Sunday, April 27, 2008

Happy days here again with the Fons?

Last July I attended a Cubs game at Wrigley, and afterward I went with some friends to the outdoor parking lot where many Cubs players leave after the game. Apparently it's a good place to get autographs.

I remember it was beautiful weather as we waited outside a low, chain-linked fence looking into narrow lot. There were many expensive cars, a few unidentified security guys as well as other Cubs employees. I would later find out that some of the people waiting around in that lot were friends and family of the players.

Since Carlos Zambrano hadn't pitched that day, he was one of the first to arrive (and subsequently depart). I also remember Derrek Lee and Ryan Dempster (who actually left by pedaling his bicycle). And there was Lou Piniella who, as he walked toward his SUV turned to the small crowd and uncomfortably waved. I had nearly called out, "Hey Lou, nice double-switch in the sixth inning!" The only reason I didn't was because a small part of me thought it might actually have been the seventh... (And it really was a nice double-switch as the Cubs hung on for a one-run victory that game.)

But the person I remember most from that parking lot was "Fons." Alfonso Soriano.

I hadn't realized it before, but Soriano in person is just a cool dude. It's hard to explain, but as he chatted with teammates, friends and family while holding somebody's little girl for part of the time, his smooth style was readily apparent. Although, some of the fans waiting nearby weren't nearly as smooth as they rattled the fence, waving pens and hats and paper, yelling out repeatedly, "Alfonso! Alfonso pleeeease!"

But Fons kept chatting away, occasionally looking over to the fans, flashing a smile and coolly holding his hand up extending his index and pinky fingers like they do at the University of Texas for "Hook 'em 'Horns." The fans would reach a fevered pitch thinking that this was their chance to get Soriano's attention for an autograph, but understandably, he'd just go back to his conversation. Then after about ten minutes he was gone.

From a purely baseball perspective, I never understood why the Cubs committed $138 million toward Soriano; and it's not really the money that bothered me. What bothered me was the following question: Where does Alfonso Soriano fit on a World Series-caliber team?

Ever since Soriano has come to Chicago, a big debate among Cub fans is where to bat Soriano in the lineup. Some say leadoff (which is where he usually bats), but others say with his power he should be batting fifth.

To make a long story short, Soriano needs to bat leadoff by default. Even though he doesn't steal bases like he used to, the leadoff spot is the only spot in the lineup where he'll see a lot of fastballs, which is what he needs to be a good hitter. (The View from the Bleachers has the numbers here if you're curious.)

As if the confusion surrounding where to place Soriano in the batting lineup isn't enough, there is also confusion over where he belongs in the field. He was brought up by the Yankees as a second baseman, the Nationals moved him to left field, then the Cubs tried to convert him to center field and now he's back in left. While he is fast and has a strong (and accurate) arm for throwing out runners, overall he's not a great defensive outfielder.

Last season the Cubs had a better record with Soriano than without, but this year they're doing better without him. At the very least, not having Soriano hasn't been a devastating loss to this club.

I often enjoy listening to Steve Stone's take on baseball, and here's what he said recently on his blog regarding Soriano (please note, Stoney's known for his baseball knowledge, not his writing skills):

I believe the Cub fans are starting to realize that with a tragic loss, at least for a while of Alfonso Soriano, the Cubs have won 7 of their last 10 and have won 4 games in a row. I am sure that the Cubs miss that sterling play in left field, they miss all the bases that Alfonso didn’t steal, they miss how artfully he played the off the wall and his occasional solo homeruns. It appears that that 175 batting average, 2 homeruns, 5 runs batted in, the four walks he had taken in 57 at bats coupled with the 11 strikeouts doesn’t seem to be hurting the Cubs very much.

In fact I would venture to say with a leadoff hitter, whoever Lou decides to put there who is actually a leadoff hitter, the Cubs are a better team without Soriano. There, I’ve said it. Anybody familiar with the emperor’s new clothes? If not, understand this, 136 million dollars over 8 years buys you a very accurate arm, a guy that will steal very few bases from here on out because of recurring leg problems and a man who should change the name on his back to Hans Solo, describing the overwhelming amount of homeruns with no one on base that he will hit.
Hans Solo? Ouch!

