Throw It Like a Ballplayer

providing baseball commentary and ponderings since April 2010

The Resurgent Alfonso Soriano

Posted by dannmckeegan on April 28, 2010

Soriano, 2010

Alfonso Soriano follows through after making contact. 2010 has been friendly in that regard for Sori.

Having the luxury of living in Chicago and seeing (or occasionally listening to) almost every inning of the Cubs season so far, I have to say that Alfonso Soriano is looking like a much different hitter in the box than he has for the better part of his first three seasons with the club.  He has been a much more patient hitter than in the past, forcing pitchers to work into the count against him.  This being the first season he’s been out of the leadoff spot from the season’s commencement, it’s no surprise that he’s had to change to be effective.  The bigger surprises are that he’s actually done so and that the NL’s pitchers have been there to help him.

A disappointing 2009 season where Soriano found himself among the many Cubs negatives and an off-season knee surgery later, there are some interesting changes afoot, albeit in a small sample size.  These changes involve Soriano’s role on the team first and foremost.  In 20 team games, Soriano has hit 6th in the order in all 17 games in which he has started.  He has primarily hit behind Marlon Byrd and ahead of Mike Fontenot, though Geovany Soto and Jeff Baker also have a few start behind him in the seven spot.  Given the initial struggles of Lee and Ramirez at 3 and 4, it’s largely been Byrd and Soriano who have seen run-producing opportunities.

Exploring Correlates to the Small Sample

Neither Soriano’s .295 batting average (.333 BABIP) nor his .525 slugging is really outlandish in the early season and after 69 plate appearances.  However, a 362 on-base percentage is very high for Alfonso.  This is a guy who only three times has exceeded 40 walks in a season.  Something has happened not only to how Soriano approaches his plate appearances, but also how pitchers are approaching him.

source: Fangraphs’ Pitch Type data
Alfonso Soriano – Pitch Information, Career vs. 2010 Fastball Slider Curveball Change
2010 39.4 19.7 18.2 15.2
Career 52.5 20.6 12.7 9.8

As we can see, Soriano is seeing a 60/40 split against four- and two-seam fastballs.  Breaking and off-speed pitches are the preferred method of attack now.  In large part because of a reluctance to throw Soriano fastballs, pitchers have forfeited their primary advantage.  That is, pitchers have historically gained a first pitch strike against Soriano in 60% of his plate appearances.  So far in 2010, with an eighth of the season already complete, Soriano has lowered that rate to a career-best 48%.  Two factors contribute to this: first, Alfonso’s swinging strike rate is at a career-best level; second, and more strikingly, only 39% of the pitches he’s seen have been in the strike zone.  Soriano’s contact rate on swings outside the zone is up from 50% career to 60% in 2010 and from 85% to 91% on swings inside the zone.

Pitchers refuse to throw Soriano strikes and fastballs.  Soriano shows a level of patience never before exhibited in his career.  Soriano sees 0.82 pitches more per PA than he has over the course of his career prior to 2010.  As of right now, Soriano exploits the situation and thrives, with the Cubs as beneficiaries.

Breaking down Soriano’s 2010 splits, the first Wow Stat is that Soriano has had 36 PA after a 1-0 count against 28 after an 0-1 count.  Soriano also has excelled so far with men on base.  While his .282 BA and .862 OPS with the bases empty (43 PA) is certainly good, Soriano’s stats jump to .318 and .930 with men on (26 PA) and .333 and .972 with RISP (12 PA).  And when talking about Alfonso Soriano, we would be remiss not to consider his walks and strikeouts, some of his more defining characteristics.  To date, Soriano has amassed 12 strikeouts against 7 bases on balls.

We have to assume that Soriano will be losing some of his playing time as the season progresses because of Tyler Colvin’s advancement.  So starting 17 out of 20 games might be as high a rate of lineup presence as he’ll have.  Assuming that he plays 3 games out of 4 the rest of the way, he’ll tally about 125 starts and 500 PA.  Soriano would then be on pace for 90 strikeouts and 50 walks.  The first question is how long will it take the rest of the National League to adjust to the new, patient and discerning Soriano?  The second question, though, is more pressing: Will Soriano regress to his old impatience and free-swinging nature if he hits on a slump?

Adjusting to the Adjustments

Let’s take a look at some past trends and results to get a bit more thorough an understanding of Soriano’s shortcomings (and strengths) as a hitter.

