StrategyJuly 5, 2006

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Alfonso Soriano – Which One is Real?

By Bob Hoyng

Before the 2006 season began, people were already arguing about the Washington Nationals’ newly acquired, second baseman turned left fielder, Alfonso Soriano. There seemed to be two camps in the debate. The first camp made the case that RFK coupled with a weak Nationals offense was going to hurt Soriano. The opposition argued that no matter what park Soriano called home, or how good his surrounding cast played, he would still produce.

Alfonso did nothing to dispel the debate. In fact, he started off the season so hot that he created a third group: Those that believed Soriano was a .310 hitter, capable of challenging for 40/40 every single year, and score and drive in 110 runs reliably while playing in RFK with the Nationals.

What I’ll do here first is look at what Soriano has done so far. Then I’ll present our three alternatives for what the “real” Alfonso Soriano should look like over the course of a full year playing with the Washington Nationals.

Alfonso Soriano came out of the gate red hot, making him the top ranked hitter in all of fantasy baseball through June 4. He hit .312/.361/.628 while belting 21 home runs, swiping 13 bags, and both driving in and scoring 43 runs, in just 57 games. If you project those numbers over a full season they would give you a 58 home run, 36 stolen base, 118 run, 118 RBI season to go along with that .312 batting average. With all apologies to Albert Pujols, those numbers out of a second baseman would make Soriano the undisputed best fantasy baseball player.

From June 5 through June 25, though, it’s been a different story. Soriano has posted a terrible .171/.269/.341 line. He’s hit only 3 home runs and swiped 5 bags, while scoring 13 runs and driving in 8 over a 20 game span. Project those numbers out to a full season and you have a 23 home run/39 stolen base guy with reasonable context numbers of 101 runs versus 62 RBI’s.

So the question is, which Soriano is the real one? The one that absolutely demolished the National League for 57 games, or the one that looks lost at the plate? I’ll present to you three alternate scenarios from which to choose. They will be based on how much weight you want to give different parts of Soriano’s past production, as well as how much you feel RFK will affect him.

In the first scenario we’re going to take Soriano’s production from this year as gospel – that Soriano really has stepped his power up to a new level AND has been unlucky on his hits on balls in play. We’ll assume for the first scenario that Soriano’s recent drop-off from his career average on BABIP of .309 to .286 at this point is an anomaly, and that he’ll actually get BETTER than he’s been so far this year. Assuming that the power stays the same, his SB% reverts back to 80% (it’s down slightly this year), the hits in play go up to raise his BABIP to .309, his runs maintain the same ratio to his hits and walks, and his RBI maintain the same ratio to his hits we get the following projections.

June 27-346651001826603223.291.351.571.309.40313.04

Obviously these are the numbers that Soriano owners would like to see. Absolute monster numbers for the remainder of the season. They’re probably not realistic but you can’t blame people for dreaming.

In the second scenario we’re going to use Soriano’s history as our guide but ignore the park factors. We will give Soriano full credit for being able to get back to the power numbers of 2002, 2003 and 2005 while ignoring the weaker seasons of 2001 and 2004 as anomalies. That gives him an ab/hr ratio of about 17.83. We’ll accept that he may have started to dip a bit in his ability to get hits on balls in play but certainly not to the level we’ve seen it dip this year. Instead of his career average of .309 on balls in play we’ll go with his 3-year average of .300. We’ll make the same assumptions from scenario #1 except when it comes to the power adjustment to 17.83 ab/hr. We’ll also add a correction for runs and RBI’s based on lost home runs – dropping 1 run and 1.625 RBI’s per home run lost (since he scores one run and drives in 1.625 runs for every home run this year). Some of these runs may get added back in when we adjust his hits and therefore adjust his r/RBI totals using the method laid out in scenario #1, so this method does take into account that some of those home runs will become doubles. Using this new set of assumptions we get the following projections.

