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April 30, 2003

Alfonso Soriano - The Exception To The Rule?
by Larry Mahnken

Guys who don't draw walks and strike out a lot usually don't have a very high batting average. This is because a low walk total and high strikeout total are indicative of a overly agressive batter, who swings at everything. Before long, pitchers figure that out and stop throwing them strikes. Either the batter starts to draw walks, or they start to make a lot of outs.

Alfonso Soriano batted .300 last season. So far this season, he's been batting over .370. Many statheads are starting to concede that Soriano is an exception to the rule--a "Freak of Nature" as Aaron Gleeman dubbed him last week. Maybe. Maybe it's still April, too. More importantly, simply saying that Soriano is an exception is not good sabermetrics (Yeah, like I would know what good sabermetrics is--but it's not good science). If the rules don't apply to Soriano, you have to find out why he's different, and maybe that the rules are--*GASP!*--wrong!

Not that I'm saying they are. But then, there's Soriano, hitting in the upper .300's, crushing balls over the wall. Maybe it's the fact that he's facing lesser pitchers, and we should wait until the Yankees are done with Seattle and Oakland to make a judgement, or even until the end of the season. Some have said that it's because he's batting leadoff, and getting better pitches to hit, though that would require discarding another sabermetric theory--that protection doesn't matter.

Here's my crackpot theory. Feel free to disregard it.

It's the bat.

No, it's not corked. Well, probably not. But that's not my point. I think it's too heavy.

See, my theory goes like this. Because of the extra weight of his bat, Soriano needs to start his swing a little earlier, and has less time to recognize a pitch. So, he gets fooled sometimes by the movement of a pitch, and swings through a ball in the strike zone, or a ball that drops out of it. Further, he swings at anything in the strike zone, since, like Vlad Guerrero, he can crush anything in the strike zone. Thus the low walks, thus the high strikeouts without fishing for stuff in the dirt. The way to get Soriano out is not to throw him lousy pitches, but to throw him great pitches. Of course, that's how to get everyone out, which is why Soriano isn't more prone to extended slumps than anyone else.

A lighter bat would probably cut back on his strikeouts with this theory, but not increase his walks. That would take a change of approach. And he really does need to change his approach, because as great as he has been, his value has been limited by the fact that he makes so many outs. An approach at the plate more like Barry Bonds (or at least Jason Giambi, although he's not a good example thus far, what with his slump), would not only lead to more walks, but better pitches to hit. That's a nice thought.

In other news, the Yankees beat the Mariners tonight, but almost blew it in the 8th because they insisted on using Acevedo and Hammond rather than bringing in Mariano Rivera. Yes, I understand that it's Rivera's first game back, so you might not trust him quite as much in a situation with runners on base as you normally would, but this is exactly what Bill James is talking about. You bring in your ace reliever with a four-run lead in the ninth, and leave your lesser relievers to get you out of a bases-loaded jam with a one-run lead in the eighth. How does that make any sense?

In a related story, the Red Sox have blown only one ninth-inning lead this season. The problem with the Sox's pen is the pitchers, not the system.