I’m going to begin a series of end-of-season “I told you so” posts by recalling how almost every writer and sports-talk radio host in town kept insisting this spring that the Cubs couldn’t win with Alfonso Soriano as leadoff man. (Give you one guess who I’m making the poster boy for that knee-jerk attitude.) You don’t hear that talk much anymore, do you? Even though it makes perfect baseball sense according to the new logistical book put forth by statheads who declare that a team needs a player with good on-base skills to bat leadoff. That most definitely is not Soriano, even though his barely respectable 41 walks (11 of them forced upon him as intentional, it should be noted) in 102 games have helped produce an equally respectable .352 on-base percentage on top of his .289 batting average. Yet manager Lou Piniella, an astute baseball man, has gone against the statheads and simply left Soriano in the leadoff role, and it’s worked. Why?
As I wrote back in March, there’s something about putting a player in a position of comfort, even a position he might not be perfectly suited for. Soriano likes batting leadoff because he sees more fastballs at the top of the order, and as he proved many times this season — most recently against the Milwaukee Brewers’ CC Sabathia last Tuesday (check out his solo shot in the video highlights) — when he’s seeing the ball well it’s impossible to sneak a fastball past him. More likely, Soriano is going to send it into the left-field seats. His 29 homers are a key element of the Cubs’ success this season.
So give Lou credit for understanding the stats, but also for knowing when the player’s individual charms overrule logistics. Soriano is a beautiful player, with powerful wrists to match Ernie Banks’s and an admittedly coltish manner in the field . And that’s what he brings to the team, an infectious smile and a joyful mien — when he isn’t moping about being criticized for his defense or being moved down in the order. He embodies the “Cubbie swagger” — a joyful rather than prideful elan — that Lou said he was looking for from his earliest days here last season. So, hey, Lou’s too big to say, “I told you so,” at this point, but I’ll say it for him.