Alfonso Soriano is Carrying the Chicago Cubs: Stop trying to kick out his legs

Posted on April 7, 2011


Alfonso Soriano has three of the five home runs the Chicago Cubs have hit this season, and has driven in five runs in total. He is batting .273/.333/.682 through the first six games, trailing only Starlin Castro for the team lead in OPS. All of that comes in a tiny sample size, of course, but the man is the best surprise of the Cubs’ season so far.

Yet, at Wrigley Field, day after day, he gets abuse. It was so last year, too, even as he enjoyed a resurgence to 24 homers and 79 RBI and played more games in one season (147) than he ever ha dbefore in a Cubs uniform. Soriano, perceived as a miserable fielder and general slouch, is the scapegoat of a generation for frustrated Cubs fans. They boo him relentlessly, and even when he triumphs, he gets little positive feedback: His homer on Wednesday bagainst Arizona drew tepid applause, especially compared to Aramis Ramirez‘s two-run bomb.

Fans who accuse Soriano of being a bad left fielder are not wrong, per se: His hands are awful. He gets to more balls than the average fielder but fumbles them far too often. Still, he does not deserve this level of ridicule.

On Wednesday, for example, Arizona’s Chris Young stepped to the plate with a runenr on first base. He hit a sinking line drive to center field, a ball on which center fielder Marlon Byrd never had a chance. Yet, Byrd gave up his feet in a typically all-out physical effort. He missed and the ball bounded by him into deep center field. As soon as Byrd left his feet, Young had a triple.

Soriano had been playing Young deep and down the line, per Young’s profile, so even at full gait, it took him a while to retrieve the ball. When he got there, his warts showed, as he tried to grab the ball too quickly and booted it. Byt the time he could corral it and throw the ball in, Young had circled the bases. An error was assessed, but that was only the beginning. Fans booed Soriano in a fool’s Tabernacle chorus. His blunder cost the Cubs 90 feet; Byrd’s misjudgment cost them 180 and the run that had scored ahead of Young. Yet Soriano got the guff for the miscue. Go figure.

Later in the game, Young came up again with a man on base and clubbed a deep drive down the left-field line. Soriano ahd been playing him around toward center field this time, so it was a long run into the well, but Soriano tracked the ball into the unfurnished vines near the left-field foul pole and got a glove on the ball above his head. Unfortunately, it popped out, and fell to the ground for a double. Soriano grabbed it cleanly from there this time and fired a great relay throw to Castro, giving the shortstop every chance to get the advancing runner at home plate. Castro’s throw was a bit lacking, taking an odd bounce before bouncing off the mitt of catcher Geovany Soto. As the ball skittered away, Young reached third base with just one out.

Again, Soriano heard the boos. He had nearly made an excellent play, and while you would love to see him hold onto that ball, not one other regular left fielder the Cubs have had since Doug Glanville in 1997 even gets to that ball. Castro’s spiked throw and Soto’s poor demonstration of blocking the plate cost the Cubs either an out or a base, and Ryan Dempster gave up the 350-foot shot down the left field line. In any other big-league park, that would have been yet another home run surrendered by Dempster. Yet Soriano ehard the boos.

Okay, so Cubs fans have objections to Soriano that run deeper than Wednesday’s game. Fine, let’s discuss all of them, and dismiss all of them, because they’re all stupid.

1. He poses after home runs.

Sammy Sosa hopped. Aramis Ramirez drops his bat from ten feet up. Derrek Lee even had a tic when he homered that slowed him down substantially coming out of the box. Either you dig the brashness or you disdain the arrogance. Do one or the other across the board.

2. He is always hurt.

Why should that count against him? Far and away, the most popular Cub on the roster is Kerry Wood. Soriano slogged through injuries in 2009 and 2010 because he heard the criticism levied against him for missing so much of the two prior seasons. The results weren’t pretty but his toughness ought not to be in question. He works harder in the weight room and is generally in better overall shape than anyone else on the team.

3. He doesn’t seem to care when he strikes out.

Alfonso Soriano does not do everything, plot every facial expression or choose every word to make you, the fan, like him. He does flip his helmet in frustration after big strikeouts, but that is not the point. The point is that, physiologically speaking, a task with a high degree of difficulty is best performed at a low level of mental and physiological arousal. Hotheads stopped being good hitters the day steroids testing became a league-wide standard. Soriano’s cool demeanor belies intensity, and better yet, he has fun out there. He is not thinking too much or winding up to snap a bat over his knee, because hitting a baseball is singularly difficult and those thoughts and actions would be counterproductive.

4. He goes out on the town too much and seems undisciplined.

None of your business. That is not why the man cannot hit a slider. He just can’t hit a slider. Would you want people scrutinizing your personal life in search of reasons for your every professional shortcoming? I think they’d be easy to find.

5. His contract

Aha! Here’s the real issue. Why does everyone hate Soriano for being merely a slightly above-average player? It’s because GM Jim Hendry inked him to a contract that looked as bad at the time (Baseball Prospectus 2007 had a small photo of Soriano on its cover, above the caption, “$136-million mistake?’) as it does now, with a little less than four years and almost $80 million left on it. He never drew walks and was never a good fielder of any position, so though he had great speed and power (neithe rof which has diminished all that much, really), he was not nearly as good as he looked to Hendry in December 2006. That said, he still led the Cubs to a division title in 2007 almost single-handedly (14 homers in September that year) and was a strong contributor in 2008.

There are other things at issue, such as his lack of palte discipline itself, but then, Hendry knew about those things. Soriano has even tried to improve upon them, drawing 45 walks in 2010, the most since he donned Cubs blue. His free-swinging ways were considered especially heinous in his early years with the team, when he batted leadoff, but again, blaming Soriano for the fact that Lou Piniella consistently put him in the wrong batting slot is a bit unfair.

Going forward, Cubs fans need to take care to be consistent. Tyler Colvin is an error-prone, athletic outfielder with good power but little plate discipline and average speed. If the fans are going to ride Soriano like this, they need to also heckle and malign the younger, cheaper, lighter-skinned Colvin. Ironcially, you knwo who would come to hsi defense first if they did so? I am pretty sure it’d be Soriano.

“Tyler is a better defensive outfielder than me right now,” Soriano said last year when informed he’d be benched for a while in favor of Colvin. “I just need to work hard on my defense and they’ll get me back in there.” That is a teammate, and that’s not the only example. Soriano was th eone who stepped up and said Ryan Theriot was being unfairly maligned in 2010, yet has also been the one to finger Carlos Silva, Carlos Zambrano and Milton Bradley as acting out of line.

I like both players, so I say, let’s go the other way with it. If Colvin is a part of the future her, then so is Soriano. Colvin is under team cotnrol through 2015, while Soriano’s albatross deal is not going anywhere untile at least 2014, so a platoon of these two hyper-similar players is a really, really good idea. In the meantime, be nice to the most dangerous power hitter on the Cubs.