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November 13, 2012

Baseball ProGUESTus

How Alfonso Soriano Got His Groove Back

by Sahadev Sharma

Most of our writers didn't enter the world sporting an @baseballprospectus.com address; with a few exceptions, they started out somewhere else. In an effort to up your reading pleasure while tipping our caps to some of the most illuminating work being done elsewhere on the internet, we'll be yielding the stage once a week to the best and brightest baseball writers, researchers and thinkers from outside of the BP umbrella. If you'd like to nominate a guest contributor (including yourself), please drop us a line.

Sahadev Sharma is a contributor to ESPN Chicago and ChicagoSide, where he regularly covers the Cubs and White Sox. Sahadev spent four years as a radio producer at ESPN 1000 in Chicago and often dabbled in the blogosphere. In the fall of 2010, Sahadev focused his attention on the writing side of the business and quickly realized that was where he belonged. If not spending his free time with his wife, one-year-old son, and two Italian Greyhounds, you’ll likely find Sahadev appreciating Starlin Castro’s ability to hit, defending Adam Dunn, or watching YouTube clips of the Illini’s 2005 NCAA tourney comeback against Arizona. Follow him on Twitter @sahadevsharma.
 

Baseball is almost impossible to predict. If you follow me on Twitter, you probably noticed a string of tweets during the playoffs in which I was continually shocked by what happened. Marco Scutaro is awesome and Robinson Cano stinks! Barry Zito! The Orioles! Nothing makes sense!

But fear not, young baseball fan: things are easy to predict on the North Side of Chicago. Or so I thought.

If there’s one thing Cubs fans have been able to count on—outside of losing, that is—it’s being able to unabashedly rip Alfonso Soriano. Soriano has been a point of contention for fans, the media, and even his managers since his arrival on the North Side prior to the 2007 season. Whether he was catching flak for his subpar defense, his seeming unwillingness to move from the lead-off spot, or his perceived lack of hustle, at the end of the day, the blame for the Cubs’ woes often rested at the feet of Soriano.

But in 2012, things suddenly seemed to change for Soriano. Even when Soriano’s perceived lack of hustle did start to rankle fans, not only did manager Dale Sveum have his back, but so did team president Theo Epstein. In fact, both Sveum and Epstein made sure to express a positive outlook for Soriano’s 2012 season when they arrived in town last offseason. Sveum downplayed Soriano’s penchant for admiring home runs, choosing instead to focus on his willingness to hustle on balls in play.

Epstein was especially prescient when he joined a Chicago radio station and talked about the possibility of extracting untapped potential from his veteran outfielder:

Yeah, there are other areas of the game where he hasn't quite performed up to expectations the last few years. I think it's the good quality of an organization to look at every player and ask, How can we get the most out of this guy? And I look at Alfonso and I think there is still more in there.

Even the most optimistic Cubs fan likely felt Epstein’s quotes were nothing more than spin in hopes of finding some rival GM to pawn Soriano off on. How could anyone believe that a 36-year-old who had posted a .305 OBP over the previous three seasons and played seemingly inept defense in left field actually had “more in there”?

But he did.

Though Soriano’s offense hardly returned to its former All-Star level, he did post a career high in RBI (108, which even Soriano admitted was aided by his move to the cleanup spot) and managed to play a Cubs-career-high 151 games, post a .278 TAv (just below his .280 career average), and knock out 32 home runs. While the production with his bat was somewhat surprising, it wasn’t nearly as shocking as Soriano’s turnaround on defense (7.9 FRAA) and the media embracing him as a leader on a team loaded with youth—with one beat writer even claiming that Soriano would be in the MVP mix if the Cubs were having a better season.

Former Cubs TV analyst Bob Brenly watched Soriano play and prepare on every game day for the past six years. Often critical of Soriano himself—once claiming that you could “throw a dart into the dugout” and hit a better defender than Soriano—Brenly has now changed his tune.

“I was very critical of him in the past and made some jokes about how poor his defense was, the entire National League used to joke about his defense,” Brenly recently told me. “But the strides he made this year were remarkable. It’s not a stretch to say that he should be considered for a Gold Glove this year the way he played defense. I never thought those words would come out of my mouth.”

