Saturday, January 07, 2012

How Money Makes an Albatross

Say the word, "Zito," to just about any baseball fan in some sort of psyche test and you get a response of, "Bad Contract." And the funny thing about us as fans is that we turn Zito into some kind of pariah. There were two things that are not Zito's fault. First, his skills faded. Secondly, despite the signs that his skills were eroding, some schmuck gave him scads of millions of dollars. That's hardly Zito's fault, is it? Why hate on the guy? There is another player almost equal to Zito in terms of fan antipathy. Before the big reveal of who he is, let's pull out the old comparison trick.
  • Outfielder A: .274/.332/.467, OPS+ career of 109, career Total Zone Fielding Runs of -30, UZR for career of 1.1 bWAR total of 29.7, fWAR of 36.2.
  • Outfielder B: .274/.323/.506, OPS+ career of 112, career Total Zone Fielding Runs of -54, UZR for career of 61.6, bWAR total of 23.4, fWAR of 35.3.
How can fielding stats be so different? Anyway, outfielder A has played 15 seasons and 1,807 games. Outfielder B has played 13 seasons and 1,606 games. So the WAR per games played evens out some. They sound like pretty darn similar careers, don't they? Yet, one is reviled and the other adored (perhaps not by analysts though). In case you haven't guessed, outfielder A is Torii Hunter and outfielder B is Alfonso Soriano. Surprised? You shouldn't be.

But the money Alfonso Soriano gets paid skews all thoughts of him as a player. Well, sure, he has iron hands and no instincts in the outfield. He is perceived as selfish. Hunter is the darling of center fielders who will always be remembered for his catch against Barry Bonds in the All Star Game. But the honest truth is that for their careers, their relative worth has been extremely close. It's the money that spoils our perception.

It's a sad fact of life that the Chicago Cubs gave Soriano a contract that was well above his worth. The contract was back-loaded so the first couple of years of the deal actually made Soriano a bargain. According to Fangraphs, Soriano was paid $24 million in total those two years and was worth $48.5 million with his play. That's a steal. But the pay scale kept getting larger and Soriano got older and now he's making $19 million and has no way he can earn that kind of money. But again, is that Soriano's fault? Would you not sign that contract if it was put in front of you? Sure you would. It's not his fault the Cubs were stupid.

Somehow we take the knowledge of contracts like that and with most of our blue collar histories expect a player to become transcendent of the deal. A player's strengths and weaknesses are pretty much established after eight years in the majors, are they not? A guy with concrete hands are not going to soften no matter how many cans of Jergens Lotion you put on them. It's similar to a guy marrying a girl who has always been a planner and worker bee to suddenly become a free spirit after the marriage. People don't change. They are what they are. It's not the doughty girl's fault the groom had misguided expectations. Wow, how did this get autobiographical?

Alfonso Soriano hasn't been a bad major league player. He's hit more than twenty homers ten straight seasons. He's hit more than forty doubles four times and once hit more than fifty. He's never been noted for his plate discipline, but that was well established before the big contract. If you took away all that money, people would look fondly at his career. He's not Hall of Fame player, but he could be in the Hall of Good.

The money makes Alfonso Soriano an albatross and a weight around the Cubs' necks. But it's not Soriano's fault. He just signed his name on the dotted line when it was put in front of him. Blame the former Cubs' regime, but don't blame Soriano. He was what he was and he is what he is and that would have been the same not matter how much he got paid. Oh, and that other guy--Torii Hunter--is going to make only a million less than Soriano this coming season. That freakin' albatross!

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