If we look back at Alfonso Soriano’s entire MLB career, we see an interesting trend in his experience at the plate.  While data is not available for Soriano’s 2001 rookie season, we see a similar long-term shift in pitch type breakdown from 2002 to 2005 in the American League and from 2006 through 2009 in the National League.

source: Fangraphs’ Pitch Type data
Year Fastball Slider/Curve Cutter Change/Split Year Fastball Slider/Curve Cutter Change/Split
2002 55.4 33 N/A 10.5 2006 54.1 31.4 2.3 11.6
2003 57.0 30.0 N/A 11.2 2007 54.0 33.1 2.9 10.0
2004 52.4 31.9 1.6 13.1 2008 53.2 33.8 3.1 9.9
2005 47.9 36.8 2.7 11.6 2009 46.0 36.9 6.3 10.7

In his first years in either league for which pitch data is available, the majority of pitches to Soriano were fastballs. Each league slowly adjusted to the scouting report: Soriano can kill a fastball, but struggles with anything off speed. The breaking increase is largely an increase in sliders, not curves, as the simple prevalence of sliders in pitchers’ repertoires is greater than that of a real curve. The rate of changes and splits, the deception pitches, remained somewhat steady over time.

Soriano is a free swinger. Two out of every three pitches to Soriano have been strikes over the course of his career. We could break these strikes down into four categories: strikes looking, strikes swinging, foul balls, and balls in play. Thankfully, Baseball-Reference.com has already done this for us:

source: Baseball-Reference.com’s Pitch Summary data
Looking Swinging Foul In Play Pct. Strikes Swinging Pct. Pitches Swung At Contact Pct.
Soriano, career 20 20 30 30 80 53 75
MLB averages 27 14 27 31 73 45 80

He swings significantly more than league average, misses significantly more pitches than the average, and is much less likely to take a strike; however he has statistically comparable rates of fouling balls off and putting balls in play. There are a couple of interesting calculations we can make using these numbers:

source:Baseball-Reference.com’s Pitch Summary data
Swing Rate Contact Rate In Play Rate Strike Rate Contact Rate on All Pitches In Play Rate on All Pitches
Soriano 53 75 30 66 39.8 19.8
League Avg. 45 80 31 62 36 19.2

So Soriano actually has, historically, made a bit more contact on all pitches than league average, while significantly more of that contact has been foul than fair. Given Soriano’s high career strikeout and low career walk rates (21.9% strikeout to 5.8% walk, according to Fangraphs), we get a well-rounded view of the downside of Soriano’s game. A further look at the Fangraphs Plate Discipline register shows that he has swung at a third of the pitches he’s seen outside of the strike zone, making contact on half of those swings. Meanwhile, he makes contact on 85% of his swings inside the zone, which occur on three-fourths of the in-zone strikes.

Most striking is the difference between the two-thirds strikes data from Baseball-Reference and Fangraphs’ data pointing out that only 50% of the pitches Soriano has seen since 2002 have been inside the strike zone. He also has had a first pitch strike on 60% of his career plate appearances.

Closing Thoughts

Despite all of this, Soriano has been a largely effective offensive player. His .278/.326/.510 triple slash alongside a .306 BABIP through 2009 are, of course, the numbers of a decent middle-of-the-order hitter, not the leadoff man he had largely been. In fact, 38% of his career RBI entering 2010 have been himself, with only 760 RBI on 290 home runs. It’s easy to forget, too, that from 2001 through 2009, he averaged 37 doubles, 32 home runs and 28 steals to go along with a less-inspiring 2.5:1 strikeout to walk ratio.

As Soriano ages over these remaining 5 years of his contract, he likely will continue to regress in the outfield and running the bases.  Legs always seem to go early, and Soriano has often used his athleticism to overcome shortcomings in what might be called “baseball IQ.”  But the beginnings of 2010 ought to give us a moment of pause.  Soriano is not, all of a sudden, a brand new man at the plate.  He is simply taking advantage of what pitchers are giving him.

Soriano is still owed $95mm through 2014, when he will be 38 years old.  Swings slow down over time, and aging sluggers find themselves more and more familiar with the warning track.  Soriano is largely reliant on fly balls, as opposed to line drives, and thus seemingly more vulnerable to Father Time.  But the little changes that Soriano is now hinting at after a decade of stubborn impatience are worth more than a passing glance.

Soriano will not produce at a level consistent with $19mm per year for 5 years.  However, if he can make some minor adjustments and force pitchers to throw him fastballs and strikes, he can remain an effective offensive player in the middle-lower portion of an NL lineup.  Whether he will improve or continue to decline in the field is anyone’s guess.  But he does have the tools to earn something close to his keep.  Forty percent fastballs and 50% strikes won’t get it done against him, apparently.

Soriano’s strengths will be an interesting short-term trend to follow.

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