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Sosa, Soriano and swinging at strikes

8/24/2002

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.