2012 Player Profile: Alfonso Soriano
2012 Positions Played: LF (96%), DH (4%)
2012 Batting (AVG/OBP/SLG): .263/.317/.504 in 583 PA
2012 Wins Above Replacement (Fangraphs): 3.8
2013 Contract Status: Signed (through 2014)
Last summer, Vine Line ran a cover story about Alfonso Soriano titled “Play It Forward,” which talked about the mentorship the veteran outfielder was providing young teammates like Starlin Castro. An underlying premise was that as Soriano’s numbers decline—as is generally expected with athletes in their 30s—an increasing portion of his value would be derived from his leadership. And there were very specific ways Soriano demonstrated that in the Cubs clubhouse, where he’s revered as one of the team’s hardest workers.
It turns out a different premise may better apply to Soriano this season. With the right instruction, there’s a lot he still can do on and off the field.
Soriano’s biggest improvement in 2012 has undoubtedly been on the defensive side, where he’s simply made a number of catches he either wouldn’t have attempted or wouldn’t have successfully corralled before. He singles out First Base Coach Dave McKay, who put him through a season-long defensive boot camp that Soriano had never before received—not even when he was first moved to left field by the Nationals in 2006. McKay buzzes around batting practice every day to work with the outfielders on their catching and throwing fundamentals, and Soriano has been as much a beneficiary as many rookies. Whether you use advanced metrics, standard putouts or your eyes, Soriano’s making more outs in the field than he has since his first year with the Cubs. His arm seems improved across all three evaluation methods, as well.
At the plate, Soriano has recovered from a poor 2011. His 31 home runs rank fifth in the National League, and he’s the team’s leader in on-base plus slugging percentage (although Anthony Rizzo has a similarly valuable half-season when adjusted for the relative importance of on-base percentage). Soriano has struck out more frequently this season (25.4 percent of PAs) than in any other year of his career, but he has traded that for more power and a slightly higher batting average. PITCHf/x data shows Soriano continues to feast on low pitches, including those slightly out of the zone.
But perhaps as crucial as anything else has been Soriano’s ability to stay healthy. The graph to the right shows a potential relationship between his offensive performance and his games missed due to injury (according to Baseball Prospectus’ excellent database). In an up-and-down past four years, Soriano has hit his best in seasons in which he has avoided the disabled list entirely, including 2010 and 2012. Last year, he was hobbled by a quadriceps strain, and his knee required surgery in 2009.* Both seasons were by far his worst at the plate in a Cubs uniform. Those ailments continue to bother him to some extent, but he has once again been a dependable part of the daily lineup.
The Cubs have Soriano under contract for two more seasons, and whether it be through his leadership, his offense or his defense, the 36-year-old outfielder will be an important bridge to any future stars the organization successfully develops.
*Soriano’s injuries in 2007 and 2008 also involved various leg muscles, though he missed 34 games in ’08 due to a hit by pitch that broke a bone in his left hand.