Last week, when discussing the unusual season of Diamondbacks rookie Chris B. Young, I wrote the following: “Young had nearly as many home runs as walks (43), a feat which to my knowledge has been accomplished by only one leadoff hitter in history: Felipe Alou, who in 1966 led off for the Braves and hit .327/.361/.533 with 31 homers against just 24 walks.”
This statement was true as recently as a few years ago, but as several readers pointed out, it no longer is, thanks to the singular talents of one Alfonso Soriano. Soriano’s abilities are unusual enough on their own. In 2006 he hit 46 home runs and stole 41 bases, becoming only the fourth 40/40 player in history; the others are Jose Canseco (1988), Barry Bonds (1996), and Alex Rodriguez (1998). He narrowly missed the feat in 2002, with 39 homers and 41 steals. He also hit 38 homers and stole 35 bases in 2003, giving him three separate 35/35 seasons. No one else in major league history has accomplished the 35/35 standard three times, and only three other players have done it even twice: Willie Mays, Bonds the Younger, and Bonds the Elder.
Soriano’s feats are more remarkable given that so many of them came while he was playing at second base. As I mentioned a few weeks ago, last season Brandon Phillips had just the fourth 30/30 campaign by a second baseman in history. The first three seasons were Soriano in 2002, Soriano in 2003, and Soriano in 2005.
Soriano moved away from second base when he joined the Nationals in 2006, but he was moved back to the leadoff spot, where a man of his talents seems even more out of place. As a rookie in 2001, Soriano started 56 games in the eighth spot in the lineup, and 73 games in the ninth slot (he was a Yankee, remember). Since then, Soriano has been almost locked into one spot in the lineup, making more than 75 percent of his starts in one lineup spot each season. The problem is, that lineup spot has changed over the years:
2002: 1st 2003: 1st 2004: 3rd 2005: 5th 2006: 1st 2007: 1st
In 2002, Soriano led off in all but four starts for the Yankees, even as he hit 39 homers, 51 doubles, and drove in 102 runs; from those totals he delivered 38 homers, 89 extra-base hits, and 99 RBI out of the leadoff spot, all three numbers ranking second all-time in our database (going back to 1957):
Year Player HR 2006 Alfonso Soriano 39 2002 Alfonso Soriano 38 1973 Bobby Bonds 35 2003 Alfonso Soriano 35 1996 Brady Anderson 35 Year Player XBH 2006 Grady Sizemore 92 2002 Alfonso Soriano 89 1997 Nomar Garciaparra 85 2007 Curtis Granderson 81 2007 Jimmy Rollins 80 Year Player RBI 2000 Darin Erstad 100 2002 Alfonso Soriano 99 1997 Nomar Garciaparra 98 2004 Johnny Damon 91 1998 Craig Biggio 88 2000 Johnny Damon 88
For all that, he only walked 23 times, becoming the second leadoff hitter with more homers than walks in a season. The following year, he had exactly as many homers (38) as walks, but he continued to lead off for a loaded Yankees lineup.
He was then traded to the Rangers, who saw a player with tremendous power but limited ability to reach base, and did what all of us would do-they moved him to the middle of the lineup. (I’m willing to bet that those of you who employ Soriano on a Scoresheet or Strat-o-Matic team, or in another simulation fantasy game, never bat him in the leadoff spot.) Soriano batted in the heart of the Rangers lineup for two years, and then he was traded to Washington, where he returned to batting leadoff, a role he kept after signing with the Cubs last year. And last year, once again, he had more home runs (33) than walks (31).
Leading off a player who’s a threat to rap 100 extra-base hits in a season is crazy as it is, but it’s certifiably insane in the NL. Not only does the pitcher make outs 85 percent of the time, but he’s going to bunt a runner on first base over to scoring position as often as he can, negating the advantage of the extra-base hit over the single. Sure enough, last season, despite 33 homers, 42 doubles, and five triples, Soriano finished the season with just 70 RBI. In major league history, no player with 75 or more extra-base hits has ever finished with so few:
Year Player 2B 3B HR XBH RBI 2007 Alfonso Soriano 42 5 33 80 70 2007 Curtis Granderson 38 23 23 84 74 1929 Johnny Frederick 52 6 24 82 75 2006 Grady Sizemore 53 11 28 92 76 1965 Zoilo Versalles 45 12 19 76 77 2000 Bobby Abreu 42 10 25 77 79 2007 Hanley Ramirez 48 6 29 83 81 1943 Stan Musial 48 20 13 81 81 1932 Paul Waner 62 10 8 80 82 2006 Jimmy Rollins 45 9 25 79 83
Apparently the use of Soriano in the leadoff spot has sparked some sort of trend; five of the ten guys on this list played in the last two years, and if we were to continue this list, Bill Hall‘s 2006 would rank 12th. While it seems inefficient to use a player with this much power in the leadoff spot, you can make excuses for some of these other guys; Sizemore is a tremendously patient hitter, and drew 101 walks last year, Granderson has mid-range power but hit more triples than any player in almost 60 years (which may be a fluke, of course), Ramirez was in only his second season, and it wasn’t clear before the year began that he would hit with that much power, and Rollins had never hit more than 14 home runs before. Three of those four players had OBPs of over .360 to with their power, and all four of them scored at least 118 runs. Soriano, on the other hand, had a .337 OBP last year, and despite driving himself in more than anyone else on the list, scored only 97 runs. Granted, he missed 27 games with hamstring and quadriceps injuries, but in 135 games he had 99 raw Equivalent Runs and 107 Runs Created, but only 97 runs and 70 RBI. You can’t blame the other hitters for keeping those totals down, as the team had roughly a league-average offense. It seems clear that using Soriano in the leadoff spot is exactly as sub-optimal a decision as common sense would dictate.
