Alfonso Soriano: A Smarter, More Experienced Approach?

A year after one of his worst seasons as a pro, one of the last remaining Cubs veterans has turned in a bounce-back season, driving in a ton of runs and anchoring a young team. What’s behind Soriano’s improvement?

Alfonso Soriano

 

One of the few bright spots in the Cubs’ Epstein-Hoyer Year One has been the re-emergence of extremely expensive vet Alfonso Soriano as one of their stars—called it, sort of. He’s never been one to take a pitch, but last year he declined to an atrocious .289 on-base percentage, 10th-worst among players with at least 500 plate appearances, down in the ranks of fellow disappointments like Carl Crawford and Alex Rios, among replacement-level scruffs like Yuniesky Betancourt and Alex Gonzalez. This year he’s eighth in the major leagues in RBI, no small feat given his teammates’ inability to get on base; on a team that walked with more regularity, he might be in the top five.

Whether or not this means Soriano could give the Cubs another season of veteran reliability or just makes him more moveable in the off-season remains to be seen, but it’s kept the Cubs under another gruesome century mark, provided they don’t get swept by the awful Astros (Soriano has been worth 4.3 wins over replacement, according to Fangraphs, the plausible difference between two- and three-digit losses).

What happened? He’s walking a bit more, but he’s also striking out a bit more. The big difference is that he’s making hits instead out outs: last year his batting average on balls in play was a terrible .266, this year it’s a healthy .305. A look at what pitches he’s tried to hit this year suggests he’s laying off bad pitches, hitting good ones, and concentrating on the pitches he’s best at hitting.

* Last year Soriano swung at 55 percent of all the pitches he saw; this year it’s 50 percent.

* Last year he swung at 44 percent of balls outside the strike zone; this year, 37 percent. Meanwhile, the percentage of balls in the zone he swung at barely dipped: 68.8 to 67.2 percent.

* The percentage of balls outside the strike zone Soriano actually made contact with dropped from 60.4 to 54.8 percent.

Here’s the perspective on Soriano’s awful 2011 from the catcher’s eye in terms of swing rate, using the great PITCHf/x tool from Baseball Prospectus and BrooksBaseball.net:

And 2012:

Alfonso Soriano strike zone

Comparatively speaking, he’s laid off high and outside pitches, and gone after low and inside pitches. He’s still going after pitches outside the zone, but he’s been more likely to go after the ones he can hit well. Here’s his slugging percentage from 2007-2012, broken down by pitch location:

Take the high and outside part of the strike zone, for example. When Soriano hits the ball there, he doesn’t hit it very well. In 2011, he swung at 59.6 percent of those pitches; in 2012, 47.1 percent. On the other hand, he hits low, inside, and out of the strike zone pitches well. And in that area that he hits best, he actually increased his swing rate. It’s a not a vastly more patient approach, though it’s slightly more patient, and it’s not one that’s caused him to strike out less frequently. More importantly, it’s an approach tailored to his strengths as a hitter.

 

Photograph: Chicago Tribune

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