Alfonso Soriano is one of those players whose value is constantly debated among the more casual fan and the statistically-inclined folk. He consistently drives in a great deal of runs, hits for power and steals bases. Soriano also rarely takes a walk, is caught stealing quite often some seasons, and until he moved to left field, was considered one of the worst defensive players at his position. Now we see that the debate has rekindled somewhat, with the Cubs signing Soriano to an eight-year, $136-million contract. Is Soriano really worth a contract with an average annual value of $17 million through his age-38 season or is this just another in a long line of questionable Cubs decisions that have left them short of a World Series for nearly a century?
Alfonso Soriano hails from San Pedro de Macoris of the Dominican Republic and was signed by the New York Yankees on September 29, 1998. This acquisition came after Soriano played for Hiroshima of the Japanese Eastern League–a Japanese minor league–for three seasons. He signed early enough to participate in the Arizona Fall League in his American baseball debut, and managed to rank third in the AFL in extra-base hits while earning Player of the Week honors twice.
Most of Soriano’s first full professional season for the Yankees organization came for Norwich of the Double-A Eastern League, although there was also a short stay for Triple-A Columbus. Soriano was a shortstop initially, but clearly was not going to move Derek Jeter off of the position once he arrived to the major leagues:
AB AVG/OBP/SLG SecA XBH% ISO 2B+3B BB% K% Nor.(AA) 361 .305/.363/.501 .307 35% .196 23 8.1% 17.0% Col.(AAA) 82 .183/.230/.341 .220 53% .158 6 5.7% 20.7%
The Columbus performance was mostly due to small sample siz–a .210 batting average on balls in play can just sort of happen in only 82 at-bats–but the debut season at Norwich was impressive in the overall scheme of things. One item that Soriano needed to work on was his base stealing; although he stole 24 bases in Double-A, he was caught 16 times for a 60 percent success rate. It’s hard to argue with a shortstop prospect who slugs .500 with an Isolated Power of just about .200 though. This season would earn Soriano the number four spot in the organizational prospect rankings, courtesy of Baseball America, as well as earning the honors of Most Exciting Prospect in the Eastern League.
Soriano would spend all but 50 at-bats of his 2000 season at Columbus, and would fare better the second time around:
His walk rate stuck around the five percent level, which is that territory where batting average drives your OBP. Sori managed to increase his stolen base rate slightly by moving up to 67 percent, but was still below the break even point. A short stint in the majors saw his walk rate drop to below two percent, while his strikeout rate climbed close to 30 percent. One interesting note from this season is that Soriano’s first three major-league hits were home runs, the first time this happened since Mike Greenwell did it in 1985.
The 2001 season would be Soriano’s first full major-league campaign, and he would finish third in the Jackie Robinson Award voting behind Ichiro Suzuki and C.C. Sabathia. He was basically a league-average hitter that season, finishing up with a .254 Equivalent Average. He also managed to steal 43 bases, but was caught 14 times for a 75 percent success rate. With only a 4.7 BB/PA, Soriano’s season line was disappointing thanks to a low batting average, but he’d rectify the situation somewhat in the two following years:
AB AVG/OBP/SLG SecA XBH% ISO 2B+3B BB% K% 2001 574 .268/.304/.432 .265 36% .164 37 4.7% 20.4% 2002 696 .300/.332/.547 .320 44% .247 53 3.1% 21.2% 2003 682 .290/.338/.525 .330 40% .235 41 5.2% 17.7%
Thanks to higher batting averages, Soriano’s on-base percentages were more respectable, and he even managed to steal at an 81 percent clip in 2003. He rebounded from an extremely poor defensive season in 2001 to a much more manageable -3 on John Dewan’s plus/minus system in 2003. He was an 8+ win player in consecutive seasons, as well as a 35/35 player for HR/SB during those seasons. The Yankees immediately shipped him to Texas when they had a shot at acquiring Alex Rodriguez.
Soriano’s two seasons in Texas were far below expectations, given his previous two years and the fact that he should have still been within his 25-29 peak years.
AB AVG/OBP/SLG SecA XBH% ISO 2B+3B BB% K% 2004 608 .280/.324/.484 .280 38% .204 36 5.0% 18.4% 2005 637 .268/.309/.512 .339 47% .244 45 4.8% 18.3%
If you are wondering where the high Secondary Average in 2005 came from, Soriano stole 30 bases at a 94 percent rate of success. He had a bit more power in his second season and his walk rate remained the same, so his EqA went from a disappointing .260 to .273, very good for a second basemen. This would have been fine if he wasn’t essentially the worst defensive second basemen in the major leagues during this two-year span. The only player worse in John Dewan’s three-year Plus/Minus Rankings is Bret Boone, and he was long past his best days of baseball. To put this into perspective, Todd Walker‘s Plus/Minus over the same time period was -22, while Soriano’s was -40, and the often-criticized Mark Bellhorn was an even 0.
