Sosa, Soriano and swinging at strikes

Like a young Sammy Sosa, Alfonso Soriano swings at everything. What kind of career path will Soriano follow?

Originally Published: August 23, 2002
By Rob Neyer | ESPN.com

Tools.

Every baseball man can tick them off in his sleep: hit for average, hit for power, run, field, throw.

Everything you'd ever want in a ballplayer, right?

Well, no. Not everything. If you add knowledge of the strike zone, then you've got your perfect ballplayer (read: Alex Rodriguez). But without that knowledge -- or rather, with no apparent knowledge at all -- a player simply won't develop into a consistently great hitter. Or so the theory goes. Sammy Sosa was like that. For the first six years of his career, he had a strike zone the size of Comerica Park.

Today, Dan Evans is the general manager for the Los Angeles Dodgers. But in 1989, when the White Sox traded for Sammy Sosa from the Rangers, Evans was assistant general manager with the White Sox. After the trade, Sosa joined Chicago's Vancouver farm club. With the Sox playing in Seattle and Vancouver in Tacoma, Evans visited Tacoma's Cheney Stadium to see his club's newest player.

"I saw him hit a ball 450 feet over the center-field fence," Evans recalled, "and I knew we had something."

But what? Did anybody have any idea how good Sosa would someday become?

"We all thought he was going to be a really good player, but this was a guy that swung at everything; he had no strike zone," Evans says. "At the time, I thought he was going to be productive; start out playing center field, then move to right and be a solid Jay Buhner type. Certainly never the caliber of player that he is today."

If there was anyone who saw Sosa's potential, it was Larry Himes. When the White Sox traded for Sosa, Himes was the club's general manager.

Sosa would spend only two full seasons with the White Sox, who traded him to the Cubs, straight up for George Bell. Himes, who by then was the Cubs' GM, and White Sox hitting coach Walt Hriniak were most responsible for the trade.

"Larry Himes was also his absolute biggest supporter," says Evans. "He saw in Sammy a guy who had a chance to be a great offensive player. But Walt Hriniak is the reason that the White Sox traded Sammy Sosa to the Cubs. Walt didn't see the player that Sammy was going to become, and at that time Walt had a lot of weight in making decisions on hitters."

To be fair to Hriniak, though, nobody could have known what Sosa would become. And as Evans admits, the White Sox were playing in a new ballpark, and management wasn't in the most patient of moods. Bell was a proven run producer, and Sosa was ... well, all anybody knew for sure was that he needed time to develop.

Which he did. He got bigger and stronger, but most importantly he learned the strike zone, and in 1998 he set a career high (by far) with 73 walks and, not coincidentally, set a career high (by far) with 66 home runs.

But is Sosa the exception, or the rule? What generally happens to players who exhibit Sammy's skills when fairly young?

Using Lee Sinins' hyper-useful Sabermetric Baseball Encyclopedia, we generated lists of players similar to the young Sammy Sosa in age, power, and apparent strike-zone judgment. Below are all the 24-year-old players who hit at least 25 home runs, struck out more than 110 times and drew 50 or fewer walks.

                Year   HR   SO  BB     
Jim Presley     1986   27  172  32
Cory Snyder     1987   33  166  31
Preston Wilson  1999   26  156  46
Matt Williams   1990   33  138  33   
Sammy Sosa      1993   33  135  38
Tony Clark      1996   27  127  29
Richie Sexson   1999   31  117  34   
Andre Dawson    1979   25  115  27
Johnny Callison 1963   26  111  50   

Looking at this list -- sorted by strikeouts -- it seems that it's not too few walks that bode ill for a career, but rather too many strikeouts. These players all struck out a lot, of course, but it's the guys at the top whose careers petered out fairly quickly. It's been said that strikeouts "can eat you alive," and that's probably true ... but apparently there have to be a lot of strikeouts. Matt Williams, Andre Dawson, Johnny Callison, and of course Sammy Sosa all enjoyed fine careers despite early signs that they'd have problems controlling the strike zone.

And since we're on the subject, there's a young player named Alfonso Soriano who's thriving despite a complete disregard for the strike zone. Could we have guessed how well he'd play this year, based on what he did last year?

Soriano was 23 last season. Below are all 23-year-old players who hit at least 15 home runs while striking out more than 100 times and drawing fewer than 35 walks.

                  Year   HR   SO  BB     
Juan Samuel       1984   15  168  28   
Andre Dawson      1978   25  128  30   
Alfonso Soriano   2001   18  125  29   
Cory Snyder       1986   24  123  16   
Jim Rice          1976   25  123  28   
Shawon Dunston    1986   17  114  21   
Juan Encarnacion  1999   19  113  14   
Jesse Barfield    1983   27  110  22   
Frank Howard      1960   23  108  32   
David Green       1984   15  105  20   

Again, a pretty good group of players. But did any of these players make a one-season jump like Soriano has this season?

Yes, one did. Look at what Jim Rice did in 1977, along with Soriano's projected numbers for this season ...

              HR   OBP  Slug    SO  BB
Rice    1977  39  .376  .593   120  53
Soriano 2002  40  .329  .554   162  25

Referring to the previous table, we can see that Rice's strikeouts didn't really change at all, but he doubled his walks. Soriano, on the other hand, is striking out substantially more often while walking even less.

Looking at Soriano's 162 (projected) strikeouts and his 25 (projected) walks, you can't help but think, "Why do the pitchers throw the ball anywhere near the plate? And if it's that simple, they're going to stop throwing the ball near the plate any day now."

Except it's not that simple. If it were, Soriano wouldn't be slugging .554, because everybody knew he'd swing at anything that moved last season.

Still, it's hard to avoid the sneaking suspicion that if Soriano doesn't figure out a way to control the strike zone, he'll wind up with a career more like Cory Snyder's or Juan Samuel's than Jim Rice's or Andre Dawson's or ... Sammy Sosa's.

Because Sosa's career is the best-case scenario, right? Kid with great tools but never met a pitch he didn't like, and winds up headed for the Hall of Fame?

It's a wonderful story, but there's no way to make any sort of objective argument that Soriano is destined for that same path.

After all these years, Evans still loves to watch Sosa play baseball.

"I marvel at what Sammy's accomplished. To see him evolve as a hitter ... It's one of the greatest transformations I've ever seen. I remember the rail-thin kid who just played the game. That's all he did, he just played the game. But now there's a thought process behind it, and I just love watching him play."

Alfonso Soriano could become that sort of player, too. Just watching him play the game, you can see that. And if he learns the thought process?

That's a scary thought for Yankee opponents.

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