Thursday, April 22, 2010

Soriano a Disappointment?

In this article, Dan McGrath reflects on the Cubs' disappointment in the performance of Alfonso Soriano.  This is certainly understandable -- Soriano's career hitting stats before joining the Cubs were 280/325/510.  Since joining the Cubs, he's hit 277/329/512.

Wait -- what?

That's right, fans.  The Alfonso Soriano with the Cubs is the exact same fellow he was before.
Okay, that's not entirely true -- he's been trending steadily downward ever since.  His first year in Chicago was about as good as the Cubs could expect:  299/337/560.  He benefited from the move to the weaker league and from Wrigley Field, although it should be said that Soriano enjoyed the benefits of the Ballpark in Arlington -- making some terrible seasons actually look decent.
Since then, however, it's been ugly.  Soriano hit well in 2008 (280/344/532), despite being limited to just 109 games.  He hit bottom in 2009, though -- 241/303/423.  There's nothing pretty about that.
It should be noted, though, that all this talk about Soriano's offensive decline is based entirely on one season, during which he was dealing with several injuries.  My own impression is that the public is seriously overreacting to Soriano's ugly defense and, because of that, are just now noticing his offensive shortcomings.
Soriano's OBP has always been bad, folks -- ALWAYS.  He drew a career-high 67 walks in 2005 simply because he was the only decent hitter on the Nationals; 16 of those walks were intentional, and many more were likely semi-intentional.
You'll hear a lot of talk about Soriano's great power-speed combination.  But -- and I hate to have to tell you this -- good power-speed players aren't necessarily good players.  Power-speed guys are always overrated, because their OBP is generally terrible.  Whatever good Soriano did with his power has almost entirely been taken back by a sorry walk rate.

But Dan McGrath -- the author of the New York Times piece linked to above -- has a rosier opinion of Soriano's past.  I'll let him speak for himself:

With the Cubs in town Monday to play the Mets, New York fans may not recognize Soriano as the fleet, powerful young second baseman who batted .287 with 95 home runs, 266 R.B.I. and 119 stolen bases and played on two Yankees pennant-winners from 2001 to 2003 before being traded to Texas in the Alex Rodriguez deal.
He was nearly as good with the Rangers — .274, 64 homers, 195 R.B.I., 48 steals in 2004-5 — and he had his 40-40 season with the Washington Nationals in 2006 after moving to the outfield.
 First of all, I hate when people compile counting stats over a number of seasons, because there's no frame of reference.  95 home runs?  What the hell does that mean?  Does McGrath want us to pull out our calculators and divide all these numbers by three?  And is 64 homers with the Rangers -- 32 HR/year -- really that impressive in Arlington when every other aspect of your game is dreadful?
And of all the disappointing numbers Soriano has compiled, McGrath cites the ones that make him look good:  HR and steals.  Well, he does mention his batting averages -- which are indeed, average.  He does cite OBP when he mentions how bad Soriano was last year (.303 OBP), but his point is minimized when you point out that his career mark is .327.

No, I'm absolutely convinced that the anger against Soriano is rooted in his ugly defense.  If he looked grand in left field, the grumbling about his offense would be reduced by half, at least.  He was much worse as a second baseman -- MUCH worse -- but because he didn't look as bad, people didn't mind so much.  He's hearing a lot from the boo-birds in Wrigley Field this year, because he's already made three errors.  The man is hitting 327/365/612 -- but NOW, all of a sudden, people are realizing what a terrible contract he has.
I don't really blame the Cubs, because they were really clueless when they signed the contract.  But the mainstream media -- not just McGrath -- has been asleep at the switch if they're just now noticing all of these things.  I understand that OBP has only recently been introduced into the wider sports world -- 60 years after the work of Branch Rickey and Allen Roth -- but ignorance only works as an excuse for so long.
Alfonso Soriano has a reputation as a less-than-100% player, and he makes a lot of dumb-looking plays in left field.  That is what really ticks people off.  It's after they've already decided to dislike him that they look up all of the evidence to support that opinion.  I wish I could say that it's a surprise to see people looking for evidence after making up their minds -- rather than the other way around -- but I live in the real world.

And as a side note, Soriano's defense in left field isn't as bad as it looks.  He has a really great arm, which actually made him an asset in left for a while.  Now, people aren't testing it as much, so it's not as important.  But Soriano has an uncanny knack for screwing up the easy plays.  That's unforgivable in baseball.
So the Cubs are stuck with him, and they deserve it; maybe they'll learn something before overpaying another marginal outfielder like Marlon Byrd ... wait a minute.

I would discuss the team's decision to put Carlos Zambrano in the bullpen after 4 starts -- during which he's struck out 26 batters in 19 and 1/3 innings -- but I can only manage so much righteous indignation in one sitting.

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