Used to be, earlier in his career, Alfonso Soriano was the very model of an undisciplined hitter. He got a lot of press, because he was a Yankee, and back in 2002, Soriano drew 22 unintentional walks while striking out 157 times. He also mashed 39 dingers, so it’s not like there was much reason for Soriano to change. But as time has gone by, it seems like Soriano has drawn less attention for his hacking, probably because it’s become entirely familiar. And probably because he’s managed to have a hell of a career, so it’s not like the hacking really dragged him down. Soriano with a different approach might not have been as good as the Soriano we’ve been able to observe.
But Soriano’s still very much a hacker. As a rule of thumb, if a young hitter is pretty undisciplined, he’s likely to remain pretty undisciplined as an older hitter. That is, if his career survives. Soriano, for his career, has four times as many strikeouts as unintentional walks. That makes for a similar ratio to those belonging to Reed Johnson and Jeff Francoeur. During the PITCHf/x era, 515 players have batted at least 500 times. Soriano’s rate of swings at pitches out of the strike zone is the tenth-highest in the group. That Soriano has a career .351 wOBA is a testament to his ability to punish a variety of pitches, but the hacking still gets him in trouble, and Thursday provided a wonderful example. Thursday, in a game between the Cubs and the Reds, Soriano went and had himself an unforgivable plate appearance in a critical spot. Or what would have been a critical spot, if the Cubs weren’t dreadful.
The scene: it was the eighth inning, and the Reds were up 1-0. Jonathan Broxton was pitching, and the Cubs had one out and runners on second and third. Soriano came up to pinch-hit, even though Dale Sveum had a full bench. A hit or a fly ball or a slow grounder could’ve at least tied the game. Broxton threw four fastballs and the Cubs didn’t tie the game.
The Cubs lost 1-0. It hardly means anything to the Cubs, who aren’t good, but the Reds are looking to make the playoffs, so every win counts. Pretty much every win could’ve at some point turned into a loss, but the turning points usually aren’t so conspicuous. As Alfonso Soriano struck out against Jonathan Broxton, the Cardinals could’ve been irritated.
That could easily be a stand-alone image right there. It says a lot while saying a little, which is kind of the point of pictures. But I’m never one to be afraid of running something into the ground, so let’s examine this plate appearance in greater detail. Hypothesis: Soriano is too much of a hacker. Evidence: this and several other plate appearances over the course of Soriano’s entire career.
Of interest is that Broxton pounded Soriano inside. A couple days earlier, Broxton and Soriano faced off under different circumstances, and the plate appearance went differently:
The previous time Soriano had seen Broxton, Broxton stayed away. This time, Broxton came in, because this time, the bases weren’t empty. Broxton had to prevent that runner on third from scoring, so he didn’t want to give Soriano an opportunity to get the barrel of the bat on the ball. By throwing high, inside fastballs, Broxton could get weak contact or no contact given adequate location. Soriano, in turn, would’ve had to be looking for something he could drive. These were circumstances of so-called “situational hitting”, and Broxton would’ve been looking to minimize quality contact, while Soriano would’ve been looking to maximize quality contact. Certainly, Soriano wouldn’t want to put himself behind by swinging at a first pitch inside off the plate.
What you see is contact and a decently-hit foul ball. You might think, then, that Soriano was only a hair away from converting this chance, but that’s a pitch that can only really be hit foul. In order to get your bat all the way around, the angles don’t work. Look at the location, and keep in mind the off-center camera angle:
We can also use Texas Leaguers for additional visuals. Here’s the path of the pitch to Soriano, and an approximation of the path if the pitch were perfectly straight out of the hand:
If that were a straight fastball, it would’ve clipped the inside edge. But of course, fastballs aren’t straight, and Soriano has seen a lot of fastballs, and a lot of Broxton fastballs. You have to anticipate tail, and that pitch was only going to bore in toward Soriano’s body. Which it did. And he swung. Here comes pitch No. 2!
In Soriano’s defense, he didn’t go all the way around. In Soriano’s…offense?, he went too far around, at a very similar pitch. The location was basically the same, the movement was basically the same, and if Soriano learned a lesson from the first pitch, it didn’t take until he’d already committed to offering. The same shots as above:
Ahead 0-and-2, Broxton understandably threw another inside fastball off the plate. It was a little too high and a little too inside, and Soriano watched it, and nearly got hit by it. It would’ve been a terrible pitch to swing at, but then, Soriano had already attempted two terrible swings, so. A swing there would’ve cemented this as the worst plate appearance of the season. Instead, I guess there could theoretically be an argument. Let’s move on to the 1-and-2 pitch and wrap this thing up.
More inside than the first pitch, and more inside than the second pitch. It’s funny — because of the camera angle, you can’t actually see where this baseball is caught. Soriano’s body is in the way. There was no reason for Broxton not to throw this pitch again, because Soriano had demonstrated a willingness to chase it, and chase it he did, for a third time. The other damning visuals:
That was all for Soriano. Toward the end of the plate appearance, he was forced to defend the plate, but that was because of his mistakes earlier in the plate appearance, so it’s hardly a valid excuse. The next batter made an out and the Cubs were dismissed, having barked without biting. Soriano did a terrible job of situational hitting, and if he were a rookie instead of a 37-year-old, he might’ve been benched as a consequence. Instead, the Cubs will keep trotting him out just waiting for someone to want to take him off their hands.
A glance at Soriano’s swing map for the season to date:
Soriano, in 2013, has swung at a lot of pitches. The three he swung at against Broxton were the third-most inside pitch, the second-most inside pitch, and the most inside pitch. That’s a sad little constellation of swings at inside fastballs, and they came at just the most terrible time.
After Soriano returned to the dugout, the Cubs’ broadcast talked about how it was unfortunate that it wasn’t David DeJesus, since he’s pretty reliable in such situations. Soriano, instead, makes too many unproductive outs. As an interesting twist, in both 2011 and 2012 Soriano was above-average at driving in runners from third with fewer than two outs. Last year his conversion rate compared to those belonging to Billy Butler and Derek Jeter. Soriano hasn’t been dreadful, situationally, but over his career he has been decidedly below-average, and on Wednesday he was awful. On Wednesday, Soriano had one chance, and it’s hard to imagine he could’ve done a worse job. Sometimes, it pays off to be over-aggressive at the plate. Other times, you just look like you’re bad.
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