he is smart enough to make that call.

Let's talk about Soriano's fielding for a moment. By all accounts, he was a terrible second baseman. When he combined with Derek Jeter for the Yankees in his early years, the middle infield for that team was a vast wasteland. Baseball-reference rated him almost 79 runs below average in the nine years he played there. But both B-R and give Soriano positive marks in the outfield. No case ever showed how weak these fielding metrics are more than Soriano's positive marks in the outfield up until the 2009 season. Fangraphs does include a "Fans Scouting Report" but it only covers 2009 and 2010, years which his outfield play deteriorated according to the advanced fielding metrics. But the Fans Scouting Report does show what we've all known: Soriano has some of the worst instincts and worst hands for an outfielder we have seen.

But Soriano wasn't given the big money for his glove. It was his bat that teams wanted. And yet despite all those homers and all those doubles and all those stolen bases, there is doubt about Soriano's worth at the plate. His career batting average is .277 but his career on base percentage is only .323. His career walk percentage is only 6 percent. And yet he strikes out a lot--22 percent (and higher the last five years). For his career, he has swung at 35 percent of all pitches out of the strike zone. That's almost Vlad Guerrero-like.  Compare that to Derek Jeter's 20.4 percent or Lance Berkman's 21.4 percent.

Soriano has made his career on hitting the fastball. Since 2002, Soriano (according to Fangraphs) has hit fastballs to the tune of 196.2 runs above average. He is slightly above average since that time against a cutter and a knuckleball. But he is 34.1 below average against a slider and slightly below average against a curve. The question this writer has is why anyone would ever throw Soriano a fastball? And in fact, pitchers have taken notice. In his career, Soriano has only seen about 52.2 percent of fastballs. Most batters see around 60 percent.

Soriano's lack of ability against pitches that bend was well played out in the post season where he has been absolutely futile in posting a .562 OPS in 186 post season plate appearances with a 30.5 percent strikeout rate. Once he got to the post season, those very good pitchers knew what to do and since Soriano never saw a slider breaking away from him he didn't like, he was easy pickings. This single fact alone probably ticketed his exit from the Yankees.

So what do you make of Alfonso Soriano? Good question. This Fan has expended nearly 1000 words and still can't pinpoint an answer. He has started hot in 2011 with five homers in his first fourteen games good for a slugging percentage over .600. But he's also only received only one non-intentional walk and has an OBP of .309 despite a .283 batting average. Out in the field, he's already made two errors but has already thrown out two base runners. Such is the up and down ride that he provides. That old scale shows he's built up 21.8 bWAR or 33 fWAR. Soriano has a 115 wRC+ for his career, making him a solidly above average player. But whether he's earned his salary over the years depends on whose WAR you go by.

There are no solid answers for Alfonso Soriano. And that's what makes him one of the most confusing players of our time.

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