While this is hardly a rigorous sample size, it’s interesting to note that in the four years Soriano has batted leadoff, his teams have scored an average of 818 runs, but their unadjusted Equivalent Runs-the number of runs the team should have scored based on their totals of singles, doubles, home runs, walks, etc.-averaged 828.5 runs. In the two seasons Soriano batted in the heart of the Rangers lineup, the Rangers averaged 862.5 runs, even though their unadjusted EqR was only 841.5 runs. In other words, when Soriano batted leadoff, his teams underperformed their run expectations by an average of 10.5 runs. When he batted in the middle of the lineup, they outperformed their run expectations by an average of 21 runs.
Soriano is certainly an unusual player, but he’s all the more unusual because of the role he’s used in. There’s a reason it’s unusual to see a player with his talents leading off: it’s the wrong lineup spot for him, and the Cubs would benefit greatly if they used him in a more traditional role.
And to think, a year ago the Red Sox were still talking about using Jonathan Papelbon as a starter. There have been pitchers who have debuted to more success than Papelbon did, but not many. Papelbon debuted with the Red Sox on July 31st, 2005, and made three turns through the rotation, allowing four earned runs in 17 innings. The Red Sox won all three games, though Papelbon had a no-decision in each one. He was then moved to the bullpen for the remainder of the season; after allowing four runs in his first three relief outings, he was scored upon only once in his last 11 outings, and pitched four scoreless innings in the ALDS against the White Sox.
The Red Sox had seen enough; by the following Opening Day he was made the team’s closer. It proved to be an inspired choice: he allowed just three earned runs in the season’s first four months; on the morning of August 5th he had a 0.49 ERA, and had allowed just 27 in 55 innings. A tired arm brought him back to the ranks of mere mortals the rest of the season, and he was shut down a month early with a 0.92 ERA in 68 innings. Now, ERAs under one aren’t unheard of; Dennis Eckersley famously posted a 0.61 ERA in 1990, but whereas Eckersley gave up nearly as many unearned runs (four) as earned runs (five) that year, Papelbon gave up just one unearned run all season. That gave him a mark of 1.05 RA; among pitchers with 60 or more innings, that just missed Rollie Fingers‘ all-time record:
Year Pitcher IP R RA 1981 Rollie Fingers 78.0 9 1.04 2006 Jonathan Papelbon 68.1 8 1.05 1990 Dennis Eckersley 73.1 9 1.10 2003 John Smoltz 64.1 9 1.26 1995 Jose Mesa 64.0 9 1.27
Papelbon had one of the all-time great seasons for a closer. With 35 saves and a 0.92 ERA, he certainly had the all-time best season for a rookie closer. Only two other rookies have saved even 25 games with an ERA under two: Gregg Olson (27 saves, 1.69 ERA) in 1989, and Jorge Julio (25 saves, 1.99 ERA) in 2002.
Nonetheless, the Red Sox planned to move him back to the rotation last spring, on the notion that 180 good innings are better than 70 excellent ones. Which is true, but Papelbon’s performance in 2006 was beyond excellent. The Red Sox finally relented-or had their hand forced by concerns about Papelbon’s arm-and, secure in the knowledge that he was closer now and forevermore, Papelbon delivered another tremendous season. His ERA last season jumped to 1.85, but his OPS against was actually lower (463) than in 2006 (465), and his strikeout rate jumped from 9.88 to 12.96 per nine innings. He also added 10 2/3 scoreless innings and more riverdances than I care to acknowledge in the playoffs; his career playoff scoreless streak stands at an impressive 14 2/3 innings.
After a little over two seasons in the majors, Papelbon’s career line is a thing of beauty: 160 2/3 innings, 103 hits, 45 walks, 193 strikeouts, and an ERA of 1.62. It’s been a long time since someone with that many career innings could boast of having a career ERA that low. In fact, you have to go back to 1916, when Walter Johnson‘s career ERA stood at 1.61. (Obviously there’s a slight difference between these two pitchers; at the conclusion of that season, the Big Train’s 1.61 ERA had been amassed in 3148 innings. As late as 1920, Johnson’s career ERA was 1.70, in over 4200 innings, with 305 career wins.)
Since Johnson retired, here are the lowest career ERAs at the end of a season for a pitcher with at least 150 career innings:
Year Pitcher IP ERA 2007 Jonathan Papelbon 160.2 1.62 1965 Bob Lee 268.1 1.71 1990 Rob Dibble 256.1 1.90 1977 Bruce Sutter 190.2 1.94 1985 Dwight Gooden 494.2 2.00
Lee and Dibble qualified twice; I only listed their lowest ERA. Takashi Saito just misses this list; he currently has a 1.77 ERA, but in only 142 2/3 innings. Any way you slice it, Papelbon’s career is off to one of the best starts for a relief pitcher-or any pitcher-in history.