When the Rangers traded Alfonso Soriano to the Washington Nationals, the Nats’ plan was to move him to the outfield. Soriano vocally opposed the switch, but eventually gave in and ended up as quite the outfielder. He’s still somewhat raw out there, but his athleticism allows him to make up for mental mistakes. The aforementioned Dewan thinks highly of Soriano, saying “This guy can field! He led the league in baserunner kills. Now he’s a defensive asset in LF as opposed to the liability he was at second base.” Soriano’s 9 FRAA this season help support the idea, especially when compared to his -21 FRAA from 2005 at second.
As for his value with the bat, Soriano was able to increase his batting average slightly and hit for even more power upon switching to the National League:
Soriano posted the highest walk rate of his professional career during his age-30 season, which seems somewhat odd given his bat speed hasn’t slowed forcing him to take additional pitches that he would normally chase. There are a few hypotheses we can toss around as to why Soriano’s walk rate all of a sudden decided to enter the land of respectability. First off, maybe Soriano really bought into the whole leadoff-hitter idea in Washington and decided to take a few more pitches here and there. His Pitches per Plate Appearance did jump from 3.7 to 3.9, about 146 additional pitches over the course of the season. The problem with this train of thought is Soriano’s past experience as a leadoff hitter; Soriano’s career BB/PA prior to 2006 from the leadoff spot was only 4.4 percent.
Secondly, is it possible that the paucity of hitting talent behind Soriano caused pitchers to skirt the one serious threat in the lineup in favor of an easier opponent? Nationals #2 hitters combined for a .291/.362/.381 line, and the #3 hitters only managed .259/.346/.443. The Nationals have a few good hitters, but Soriano and Nick Johnson were the only two you could describe as great hitters. Johnson spent almost 500 plate appearances as the cleanup hitter–far away from Soriano–so there’s a good chance that Soriano was treated carefully, causing his walk rate to flourish. This would not have been the case in New York or Texas, where the likes of Derek Jeter, Michael Young and various others would have been the alternative to a guy who is fairly easy to strike out.
Looking at his batted-ball data, we get a few interesting reference points to work with:
Year P/PA FB% LINERD% GB% IF/F% HR/F% BABIP eBABIP 2004 3.7 47.8% 18.7% 33.5% N/A 10.6% .309 .307 2005 3.7 46.9% 19.0% 34.1% 7.4% 13.3% .284 .310 2006 3.9 51.4% 19.6% 29.0% 7.9% 19.4% .302 .316
Soriano is an extreme flyball hitter, and as you can see by his HR/F rate, those flyballs left the park quite regularly. It’s interesting that Soriano underperformed his 2005 BABIP by .026 points; taking those into account, his season line is a much more respectable .294/.330/.538–assuming all lost hits were singles, of course–and not very far off from his 2006 campaign at all. Of course, even with this adjustment, Soriano is still a hitter who relies on his batting average to fuel his on-base percentage, especially if the second idea about a lack of protection in the lineup rings true.
He’s a career .278 EqA hitter, which is excellent for second base–league-average second-base EqA was .255 in 2006–but in the realm of average for a left fielder, where .271 was the mean. Soriano would fair much better as a center fielder, at least offensively, where the EqA average was a much lower .260. Whether his athleticism and arm would save him in center field defensively is a question that can probably only be answered properly after observing his play there.
Basically, the Cubs signed themselves a player who will perform in the .278 range for EqA, probably plus or minus roughly .015 points in a given year depending on how the fluctuations go. Chances are good that the positive side of that range will show up less as time goes on, as Soriano is already entering his age-31 season. As a power/speed guy, PECOTA is optimistic about his chances to produce, at least in 2007. Considering the contracts thrown out so far this year–Nate Silver estimates that the market is up 70% in comparison to last season–the money Soriano is earning is not really an issue. Handing him eight years in a back-loaded contract with a full no-trade clause is somewhat more aggravating and perplexing though, and unless the Cubs suddenly win a World Series in the first few years of this deal–while Aramis Ramirez, Derrek Lee and Carlos Zambrano are all still productive Cubbies–then the Cubs are going to regret it. For more years than not, at least on the back end of the deal, Soriano will most likely be a league average or somewhat better player, and I don’t see anyone offering Craig Wilson and his ilk long-term deals.