June 27-34654931619443222.270.332.485.300.40317.83

Still very good numbers here. He ends up with a 40/40 season but a lot of the work was done in the first 77 games. What you’re buying if you would pick Soriano up at this point under this scenario is still a very good player – a .270/36/103/84/42 pace for the rest of the year – but certainly not the .291/50/124/114/44 pace from scenario 1.

Finally let’s take a look at our third scenario. We’re going to use all of the assumptions from scenario 2, but in addition to that we will take the park factors into account for his remaining games in RFK. RFK hasn’t shown any effect on Soriano’s production up to this point but that doesn’t mean he won’t regress back to the mean for RFK. So if we expect a 17.83 ab/hr pace in a neutral environment then RFK with its .759 hr factor would give us an expected pace of 23.49 ab/hr instead. Here are our projections for these new assumptions based on the Nationals having 47 remaining home games.

June 27-34356921617403522.269.335.463.300.46120.50

The final line on the season still comes out with Soriano posting a 40/40 year. However his pace is now that of a .269/32/107/76/42 hitter.

There are two other scenarios that I purposely chose not to cover because I did not view them as likely enough to bear examination. One is that Soriano’s home run pace up through June 4th (11 ab/hr) is the real Soriano and he’s just in a slump right now from which he will return to start hitting a home run every 11 ab’s. That’s way too far fetched to warrant further examination. The other rejected scenario is a bit more likely but I still don’t buy it – that Soriano is going to regress to his 3-year average of 18.88 ab/hr or his career average of 20.09 ab/hr. That three year average is skewed by one bad year, and his career average is also skewed by the early seasons before his power fully developed. I think given Soriano’s home run explosion at the start of this year expecting a regression to his consistent power numbers that he posted in 2002, 2003 and 2005 makes the most sense.

There are several conclusions that we can draw from Soriano’s performance so far this year. He’s built up such a huge cushion to this point in the year that he’d have to under-perform his talent level in order to miss 40/40. He’s also improved his walk rate to the point that unless he regresses there, he’s going to be on base quite a bit. This translates to a lot of runs scored even under scenario #3, and increases his stolen base opportunities. To point out how much better his walk rate has been – even under scenario #3 where he only bats .269 the rest of the way, his OBP would be nearly identical to his career numbers there. This was certainly unexpected coming into the year, and as long as it’s not a fluke, it indicates a huge step forward in his growth as a hitter. Finally Soriano has been able to put up fairly good context numbers even when you adjust them down based on a more reasonable home run pace. The Nationals seem to be putting people on base enough around Soriano, and are able to drive him in enough when he’s on base, to mitigate some of my pre-season concerns about his run production. Given that scenario #3 still has him scoring 112 runs and driving in 91 on the year (and putting up a 107/76 pace from here on out) I’d say the Nationals are proving to be a bit better than we expected on offense. They’re still tied as the 8th worst offense in baseball, but that’s a lot better than being the worst (which they were in 2005).

The million dollar question is which Soriano is the real one. I’ve laid out three scenarios here and given the rationale for each. My recommendation would be to read and consider each one and make your decision based on whichever rationale makes the most sense to you. Personally I’ve always believed that #3 was the case. It’s why I had Soriano pegged for 28 home runs coming into the year. Given the information gleaned from his first 77 games this year I’m willing to upgrade that to a 32 home run pace instead of 28, but that’s about as far as I’d personally go. But everyone has their own beliefs about what Soriano is capable of doing and how the park and lineup will affect him. Hopefully I’ve given everyone the tools to make decisions about Soriano whether you like to believe in fairy tales (scenario #1), optimistic projections (scenario #2) or pessimistic projections (scenario #3). Though, whatever you believe, Soriano certainly made his owners VERY happy for the first two months of the year. Hopefully you didn’t see those numbers and trade for him after that big day on June 4 expecting more of the same.

The Loveable Losers (known as Bob in the parlance of those not addicted to fantasy sports) is a computer programmer and numbers junky from New Carlisle, Ohio.
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