Soriano’s Slowing Lumber

Splashy free agent signings can be alluring for major league clubs. Well-known sluggers are there for the taking, if the price is right. GM’s envision the player popping homers, taking curtain calls and making the pact look like a stroke of genius.

While there are bargains to be found on the free agent market, there are also potential landmines. By definition, the players have six years or more of major league service time, and may well be reaching the end of their peaks. The high-end players offer no discounts: teams are going to pay full-price for their talents.

Too often, GM’s act like impulsive shoppers toting high-limit credit cards. They want the player now. Instant gratification comes at the expense of inking a player past the point at which any real projection of his contributions can be made.

Case in point: Alfonso Soriano. A free-swinger with plenty of thunder in his bat, Soriano hit the free agent market after the 2006 season. He was coming off of his finest campaign in the majors, compiling 5.5 Wins Above Replacement. Soriano blasted the ball for a .377 wOBA, and his transition from second base to the outfield went swiftly.

The Cubs salivated at the prospect of adding an established star to the team’s roster. The North Siders came to terms with Alfonso (31 years old entering the ’07 season), giving him a whopping eight-year, $136M deal.

Soriano’s tenure with the Cubs started off well, as he again compiled 5.5 WAR in 2007 (worth $22.4M). His bat remained strong, with a .380 wOBA. Soriano missed some time with a quadriceps injury, but his first year in Chicago was fruitful.

The righty bopper endured more injury problems in 2008. A calf strain shelved him in April, and then a freak injury broke his hand, keeping him out of commission for nearly two months. Soriano’s lumber was good as ever when he took the field, though, with a .374 wOBA. He posted 3.1 WAR, worth $13.8M on the free agent market.

2009, however, was a different story. A bum left knee plagued Soriano, eventually making him call it quits in early September to get arthroscopic surgery.

He took his customary hack-tastic approach to the dish, swinging at 37 percent of pitches thrown outside of the strike zone (25% MLB average). Soriano swung at 72.2% of pitches within the zone, well above the 65.9% MLB average.

Soriano made more contact than usual on those in-zone offerings, with a Z-Contact% of 87.2 (84.9% average for Alfonso since 2002). But the contact that he made was weaker. Alfonso hammered pitchers for ISO’s of .261 in 2007 and .252 in 2008. In ’09, that figure dipped to .182. His home run/fly ball rate, 15.8% in ’07 and 17.1% in ’08, was a mundane 11.5% this past year.

Over the years, pitchers have been reluctant to feed Soriano fastballs. And for good reason: he has clubbed heaters for a run value of +1.94 per 100 pitches since 2002. By contrast, Soriano has a Pedro Cerrano-like -0.86 run value versus sliders and -0.42 against curveballs. He continued to hit fastballs well in 2009, if not at the prodigious rate of years past (+0.83 runs/100 pitches).

However, opposing hurlers gave him fewer fastballs than ever before. Soriano was challenged with a fastball just 46 percent of the time, the second-lowest rate among batters with 500+ PA (Ryan Howard was first).

Soriano saw the second-highest percentage of sliders among hitters, getting a hard breaking ball nearly a quarter of the time. He flailed to the tune of -1.06 runs/100 pitches. Of course, that looks downright impressive next to his -2.68 mark against curveballs. Alfonso generally holds his own against changeups (+0.17 runs/100 since ’02), but he got tangled up when pitchers pulled the string in 2009 (-1.71 runs/100).

With an aching knee, Soriano stole just nine bases in 11 attempts. His Speed Score has fallen precipitously since he inked that gargantuan contract: 6.3 in 2007, 4.8 in 2008 and 4.4 in 2009 (the MLB average is around five). Another sign of Soriano’s slowing legs: his UZR/150 in left field has gone from +18.4 in ’07, +2.5 in ’08 and -11.6 in ’09.

In all, Soriano posted a career-worst .314 wOBA, with a .241/.303/.423 triple-slash. The shoddy hitting, coupled with his stationary D, resulted in -0.8 WAR (Soriano made $16M for that sub-replacement-level play).

He might have been a little unlucky on balls put in play. Soriano’s BABIP was .280, compared to his .309 career average. According to this expected BABIP tool from The Hardball Times, Alfonso’s rate of HR’s, K’s, stolen bases, line drives, fly balls, grounders and pop ups suggest that his BABIP should have been about .305. That would improve his line to .266/.328/.448 (that’s assuming all hits were singles). Better, but still a far cry from his established level of play.

The Cubs made an all-too-common mistake in signing Soriano until his age-38 season. The organization put down bug bucks on Alfonso’s performance level at the time, paying him as if his skill set would remain unchanged well past the point at which it was reasonable to assume such a thing.

Now, the club is burdened with an $18M-a-year player for the next five seasons, a player nearing his mid 30’s with a troublesome pattern of leg maladies. Perhaps an off-season of rest and rehabilitation will do wonders for Soriano’s aching body. But fantasy players shouldn’t bet a high-round pick on such a scenario. Soriano could bounce back somewhat in 2010, but age and injuries may have robbed him of his once-elite power/speed combo.





A recent graduate of Duquesne University, David Golebiewski is a contributing writer for Fangraphs, The Pittsburgh Sports Report and Baseball Analytics. His work for Inside Edge Scouting Services has appeared on ESPN.com and Yahoo.com, and he was a fantasy baseball columnist for Rotoworld from 2009-2010. He recently contributed an article on Mike Stanton's slugging to The Hardball Times Annual 2012. Contact David at david.golebiewski@gmail.com and check out his work at Journalist For Hire.

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I was thinking a while back that some kind of Zito for Soriano exchange might be worthwhile, but Zito’s pretty much stabilized at “somewhat valuable”, and Soriano seems to have fallen off a cliff. Also, the Giants need OBP, which has never been Soriano’s strong suit. I wonder if there are any good white elephant exchanges that Soriano could fall into…