|Wednesday, November 13
Looking back at Soriano's unique year
By John Sickels
Special to ESPN.com
In early May of 2002, I wrote the following note in my Down on the Farm Mailbag, in response to a question about Alfonso Soriano.
"Soriano is off to a really hot start this year, but his numbers will come to earth unless he improves his patience. Through 27 games, he has four walks and 31 strikeouts. That would put him on pace to draw 23 walks and fan 178 times in a 155-game campaign. If Alfonso Soriano hits .348/.372/.600, or anything close to that, with a BB/K ratio that dreadful, I'll eat my Kansas Jayhawk hat."
I've been thinking about whether to cook my Jayhawk Hat or eat it raw.
Soriano finished with exactly 23 walks in 156 games, though his strikeout rate dropped a bit as the season progressed, so he finished with 157 whiffs, 21 fewer than his early May numbers projected. His final numbers were .300/.332/.547., so he did lose about 40 points off his batting average and on-base percentage from his early-season numbers. But it was still an outstanding campaign, much better than I expected.
Not only was Soriano's season an outstanding one, it was also a unique one.
Since the end of the year, I've puzzled over Soriano's numbers, looking for something, anything, to explain how someone with strike zone judgment this bad could have a season this good. I took a quick look through ye olde baseball encyclopedia, looking for comparable seasons from other players.
I couldn't find any.
Flipping through a book was hardly a systemic search, however, so I decided that at some point in the next few weeks I would study the issue in more detail.
Late last week, I went to visit Bill James at his office here in Lawrence, Kansas. I needed to return some books to him, having finally finished the manuscript for my biography of Bob Feller, plus I wanted to congratulate him for his recent hiring by the Red Sox. I mentioned off-handedly that I couldn't think of anyone who'd had a similar season to Soriano's 2002 campaign. Neither Bill nor his assistant Matthew Namee could think of anyone off the top of their heads, either.
I left Bill's office, went to downtown Lawrence for a cup of coffee and an oatmeal cookie, then picked up my son from art class.
Returning home, I discovered that Bill and Matthew had used an electronic sabermetric encyclopedia to study the issue, and had sent me a file, via e-mail, with what they'd found. Bill has given me permission to write this up. I take credit only for asking the question; Bill and Matthew did the research. Here is what Bill wrote me:
"Alfonso's season is unprecedented; there has never been a player who was this productive with this bad a strikeout/walk ratio. Matthew and I both got out the Sabermetric Encyclopedia and generated lists of players with high strikeouts, low walks and high runs created. I generated a list of the top 2,000 players in history in runs created with 40 or fewer walks ... there were actually 2,065 of them. I then ranked those 2,065 players 1 through 2,065 in runs created, and 1 through 2,065 in strikeout/walk ratio. I then added them up, for "total points" in this combination. Alfonso was the number one man on the list, followed by two guys in Coors Field (Galarraga in 1996 and Dante Bichette in 1995), then Kirby Puckett in 1988, then Galarraga again in 1988."
I don't have room to post the complete list here, but here is the Top 10, plus a couple of other guys tacked on.
Of the list of 102 player seasons on the list Bill sent me, Soriano had the worst K/BB ratio of the bunch, but he ranked ninth in runs created.
Of the 102 player seasons on the list, only three, Soriano/2002, Juan Samuel/1984, and Garry Templeton/1979, had K/BB ratios worse than 5.
Only two players on the list struck out more often than Soriano did.
72 of the 102 player seasons were produced by outfielders or first baseman.
However you look at that, Soriano's 2002 combination of excellent run production and horrific strike zone judgment is unique in the annals of major league history. His K/BB ratio last year was almost 7. Among players who actually had good years, only Samuel's 6.000 mark of 1984 comes close, and Samuel created "just" 100 runs that year.
What this means for Soriano's future, I can't hazard a guess. He's already better than I thought he'd be. The most similar players to Soriano on the list, when you consider all aspects of play including athleticism, defense, and speed, are probably Samuel and Templeton, both remarkable physical talents who never developed into consistent players. But Soriano is already better right now than they ever were, and he's still just 24.
I think what we have here is a player whose natural tools are so great that they allow him to overcome what would otherwise be critical, if not fatal, flaws in his game. The scary thing about Soriano is if you consider how good he may yet become. Adding a bit more refinement to his game could take him to historic heights. Check that; he's already at historic heights. Adding refinement could keep him there, or push the envelope even further upward.
I've never had barbequed Jayhawk hat before. I'll let you know how it tastes.
John Sickels is the author of the 2002 STATS Minor League Scouting Notebook. He is currently writing a biography of Bob Feller. He lives in Lawrence, Kansas, with his wife, son, and two cats. You can send John questions or comments at JASickels@aol.com, or you can visit his homepage at hometown.aol.com/jasickels/page1.html.