You Can’t Outrun Age, Alfonso

A very interesting article appeared on the Chicago Sun-Times website last night, discussing the defensive struggles and development of 36-year old Cubs left fielder Alfonso Soriano. The Cubs, under their new baseball operations team, made a concerted effort to “teach” Soriano to be a better outfielder, using a battery of drills to improve his outfield play.

Which is weird because, statistically, Alfonso Soriano was once one of the very best outfielders in baseball.

One quote from the Sun-Times piece really stands out in comparison to the statistical support readily available to baseball fans:

Then there’s the 36-year-old Soriano, who has looked out of position in the outfield ever since the Washington Nationals moved him there in 2006.

Maybe so, but the numbers for Soriano’s 2007 season suggest a very different story. In more than 1000 innings in left field that year, Soriano saved 17 runs according to Baseball Info Solutions “Defensive Runs Saved”, making him one of the very best in the game. He posted an eye-popping +32 UZR that year, the highest single season in the short history of the divisive stat. His arm graded out spectacularly in this season using both systems, with UZR loving his range just as much.

The following season, 2008, Soriano posted more pedestrian DRS numbers (just +2 runs, most of which credited to his arm) but UZR loved him all the same. Starting in 2009, his defensive numbers take a turn for the worse, as his range seems to all but dry up and his arm is barely league average. Below are his baseball reference Sabermetric Fielding numbers. Not quite as glowing as the Fangraphs versions, they still show a once great outfielder who quickly fell off a cliff. How can this be?

Consider another quote from the same CST piece, this one from the man himself.

‘‘They just put me out there, and I had to figure it out,’’ said Soriano, who still throws like an infielder but finally has gotten rid of the unnecessary hop on routine fly balls that has led to two errors with the Cubs. ‘‘When people were taking BP, I’d just shag. That’s how I worked on it.”

Unnerving as it is to consider a Major League team just stuck a highly paid player in the outfield rot, it does somewhat explain his early proficiency and sudden dropoff.

Alfonso Soriano was a great player and athlete thrust into a new role. He wasn’t properly schooled in how to play the position but, as a great athlete in a “minimally challenging” defensive role, he just outran balls in the outfield for a few years. Not pretty, as any Cubs fan will attest, but effective enough via little more than sheer athleticism, which, as he reached age 33 or so, went away. As did his ability to play the field in a non-terrible way.

Now the Cubs most wring whatever value than can from their rapidly ageing investment. The new braintrust is able, with fresh eyes, to see the shortcomings in Soriano’s defensive game and, with any luck, make a few tweaks to address them.

Whether this speaks to the inaccuracy of our current crop of fielding statistics or new school of thought about defense, I’m not sure. The stats aren’t foolproof but when they agree across the board, it suggests Soriano wasn’t totally lost out there, especially 5-6 years ago when his legs were young and spry. The Cubs seem enthused with the improvements Soriano showed this spring, minus a slight aversion to wallbanging.

Now…if they can only do something about his bat.