All the MVP and Gold Glove talk may be hyperbole, but it was clear to anyone watching that Soriano was a different person on and off the field. It wasn’t a coincidence that Soriano improved with a new coaching staff in place for 2012. When I asked him how much coaching in the outfield he had gotten prior to this season, to my surprise Soriano said that the most direction he’d gotten in the past was being told to shag fly balls in the outfield. Soriano said that even when the Washington Nationals moved him from second base to left field in the spring of 2006, they did nothing more than have him roam the outfield during batting practice.

Brenly refers to this practice as eye wash. When the seemingly little things get overlooked over the course of a long season, especially defensive work, a player just starts going through the motions. The work becomes eye wash.

“Going back to spring training (first base coach) Dave McKay and Alfonso started working (in the outfield) from day one, and it wasn’t eyewash,” Brenly said. “It was designed to make him better in the areas he needed work. And they did those things on a daily basis, they worked with a purpose in pregame, and he carried it right over into the game. He recognized that there was a need to step up and do more and be more. Nobody has ever questioned his work ethic. It was more a question of what kind of work are you doing and what benefit are you getting out of it? This year they really took it to a different level.”

That explains the defensive improvements, but what about the sudden application of the tag “leader” to Soriano? His inability to stand out as a veteran leader was something that he’d been roundly criticized for in the past. Was Soriano actually embracing this new role, or was it some sort of media narrative without much basis in reality? According to Brenly, Soriano was unknowingly doing the former.

“With the turnover on the roster he suddenly looked around and realized that he was the most senior guy and he was the guy that young players were looking to,” Brenly said. “He just assumed it naturally. I don’t think it’s something he consciously went out and said, ‘I’m going to be a leader on this team.’ He just continued to do the things he’s been doing, but since there was nobody else there, he became the leader.”

Soriano was rarely available for interviews before games because he was usually working with McKay, and I always knew I’d have to wait up to half an hour after a game to talk to him because he would inevitably be getting a post-game workout in. He had finally emerged as the perfect veteran role model for a team that had been searching for such a calming presence since Derrek Lee’s departure.

“Anytime you have a veteran player of his caliber that’s had the career that he’s had and a young player sees him going about his daily business that way, it sends a tremendous message to the young guys,” Brenly said. “I think that’s what we saw last year.”

Soriano’s leadership was quickly put to the test as the Cubs’ young shortstop, Starlin Castro, repeatedly had his focus questioned during the season. Soriano quickly took Castro, who is viewed as a centerpiece of the Cubs’ future, under his wing upon his arrival from the minor leagues in 2010. When people discussed this development prior to 2012, it was not received well. The cynical fan wondered why anyone would want the future of the organization to be guided by someone like Soriano. But this season, Soriano has proved invaluable in his new role, even going so far as to join Sveum in giving Castro advice when he appeared to have mental lapses in the field.

Hard work and leadership are qualities that are nearly impossible to measure. For someone like myself who gravitates toward the numbers side of the game (and the same probably goes for you, considering the website you’ve found this piece on), quantifying the true value of these abstract qualities is an impossibility. But after spending time in clubhouses over the past two seasons, I’ve come to believe that these things—unlike a hitter being clutch or a pitcher having some innate ability to win games—truly exist and can actually be seen if you’re paying attention. They’re traits that can be very important to the success of a team, especially one that’s as young and will be losing as much as the Cubs.

Once thought to be absolutely untradeable—in the recent past, the Cubs would have gladly eaten a chunk of his salary just to send Soriano on his merry way—Soriano has now shown that he has more value than just being able to hit a home run every so often. It still isn’t likely that teams will be lining up to acquire the remaining two years and $36 million remaining on Soriano’s contract. However, Epstein and the Cubs certainly aren’t as desperate to move Soriano as they were a year ago and have now found a legitimate reason to keep him around.

"I think if teams pursue him in a trade we will consider it and see if it makes our future better and makes us a better organization going forward," Epstein said. "But he's got value to us because he helps us win games, he provides protection in the lineup, and he's a great example for our younger players to follow in the clubhouse."

If we trade him we're losing something, and we would have to get something in return to justify that.”

Amazingly, the Epstein-led Cubs did in fact extract untapped value from Soriano, transforming him from what many viewed as merely an albatross into a player of true worth on multiple fronts. Believe me when I say that nobody outside of the organization (and surely, even those inside had their doubts) saw this turn of events coming.  As unpredictable as the game of baseball can be, nothing has been a bigger surprise than the emergence of Soriano as a media darling and a true leader of the Chicago Cubs.

5 comments have been left for this article.

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