Alfonso Soriano hit his 20th homerun of the season yesterday against the Cincinnati Reds. In doing so, Soriano joined some pretty exclusive lists. He is one of three current players to have hit 20 HR in 11 consecutive seasons. The other two players are Albert Pujols and David Ortiz. Soriano also became the second Cub to hit 20 homeruns in his first six seasons with the team. The first player to do so was Hall of Famer Andre Dawson. And while there are quite a few parallels between Alfonso Soriano and Andre Dawson, in most Cubs fans’ mental schema Soriano is more closely related to Todd Hundley than the Hawk.
To be honest, I had never really considered how eerily similar Alfonso Soriano and Andre Dawson’s career paths were until reading a Harry Pavlidis tweet this morning comparing the two’s OPS+. Each player came to the Cubs in their early thirties via free agency. They both played with the Montreal Expo franchise most recently before coming to the Cubs, technically the Washington Nationals in Soriano’s case. Both of them were elite power/speed players that suffered from leg issues that robbed them of the speed element of their game during their time with the Cubs.
The numbers that each player put up in their six seasons with the Cubs is also very similar. Alfonso Soriano prior to the game today with the Reds has put up .266/.320/.498 slash line with the Cubs, and Andre Dawson put up a .285/.327/.507 slash line. That gives the Hawk an edge of .834 to .818 in terms of OPS. The OPS+ swings a little more in Dawson’s favor, 125 to 111, due to the fact that OPS+ is adjusted for league average production which was slightly lower during Dawson’s time with the Cubs compared to Soriano. Dawson averaged more games per season with the Cubs than Soriano, but if you averaged their production for 162 games each player would hit 33 homeruns and 310 total bases.
Andre Dawson was the better player in his time with the Chicago Cubs, but Andre Dawson is a Hall of Famer. If Soriano’s numbers are in the same ballpark as Dawson’s why then is Soriano’s place in Cubs lore closer to Carlos Zambrano?
There are a variety of reasons why people do not have the same warm fuzzy feelings for Soriano. His defense was always a source of criticism and clearly one aspect that Dawson was a much better player. It is not exactly fair, though, to compare a player that never played an inning of professional baseball outside of the infield until a year before coming to the Cubs to a player that was a good defensive centerfielder early in his career. Soriano throughout his Cubs career often took bad routes to the ball and had the annoying quirk of hopping when he caught the ball. However his defense has been much improved this season, and that would seem to point the finger at the previous coaching staffs as much as Alfonso Soriano given that he has learned the position at the major league level exclusively.
Alfonso Soriano strikes out a lot. During his tenure with the Cubs, his annual strikeout rate has been anywhere between 20.5% and 24.2%. There is a portion of baseball fans that hate strikeouts as an absolute evil, and players like Soriano that will frequently expand the zone are often the source of ire. Dawson was a player that they could appreciate a lot more since his highest rate with the Cubs was 15.6%. The focus on one stat is silly though especially given all the production that Soriano has offered with an .818 OPS and 124 homeruns.
Alfonso Soriano did not perform well in the postseason for the Chicago Cubs either. Finding Cubs that played well during their 0-6 run in the 07-08 postseason is a much harder task than players that were terrible. Soriano hit a pathetic .107/.138/.107. If this was the biggest reason for Soriano’s status amongst Cubs fan though the Hawk would take a much bigger hit for his equally poor postseason performance. Dawson’s one trip in the playoffs saw him hit a woeful .105/.227/.158 during 5 games.
The biggest reason people will often cite for disliking Soriano is a perceived lack of effort. There are numerous occasions where Soriano did not run out a grounder or posed in the batter’s box with what he thought was a homerun failing to leave the yard. Those definitely do taint the image of a player, and rightfully so. Soriano is not alone in this regard, and while it is infuriating to watch to question his effort is a bit much when you consider this season. Soriano has been playing through obvious pain and discomfort the entire year. He is getting paid 18 million dollars this year to do that, but he would be getting paid that 18 million whether he was on the field or on the DL. There isn’t another big contract that he is playing for at this point either. Whether he takes the field one more time or not, the Chicago Cubs are going to pay him 36 million dollars the next two years. Despite that he has gone out there and played one of his better seasons in a Cub uniform while clearly not being a hundred percent. That does not excuse those mistakes, but it does have to be weighed against what we have seen this season.
That brings us to the real reason why Soriano is not viewed in the same light as Dawson, and it comes down to the way each player came to the team. Soriano signed the richest contract in Cubs history at 136 million dollars over 8 years. Andre Dawson gave Dallas Green a blank check to fill out which he did for one year at 500,000 dollars. Dawson was coming off a solid if unspectacular season in Montreal, but then led the league with 49 HR and 137 RBI to win the MVP with the Cubs in his first season. That season made Dawson a fan favorite. Soriano was coming off a historic 40-40 season with the Nationals, a feat which has only been accomplished by 3 other players. He parlayed that great season into a lucrative backloaded contract with the Cubs, and battled injuries throughout his time in Chicago. His first season was a very good year where he hit .299/.327/.560 with 33 HRs, but it fell well short of a 40-40 season. Soriano has been viewed through the lens of unfulfilled expectations ever since and that is the biggest reason why Soriano and Dawson’s name will only be linked through that random piece of trivia learned last night.