The Autumn of Alfonso Soriano

Alfonso Soriano’s recent hot streak has made him the subject of trade rumors as teams looking to strengthen their offense may be interested in the slugging Cubs outfielder. If Soriano gets traded, he will join his fifth big league team and maybe even stay hot the rest of the season and help a contending team win a championship. If this happens it will be the latest chapter in an intriguing career for a player who has generally been anywhere from frustratingly disappointing to very good.

By the time he is finished playing, Soriano will probably have over 400 career home runs, between 250-300 stolen bases, over 2,000 hits and seven All-Star game appearances. Nonetheless, taken as a whole, Soriano’s career is still probably viewed by many as falling short of expectations. Soriano, who is now basically simply a home run hitting outfielder, did not start his career that way. Soriano began as a shortstop with impressive power and speed, but some questions about his defense. However, he also began his career in an organization which already had a pretty good shortstop, Derek Jeter, who was only a few years older than Soriano.

As a young player, Soriano had a very unusual collection of skills, but one which the Yankees could not use properly. Soriano was a decent fielder, but was not going to move Derek Jeter off of shortstop. He also had great speed, but his on base percentage was not good enough for him to be a true leadoff hitter. Additionally, he hit for a lot of power; but perhaps because of his speed and because he was primarily a middle infielder, during his Yankee years, Soriano was largely miscast as a leadoff hitter. He was the Yankees primary leadoff hitter in 2002 and 2003 despite hitting 39 and 38 home runs and posting on base percentages of .332 and .338 respectively. In those two years, Jeter and Nick Johnson both had higher on base percentages and less power than Soriano, making them more reasonable choices for leadoff.

Soriano continued to bat leadoff for much of his career. As late as 2008 and 2009, Soriano was the Cubs’ primary leadoff hitter despite hitting 29 and 20 home runs with OBPs of .344 and .303. While the young Soriano was cast as a leadoff hitter, largely because he looked like one, the question of why he continued to play this role well into his 30s is more puzzling. Soriano’s poor strike zone judgment meant that he was never going to become a good leadoff hitter, while his power was often wasted in the leadoff spot. In 2006-7, for example, when he batted leadoff in most of his team’s games, Soriano hit a total of 79 home runs while driving in only 165 runs. Not surprisingly, Soriano is one of only eight players in baseball history with more than 300 home runs and fewer than 1,000 RBIs.

Ironically Soriano’s secondary skill, his speed, obscured his primary skill, his power, for most of his career — contributing to him being misused. Similarly, had he spent more time as a below average defensive infielder he might have been better because his offense would have been more valuable had he been an infielder. Soriano was probably never going to make it as a shortstop, but had he switched to second base, third base or center field, and stayed there over the course of his career, his career value would have been greater.

Soriano also had some bad luck throughout his career. Had, for example, Jeter not been entrenched as the Yankee shortstop at the turn of the century, Soriano might have been given more of a chance to play in the big leagues at his first position. Soriano also hit what appeared to be the winning home run in game seven of the 2001 World Series. His solo home run off of Curt Schilling leading off the 8th inning of that game put the Yankees ahead 2-1. The Yankees were unable to hold that lead so Soriano’s shot has been forgotten by most, but had the Yankees held on to the lead Soriano gave them it is possible that Soriano’s career, and perceptions of him, might have been different. The Yankees might not have traded him; or at the least, Soriano would have earned a reputation as a good clutch hitter which would have also framed perceptions of him.

Soriano is winding down a career that will feel much more impressive in retrospect than it did at the time. Soriano was never quite the superstar some thought he would become because his game had too many holes and too many things at which he was not quite good enough, but when the incongruity between his tools and appearance on one hand, and his numbers and skills on the other, fade into the past, he will be more likely to be remembered as the very good player he has been.