Soriano comes off the DL in a few days. I'll be curious to see how he meshes with the team upon his return.


Chairman said...

Soriano was actually a SS when the Yankees signed him (out of Japan, actually). He didn't project at SS (some dude named at Jeter), so they moved him to 2B, since they were OK at 3B, and Chuck Knoblauch had gotten the yips at 2B. He was improving there when they moved him to Texas for A-Rod, who probably didn't help his development, and then the move to Washington, which was just terrible, since he was just playing for his own stats. By that time, he was calling the shots, and sort of demanded to bat leadoff (and really, the Nats didn't really care - the were going to suck, regardless)

Had he stayed on the Yankees, do you think that Joe Torre would have hesitated to move him down to the 6 hole? Or if he'd have much of an argument to take, say, Jeter out of the leadoff spot? Of course, in the Yanks' lineup, he'd still have plenty of protection there.

Do you really think that he's significantly better w/ no one on? Or do you think that's just a function of him batting leadoff? I'm not particularly convinced either way.

Greg McConnell said...

Soriano was actually a SS when the Yankees signed him (out of Japan, actually).

I'm not particularly surprised that he was originally signed as a SS, but Japan? I had no idea.

Do you really think that he's significantly better w/ no one on? Or do you think that's just a function of him batting leadoff?

Well, this gets to a part of baseball that I'm still learning about... The numbers indicate that yes, Soriano's stats are best when he's leading off an inning (and I assume when no one is on, even if there are two outs). The explanation that I've always heard for this is that in those situations (when nobody is on base), he gets more fastballs. So that's what I'm not 100% sure about... why does a pitcher throw more fastballs when nobody is on base?

Chairman said...

He had played a year (technically only a handful of games) w/ a Japanese team, and therefore wasn't subject to the MLB draft. He was a free agent, and teams who wanted him had to give him a major league contract (and the Yanks had the deep pockets, per usual).

No idea about the speculation that you get more fastballs with no one on base. Conventional wisdom suggests that you get more fastballs when you have runners on base, since it's easier to throw out a runner off of a fastball, than a breaking ball.

I don't know if the stats are exactly conclusive. If you go year to year, some years, he does better with runners on. Other years, he does better with no runners. You have to tease out team effects, as well as batting order effects.

Pauly said...

This reminds me of Hanley Ramirez, who I think is batting out of position in the leadoff spot.

The Marlins have asked Hanley not to steal as much this year, he leads the team in HRs and RBIs, and they won't move him to the No. 3 spot in the lineup. That just bothers me, because Hanley has become too good for the leadoff position.

I think it is the same situation for Soriano -- he isn't nearly as good of a player, but he should be hitting 3 or 5 in the lineup.

Greg McConnell said...


You're right... if you go year to year sometimes Soriano does better with runners on, sometimes not. I did not realize that and it goes against what I constantly read and hear. Now I just need to get to the bottom of the whole "leadoff hitters get more fastballs" mystery... or myth...


Well, I'm glad the Cubs traded Hee Seop Choi to the Marlins for Derrek Lee, so we don't have to worry about Soriano batting third. ;-)

Chairman said...

I'm still not sure about the more fastballs w/ no one on. Part of it may be that you don't want to walk fast, low OBP guys, since you're often giving them a gift double, and getting someone in scoring position.

But you also want to throw more fastballs when you have SB threats on base. Conversely, if you have slow runners on and want to induce grounders, then you go with sinkers.

I don't know. I have a suspicion that we're trying to mash up too much conventional wisdom into one place :-)

Greg McConnell said...

For what it's worth, I've sent Steve Stone an email question regarding the whole "more fastballs with runners on or not" dilemma. Maybe he'll answer it on his blog?