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A final Soriano mini-study

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In the wake of Alfonso Soriano's rather newsworthy job relocation, perceptive observers are questioning whether Soriano's seemingly aberrant walk rate this past season represents a fluke or newfound patience. This question is especially crucial to Soriano's new employer, the Chicago Cubs, who lacked for on-base percentage in 2006. I have no real way of knowing the answer to the question, but I thought I'd take a final look before Soriano fades into our Natty memories.

To begin, it's quite clear Soriano's walk rate indeed spiked:

When BB/100 PA*
Pre-2006 4.60
2006 9.38

*Quick-and-dirty: Defined as AB + BB.

Yes, that's basically double his career rate. A quick peak at his career statistics demonstrates this must be so: Soriano doubled his seasonal high in bases on balls and, in fact, collected thirty percent of his career total for free passes in this past season. It should be noted he received a career high total of intentional walks in 2006; heck, he received more cheapies this season than he had in his previous big league experience, combined. Not surprisingly, discounting the four-fingered directives adjusts things a bit:

When BB/100 PA*
Pre-2006 4.18
2006 7.31

*Same wimpy quick-and-dirty calculation.

But just a bit. Soriano's walk rate remains well above his career totals entering 2006.

And so we return to the question.

Five months ago, I was curious how Washington's batting order might or might not have affected Soriano's walk rate, which by midseason looked like it would indeed dwarf his career averages. Specifically, I was interested in exploring what kind of options opponents felt they had, given Soriano's "protection" at the time, the legendary Royce Clayton. It is a tough choice, I know: Pitch to Soriano, or pitch to Clayton. There's just no right answer to that question; I do sympathize.

Anyway, the supposed Clayton Effect was a discrete enough inquiry, seeing as he took over the No. 2 slot in the Nats' order (directly behind Soriano) on May 21. And I did notice a rise in Soriano's seasonal walk rate as of that date. However, as I noted at the time, my dime-store effort was, well, both sloppy and lazy:

Well, I don't have time to match up all of the games in which Soriano has batted leadoff and Clayton has hit second, but I do know that Clayton assumed the No. 2 spot on May 21. Since then, Clayton has mainly, though not always, hit second. And a look at Soriano's game log indicates that, whether by coincidence or not, his walks have risen during that timeframe.

Before you get too tempted to submit that thing for peer review, I want to update my research. I'm still pretty lazy, but I'm not quite as sloppy. And, although I remain lazy, at least I've got two pretty nice resources at my disposal: Baseball Reference's batting order companion (courtesy of Retrosheet) and Baseball Musings' Day-by-Day Database (courtesy of Baseball Musings, via Retrosheet). Using these tools, I'm going to isolate every ballgame in which Soriano hit directly in front of Clayton:

  • April 25 (Soriano had 0 BB in 5 PA)
  • May 21 - June 14 (Soriano had 13 BB in 108 PA, with 5 IBB)
  • June 16 (Soriano had 0 BB in 4 PA)
  • June 28 - June 30 (Soriano had 1 BB in 13 PA, with 1 IBB)
  • July 7 (Soriano had 0 BB in 4 PA)
And that's that. Clayton spent his last two games as a Nat in the seven-hole, and then was traded to Cincy.

Let's add this up:

14/134 10.45 6 6.34

And now let's compare these Clayton-centric figures to the rest of Soriano's 2006 plate appearances:

Who Behind BB/PA BB/100 PA IBB UIBB/100 PA
Clayton Behind 14/134 10.45 6 6.34
Others Behind 53/580 9.14 10 7.54

That's interesting, isn't it? Of course not; it's just a bunch of numbers. But I'll try to make it interesting. According to my calculations, Soriano's walk rate indeed went up with Clayton batting behind him. (Indeed, if you tighten the focus just on the main stretch in which they hit one-two, May 21 through June 14, it went way up.) But that boost was heavily dependent on intentional walks; Clayton batted behind Soriano in just under twenty percent of Soriano's plate appearances, but Soriano collected nearly forty percent of his intentional walks under that arrangement. However, Soriano's untentional walk rate was actually higher with others batting behind him than with Clayton there. I'm wary of ascribing causes, but I suppose it's possible one or both of these dynamics was at work:

  • "Man, Royce Clayton is batting behind me. I better get it done on my own."
  • "You know what? Clayton's actually swinging a pretty hot bat (.290 from 5/21 to 6/14), so we can't just give this away. Hopefully, he'll get anxious here. Let's see if Soriano will chase something."
I don't know. I'm not good at ascribing causes to things. And, given the rather limited timeframe at issue, it could be a case of a small sample and a lot of noise.

