Tuesday, December 13, 2005

Prepare To Eat Crow, or Why The Sun Is An Infielder's Worst Enemy, Part 3

To hear some statheads (and even some traditional analysts) tell it, Alfonso Soriano is Hitler with a glove. Among the stathead community, especially, it's a competition to create new superlatives to describe his defensive play in a number-cruncher version of the "Your Momma's So Fat" jokes.

Soriano is a below average defensive second baseman. I'm not going to pretend he's not. But it's not like he's a left-handed thrower, or that he's completely immobile. But the perception, probably fueled by the typical "demonize at all costs" internet debating technique, is that he's better as a DH.

Soriano was a shortstop in the Yankees farm system. He ran into two problems, though. One was Derek Jeter's ring-covered fingers in the majors. The other was D'Angelo Jimenez playing next to him. The Yankees, who were higher on Soriano, figured that he'd have an easier path to the majors if he moved to second. He was never regarded as a particularly good defensive player, and there was frequent talk of switching positions. In fact, if Chuck Knoblauch didn't develop the throwing yips, Soriano would've started out as a left fielder.

Defensive statistics are sort of the last great unknown for statistical analysts. There are lots of problems with trying to assess players and isolate them from the team -- you'd need to make adjustments for opportunities, such as groundballs, strikeout rate, line drives, etc. There's a lot of noise in the statistics, and the most commonly accepted ones are crude. With most, it's like trying to paint a landscape with a wall brush. It works if you're Bob Ross, but most of us aren't Bob Ross.

The two defensive stats I trust (mostly because the explanations I've seen of them make sense, and because people who's opinions I respect vouch for them) are Baseball Prospectus' Rate2 stat, and MGL's Ultimate Zone Rating.

Both stats paint him as slightly below average fielder, but much closer to average than the butcher perception he has. In fact, he compares favorably with the pre-leg injury Jose Vidro, who was regarded as a decent fielder.

Last year's defensive stats were the worst of his career, but how much stock can you put into one year of evidence that's out of line with the rest of his career? Maybe he was injured? Maybe just disinterested? Maybe it's just random noise in the data?

Just throwing this one out there.... but his defensive reputation seems to have taken a nose-dive once he went to Texas. I wonder if some of that perception is a result of the infield in Texas, which, by all accounts, is lightning fast, thanks to the sun-baked earth. As a result, more groundballs (intensified by a Texas staff that yields more groundballs than most) would shoot through the infield just beyond Soriano's grasp. Throw in that Soriano has a very athletic body, and that he looks like he should be doing better than he is, and it might be a case of your eyes deceiving you into believing that he's worse than he really is. The defensive stats sort of point to that last 'fact', at least.

But as it stands, it's an academic debate anyway. Soriano is set to be a 7 next year, at least until Vidro breaks. Will he make a good outfielder? I don't know. He has excellent speed, and a nice long stride. But speed doesn't really make someone a great outfielder. Lou Brock, the all-time base stealer until Rickey!, was a horrible outfielder. He's had limited experience in the outfield, playing there in Spring Training before the Yankees liability insurance necessitated moving Knoblauch from second. I'm optimistic that he can be an average outfielder. If he does show an ability to read fly balls, his speed and RFK's spacious gaps will create quite a few outs.

Next time, I'll wrap it all up, and look at the trade itself.

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