There’s three significant factors to being a good defensive outfielder.  First, you must have good instincts.  Quickly figuring out the trajectory of the ball off the bat can buy a good defender a few steps over an average defender who is slower to respond.  Second, and most obvious is, speed matters.  The ability to get to spots that slower players cannot get to is imperative to be strong defensively.  The third, and most undervalued is the arm.  Stopping hitters from trying to snag an extra bag or scoring on hits into the outfield saves runs and can potentially wins games but you don’t see this unless the runner is thrown out.  It’s difficult to quantify these factors but strides have been made with Fangraphs’ Ultimate Zone Rating (UZR) and Baseball-Reference’s Total Zone (TZ) stats. Defensive metrics still have a ways to go, but you can get a good picture on a player’s defensive abilities by looking at the aggregate of the past few years of UZR and TZR.

As for Alfonso Soriano’s defense the narrative has been something like he’s horrible out there and he’s better off being a DH in the American League.  However, the advanced metrics paint an entirely different picture:

 

 

Ultimate Zone Rating

 

Year

UZR

Best defender

Worst Defender

2007

32

Alfonso Soriano, 32

Pat Burrell, -20.9

2008

16.2

Carl Crawford, 16.4

Delmon Young, -19.4

2009

-2.9

Carl Crawford, 17.5

Ryan Braun, -13.4

2010

5.1

Brett Gardner, 25.7

Jonny Gomes, -17.7

2011

3.4

Brett Gardner, 25.2

Raul Ibanez, -18.9

2012

10.7

Alex Gordon, 11.2

Carlos Gonzalez, -17.9

 

 

Total Zone Runs Above Replacement

 

Year

TZ

Best defender

Worst Defender

2007

18

Alfonso Soriano, 18

Jason Bay, -17

2008

3

Carl Crawford, 18

Delmon Young, -20

2009

-6

David DeJesus, 15

Carlos Lee, -14

2010

-3

Brett Gardner, 21

Jonny Gomes, -24

2011

9

Brett Gardner, 31

Raul Ibanez, -23

2012

19

Alfonso Soriano, 19

Carlos Gonzalez, -14

*qualified players only
Looking at these charts, you can see Soriano has been far better than average (which is represented as zero) most of the time. Only once has his UZR dipped below average and only twice did his TZ. Never has he been horrible or even close to the worst defensive LFer in baseball.   Placing him against his contemporaries Soriano ranks as the best defensive LFer since 2007 using UZR. This year he ranks second trailing only Kansas City’s Alex Gordon.  According to TZR he ranks as the 4th best defensive LFer among active players trailing only Carl Crawford, Brett Gardner, and Johnny Damon.  He is also tied for the 24th best LFer since 1954.  Even more intriguing is Soriano has the best UZR since 2007 out of every player in baseball at their respective positions. All signs point to a good-great defensive left fielder.

When trying to figure out why the narrative contradicts the stats I can come up with two explanations.  First, Cubs fans just don’t like him. For some reason as if Soriano is bullying children for their lunch money to get every last cent of Chicago as possible, fans have given Soriano a short leash.  I completely acknowledge there is merit in the arguments that he’s overpaid, was the best player on 2 teams that got swept straight out of the playoffs, and is the poster boy for the failures of the previous regime.  But I also acknowledge that his contract was a byproduct of Sam Zell trying to squeeze every cent out of the sale of the team as he used back loaded overpriced contracts that left the new ownership with the bill; he was on pace to be worth every cent of that deal until a guy who never got injured had a freak injury that left a baseball sized hole in his leg; he’s been a mentor to young players his entire tenure here in Chicago; he’s well liked among all of his teammates; and everyday he goes out there and plays as hard as he is physically capable of despite the criticism.  How easily could he have pulled a Milton Bradley (the real poster boy for the failures of Hendry), flipped the middle finger and said I have 136M reasons to not care what you people think…?

My second and better explanation is his defense is just plain ugly.  He had that hop, he doesn’t look very fluid while running, he has the ugliest slides/dives I’ve ever seen, and then there’s those times he dropped routine fly balls for errors which seemed to come in bunches.  But I don’t think the stats lie, the overall numbers say he’s been barely below average at his very worst and one of the best defensive LFers the rest of the time. As for my litmus test of good defenders, Soriano makes great reads off the bat, has enough speed left to get to most balls, and still has that really great arm. He shouldn’t be playing right or center, but as far as left fielders go, he’s definitely near the top of my personal list of active players.

I’ve always been a Soriano defender though so maybe I am biased in support of him.   Are you guys believers of Soriano’s D or do you think there’s something wrong with the advanced defensive metrics? Do you have a better explanation for the difference between the narrative and the stats? Leave your comments below and I’ll check back in to see your opinions.

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