At any rate, we can readily see Soriano's intentional walks rose sharply with Clayton batting behind him; those six intentionals, compiled in 134 PAs, would themselves been only one off his previous career high, compiled in over 700 PAs. As to how much Clayton contributed to Soriano's career high in walks, however, the answer is a bit less clear. My previous look---the sloppy and lazy one---didn't provide the full picture. Soriano's ability to draw a walk did increase in 2006, and Clayton wasn't solely (or, in an unintentional sense, mostly) responsible for it.

* * * *

Obviously, this is all in the past. There are a number of ways to view this transaction, and what the Nats will need to do, most immediately, is find a left fielder. I suppose events (or non-events), have served to narrow the focus significantly:

[A]ccording to baseball sources, the Nationals are not happy that outfielder Ryan Church declined to play in the Mexican Winter League this offseason. His decision could possibly hurt his chances of competing with Kory Casto for the starting left-field job vacated by Soriano. . . .

When reached by phone on Sunday night, Church declined to say why he didn't go to Mexico. But, on Monday, agent Jeff Borris said he advised his client not to go because he nothing [sic] more to prove in Mexico and should be given a chance to start with the Nationals.

I've written ample apologia for Church in the past; I'm a blogger, and for whatever reason sympathy for his sporadic play is hard-wired into us. But, as for this story, I'm not quite sure what to say about Church, except that I'm not terribly impressed.

You could look at this Mexican League thing in two ways:

  • It was an order.
  • It was a stupid order.
The latter might be true. What the hell is a team doing assigning a 28 year-old outfielder who out-OPS'ed Jose Guillen in '05 and nearly matched Soriano's OPS in '06 to the Mexican Winter League? Is that considered remediation or torture?

More importantly, however, the former is absolutely true. It was an order (or an occupational request), and Church defied it (or declined). Far be it for me to Monday Morning Agent on Jeff Borris' armchair, but advising him to skip out doesn't seem like the soundest advice. Perhaps Borris and/or Church is positioning for a trade (and I suspect that might be the best course for both parties here; Church clearly has talent, and the Nats might be able to flip him for some sort of pitching), but for the time being Church is a member of the Nationals. It doesn't seem smart to tick off your employer; heck, it could earn you a reputation (and it's looking increasingly likely Church already has one). In the interest of full disclosure, the article does not Church fulfilled one-half of the team's expectations, visiting a "visualization specialist." But that seems of lesser importance.

Anyway, back to the merits here, if you will: I don't know how productive winter ball would have been for Church (obviously, I can't have much of an informed opinion on the matter, other than the request sounded funky), but the Nats do have solid footing in their belief Church needs some help "hitting slow breaking balls on the outside part of the plate." Quite simply, Church is defenseless---nearly utterly hopeless---with the count 0-and-2, when opponents offer a steady diet of that slop in quotes:

When Stats on 0-2
2006 .048/.048/.048; 17 K in 21 AB
Career .082/.118/.082; 33 K in 49 AB

Granted, we are only talking 49 at-bats total in 0-and-2 situations; but this is anemic production. I can't provide cites of league-average production on this count, but here are some Nats, at random, in 2006:

  • Zimmerman: .170/.167/.208
  • Johnson: .179/.207/.286
  • Byrd: .105/.105/.316
  • Jackson: .100/.100/.100
  • And, just for fun, . . . Wilkerson: .086/.111/.143
Good guys, rookie guys, patient guys, scrub guys, guys who whiff a lot and are reduced to swinging with one arm . . . They're all more capable on an 0-and-2 count than Ryan Church. Is it a fluke in the data, or is it something that shouldn't be neglected? You make the call.

* * * *

It appears the Nats already have, and Kory Casto is penciled in to succeed Soriano in left field. (Or, as Nats Triple Play calls him, Koryano.) Other sources suggest it's a four-man race (Casto, Church, Nook Logan, and Alex Escobar) for two spots (left and center), though it again appears Church didn't do himself any favors.

Let's say for the moment it's Casto. I've already done some dork-work on him, and I won't repeat myself in that regard. Casto's comported himself nicely in the Arizona Fall League and appears a fair hitting prospect. In this organization, of course, that's high praise indeed---and I wouldn't be surprised at all if management trots Casto out as the first instance of "building from within." We'll have to see what comes of it. As Nats Farm Authority has noted previously, it's quite apparent Casto struggled against lefties in 2006 (.189/.311/.273), so he might need to share time or else be exposed.

As for the others, I'm sure I'll repeat myself over and over again---as I tend to do. Escobar was sensational in limited action, but he gets hurt like the trains run on time in Europe. Logan hit well in a cup o' joe after being dumped by Detroit, but the stats bear out he's never hit well in extended action. There's also Michael Restovich, who was picked up a few weeks ago. Maybe he'll fit in as a righty bench bat.

At any rate, this is where we are: All of these players are question marks, for different reasons. And maybe it's time to set Church free.