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September 16, 2003

by Larry Mahnken

Way back in April, when I started this blog, I wrote about Alfonso Soriano. Okay, I've been doing a lot of that since I started writing this blog, as well as writing about Derek Jeter's defense, the Bullpen of Horrors, Joe Torre, Aaron Boone, Raul Mondesi, Juan Acevedo and violence against inanimate objects.

But at the time, I wrote about Soriano's defiance of all that statheads had predicted would happen to him. Now, at the time, Soriano was hitting .371, on a pace to hit 54 HRs, had an OPS of 1.088, while having only drawn 5 unintentional walks in 138 PAs. Players who walk so few times and strike out so often simply don't put up those numbers. It's not just rare--it's never happened.

Of course, it still hasn't happened, and it won't happen this year. Soriano hit two homers today to enter the 30/30 club for the second straight year, but his production has dropped off considerably, and is, in fact, very close to what statistics projected at the start of the season. Baseball Prospectus' new projection system, PECOTA, expected these numbers before the season:

2003 Pace6861973743437130379.287.334.501.835

He's walked a bit more, hit fewer doubles, and been far more effective at stealing bases than PECOTA thought, but those numbers are really close. Does that mean that the statheads were right? Well, no--an .835 OPS is still pretty good for a second baseman. It's more a validation of PECOTA than anything else--and surely something you'll see as a prime example of it's quality in next year's Baseball Prospectus.

What Alfonso Soriano represents to me is the crux of the differences between traditional analysis and sabermetric analysis. Traditional analysists look at Alfonso Soriano and see that he is a player with tremendous power combined with great speed--a rare combo, too be sure. They see that he is more talented in more ways than almost any other player, and for that they number him amongst the elite.

Sabermetric analysists look at Soriano and see his value. They don't care how he did it, but what he did. For all his talent, Alfonso Soriano is still an .835 OPS hitter, which is good, but not great. But traditional analysts, when they look at the stats, don't care for OPS or even OBP. They see a man hitting .287, 31 HRs and 78 RBI with 33 SBs, and they see an elite player.

30/30 is an impressive feat, to be sure, but it is similar to hitting for the cycle. While all the parts are crucial to the acheivement, they are not equally important to winning ballgames, which is, obviously, the point of playing. That Alfonso Soriano could hit so many home runs and steal so many bases is notable, but it doesn't make him better than any other player with an .835 OPS. The problem is that Alfonso Soriano's acheivement isn't viewed objectively, it's viewed as proof of his greatness. People are afraid to change his approach at the plate because of the HRs he hits, afraid that by tinkering they'll break him. What he is now is good, but he could be great. But the price of complacency isn't just the loss of potential greatness, but the risk that if his approach remains the same, he'll collapse completely, and become worthless. The Yankees should be proactive with Soriano, dropping him down in the lineup, insisting that he work the count and look for his pitch, slapping him around a little in the dugout after he swings at three pitches in the dirt. By remaining complacent, they've developed a hitter who is incredibly streaky, and makes more outs than any other player in baseball (making him, of course, the ideal leadoff hitter).

Alfonso Soriano is still only 25 years old, he's not an established veteran, he's a young player not yet in his prime, and he has much to learn. All he needs is someone to teach him.