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.


  • C'mon Chris, we all know Soriano flashes better leather than Hitler, but I'd be interested to find out if Alf is a better defensive 2B than former semi-pro baller (and Senators try-out invitee) Fidel Castro.

    By Blogger Nate, at 12/13/2005 3:30 PM  

  • Soriano's RAA2 for his career is 91, which is hardly a little below average. It is awful. In fact, it is the worst of all 2005 starting second basemen other than Iguchi, who was a rookie last year.

    2005 RATE2 Career RATE2

    O. Hudson 113 114
    Polanco 111 108
    Belliard 109 99
    Ellis 108 101
    L. Castilla 107 98
    C. Counsell 107 108
    Giles 106 109
    Miles 105 101
    Cairo 105 99
    J. Castillo 99 99
    Utley 99 102
    Grudz. 99 98
    Bellhorn 98 98
    Loretta 97 107
    Cano 97 97
    Biggio 96 96
    Kent 95 98
    B.Boone 95 102
    Durham 95 102
    Weeks 94 92
    Vidro 94 93
    Gotay 94 96
    T. Walker 93 94
    Green 93 99
    Iguchi 88 88
    Soriano 83 91

    Yes, Soriano was the worst starting second basemen in the majors last year. Over their careers, the only player worse is Iguchi, a rookie from a foreign land. Just how bad is Soriano's Rate? Over his five year career, his defense has cost his team -65 runs. Guys that bad with the glove usually don't stay at second base no matter how they hit.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 12/13/2005 5:19 PM  

  • Thanks for posting the numbers. One thing I'll argue strenuously with, though, is that there's a damn bit of difference between someone with a 91 and a 94. There's too much noise, and too much gray area to state that there's a difference there.

    Soriano's in a class with a pre-knee injury Vidro, Todd Walker, and, apparently, Rickie Weeks.

    His defense isn't good, but if teams can live with Vidro and Walker, they can probably live with Soriano.

    By Blogger Chris Needham, at 12/13/2005 5:24 PM  

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