No Soriano means no juggernaut

With Alfonso Soriano no longer around, the Yankees' offense isn't as good as it was expected to be.

Originally Published: May 21, 2004
By Rob Neyer | ESPN.com

The Yankees added Alex Rodriguez to their lineup? The best player in the American League? Are you kidding me? With Rodriguez on board, the Yankees certainly would score a thousand runs this season, and they might even break the franchise record -- which is, of course, the American League record, and post-1900 major league record -- for runs scored in a season.

It's not going to happen. We're a quarter of the way into the season, and the Yankees have scored 198 runs, ninth in the American League. Why? We know about Derek Jeter's struggles, but we can also blame the other side of the keystone; Yankee second basemen are batting .212 (and yes, in this case batting average does tell the whole story).

From 2001 through 2003, second base was manned by Alfonso Soriano, who of course was sent to Texas in exchange for Rodriguez. Big upgrade, right? Look at these numbers, which cover the last two seasons (but don't include 2004):

Alfonso Soriano
Alfonso Soriano is tied for ninth in the AL with 49 hits.

          OBP  Slug   OPS
Alex     .405  .661  1066
Alfonso  .318  .495   814

Huge advantage for Rodriguez. But those just represent their performances in home games: The Ballpark in Arlington for Rodriguez, Yankee Stadium for Soriano. Now let's look at their road statistics in 2002 and '03 ...

          OBP  Slug   OPS
Alex     .382  .562   944
Alfonso  .351  .574   925

A lot closer, huh? There are, it should be said, a couple of problems with blindly assuming the last column accurately represents these players' abilities. For one thing, we know that on-base percentage is actually more important than slugging percentage, and Rodriguez holds a real edge in OBP, even just considering the road games.

And now the totals for 2002 through 2003, with an additional category thrown in for good measure...

          OBP  Slug   OPS   WS
Alex     .394  .612  1005   67
Alfonso  .335  .536   871   57

That last column is Win Shares, Bill James' omnibus measure of a player's contributions with the bat, the legs, and the glove. A Win Share is one-third of a win, so Rodriguez was worth roughly three wins more than Soriano over the last two seasons. Which, obviously, isn't a lot.

Why are they fairly close in Win Shares? A few reasons.

One, Soriano's not quite as bad with the glove as a lot of people think (and for that matter, Rodriguez really isn't a Gold Glover).

Two, Soriano's got a big edge in steals. That wouldn't mean a lot, except he's also efficient. In the last two seasons, Soriano swiped 76 bases and was caught 21 times; Rodriguez stole 26 bases and was nabbed seven times. You know I'm not a big fan of the running game, but Soriano's efficiency on the bases certainly added runs to the scoreboard.

And three, the ballparks really have made some difference. According to the latest Bill James Handbook, over the last couple of seasons The Ballpark in Arlington was the second-best hitter's park in the American League (by quite a large margin) while Yankee Stadium was the sixth-best pitcher's park (and really not that far from being the best). What's more, The Ballpark has been particularly friendly to right-handed hitters (like Rodriguez).

I'm sure that before even reading this far, some number of Yankees fans have already sent scathing e-mail my way. But for those of you able to exercise some restraint, let me tell you what I'm not saying. I am not saying that Alfonso Soriano is just as good as Alex Rodriguez. He's not. What I'm saying is that the difference between them, at least in 2002 and 2003, wasn't nearly as large as most of us probably thought.

What I'm also saying is that swapping Soriano for Rodriguez did not look like a big upgrade for the Yankees, at least in the short term. Before the deal, the Yanks had a great player at second base and a hole at third; now they have a slightly greater player at third base and a hole at second.

What'll drive my Yankee fan friends crazy, I know, is that for years I wrote that Soriano was overrated (because he didn't draw any walks), but now that he's left the Yankees, well of course I'm defending him.

Fair enough. The truth is that when Soriano first became a legitimate star in 2002, I thought he might flame out quickly. After all (I "reasoned"), if he's going to swing at everything then won't the pitchers simply stop throwing him hittable pitches? But then he did it again in 2003, making me wonder if Soriano's not just one of those guys who doesn't go by everybody else's rules. If maybe the pitchers just can't figure him out.

Then again, this season it looks like perhaps the pitchers have finally figured Soriano out. Though he got off to a great start and Rodriguez got off to a slow start, their fortunes have lately reversed. Rodriguez's 2004 stats now look a lot like his career road stats, and Soriano ... well, they're better than his career home stats, but worse than his career road stats (got all that?).

Considering Soriano and Rodriguez were born only five months apart -- something we just discovered last year -- in the long run the Yankees are certainly better off with Rodriguez, who's a sure Hall of Famer. But in the short run, there's a awfully big hole on the other side of the infield.

Senior writer Rob Neyer writes four columns per week during the baseball season. This spring, Fireside will publish Rob's next book, "The Neyer/James Guide to Pitchers" (co-written with Bill James); for more information, visit Rob's Web site. Also, click here to send a question for possible use on ESPNEWS.

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