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Alfonso Soriano:

Some of you may have been following the showdown between the Washington Nationals and Alfonso Soriano on whether Soriano would move from second base to left field this year. Earlier this week Soriano refused to take the field in an exhibition game. A showdown over whether the Nationals could force Soriano to play the outfield or put him on the "Disqualified List" (suspended without pay) was averted yesterday when Soriano agreed to play where he was told to play. Fielding percentage statistics indicate that Soriano is one of the worst-fielding second basemen in the league.

Michael McCann on the Sports Law Blog has a brief comment on the Soriano fall out and whether there is any precedent here. Aside from the obvious question about whether the Nats could tell Soriano where to play, and suspend him if he wouldn't move, was the question of whether Soriano would have accrued service time for purposes of free agent eligibility during his period on the disqualified list. Accroding to an article in yesterday's Wa PoSoriano has 5-1/2 years of service, and 6 is required to be eligible for free agency (his individual contract expires this year).

My guess is that in this case it was precisely the promise of free agency that induced Soriano to make the move. Since he will be a free agent at the end of the season, I assume he wanted to try to protect his reputation in order to maximize his value. I would think that a team would still have to be nuts to want to take him on board (of course, I had no idea who would want to take Terrell Owens either...).

One suspects that although this showdown was averted, the issue will almost certainly arise with some player in the future. I am not an employment law expert (so please enlighten me if I'm wrong), but the basic issue would seem to be pretty straightforward--of course this seems like a reasonable request by the manager. McCann asks though, what if a team asked a player to switch to catcher, which seems like a big difference in performance obligations? McCann comments on some of the contractual provisions we might expect to see in future contracts.

J..:
Beyond the fact that trading for Soriano was a bad baseball move (the players given up were better/cheaper than Soriano as an outfielder, and the current second baseman is likely as good if not better as a secondbaseman), the club appears to have the right to insist what position the player will play.

Soriano lost his arbitration hearing. I assume that means he signed (or was assigned) a uniform contract. The uniform contract (sch. A to the CBA) provides the following (emphasis added):


Employment
1. The Club hereby employs the Player to render, and the Player agrees to render, skilled services as a baseball player . . .

From my reading, the team could put him in any position to be a baseball player. While it may be a bad baseball move to employ Soriano as a catcher (or outfielder), a catcher is a baseball player. That is all that appears that Soriano and the team have agreed to. If Soriano wanted something more specific, he should have agreed to it. Lastly, while the contract is silent on the issue, I think it fair to read that the team has discretion to utilize the player in any position it deems fit, so long as that position is within the purview of "baseball player." (A good economic rational could be given here, assuming the team acts in its own bests interests -- unfortunately, for the Nationals, continuing to employ Bowden as their GM likely is not in their best interest.)

That said, he can complain all he wants. But, he agreed to provide his services as a baseball player in return for wages. The team has the right to deny him the wages if he does not return his skills as a baseball player, in whatever capability the team sees fit (so long as it is as a "baseball player").

Have I mentioned that it was a dumb trade, yet? Really really dumb trade. Man, what a dumb trade.
3.23.2006 8:24am
rbj:
Players do switch positions all the time at the behest of the club; Chipper Jones has gone from third base to the outfield and back, Craig Biggio has bounced from the infield to the outfield, and Mike Piazza tried going from catcher to first base (though one may wonder if his lack of success there was due in some part to not really embracing the move.)
The catcher part is a red herring, being a big league catcher is a very demanding position that you are not going to pick up in one spring training season.
Then there is the case of a successful pitcher who moved to rightfield and had a decent career. . .
3.23.2006 8:38am
Huh:
I don't think you'd have to be nuts to sign Alfonso Soriano. He's a superb speed/power guy who can be counted on for 30 HR / 100 RBI. Also, other than his insistence on playing 2B, he's never really been the cause of any problems. And there wouldn't have been any problems in this case, except that the idiot GM traded for him while planning to ignore the player's prime directive.

Granted, Soriano's a terrible 2B. He's clearly not as good as Vidro, but he's actually the worst defensive 2B in ALL OF BASEBALL. So by insisting on playing 2B, he's actually diminishing his value. That said, it wouldn't be "nuts" to pay Soriano a lot of money to play terrible defense if he produces offensively. Most years, he's made that equation work.
3.23.2006 8:40am
Bob Bobstein (mail):
Soriano's a terrible 2B. He's clearly not as good as Vidro, but he's actually the worst defensive 2B in ALL OF BASEBALL. So by insisting on playing 2B, he's actually diminishing his value.

I really disagree. Yes, Soriano is a terrible 2B, but he is a 2B. There are many more OFs who can hit like Soriano can than there are 2Bs. For that reason, Soriano knows that he'll take a pay cut in free agency if he is regarded as an OF.
3.23.2006 9:40am
John M (mail):
It seems pretty clear that players are obligated to play when and where the manager pencils them into the lineup. I'm not sure that makes Soriano the bad guy here, and I see absolutely no justification for the implied comparison to Terrell Owens. He made clear before Washington traded for him that he has no interest in playing the outfield. He has spent years as a professional baseball player learning the second base position. He has been honored as an all-star at the position. Soriano is considered overrated by many, both because of his poor defensive skills and because of his low on base percentage, notwithstanding his good power numbers. Soriano probably realizes that his power numbers, while outstanding for a middle infielder, would be above average but unremarkable for an outfielder. Ryne Sandberg was recently elected to the Hall of Fame with some of the best offensive numbers ever produced by a second baseman, but with numbers that wouldn't have gotten him 25 percent of the vote as a corner outfielder (it certainly helped that Sandberg was also one of the best defensive 2B of all time as well, while Soriano is considered one of the worst). In that sense, while he probably realizes that it won't be good for his career to sit out without pay, it would also be detrimental to his career and reputation to be moved to a corner outfield position.

Baseball players are handsomely compensated for their work, and so I don't mean to suggest that I feel a great deal of pity for Soriano or anyone else, but being actually forced to move to a new city to work a different job for a different employer is something that most of us don't face. Professor, given your background in bankruptcy and contracts, and given the amount of time and effort you have spent developing your expertise in those fields, I'm sure you wouldn't enjoy being traded to, say, Ohio State, and being told that you are now teaching criminal procedure and running the legal aid clinic, especially if you told OSU that you had no interest in such a position. In such a circumstance, no matter how lucrative your pay, you might even have a one-day temper tantrum. Soriano, while overrated, has a pretty solid off-the-field reputation. I certainly don't blame him for being upset. The Nats are within their contractual rights, but that certainly doesn't mean they are in the right.
3.23.2006 9:43am
Richard Bellamy (mail):
The relevant counterfactual here is really Rick Ankiel. Ankiel was a top pitching prospect for the Cardinals who had huge major league success at a young age (11-7 as a 20 year old), and then completely lost all of his control in the post-season (15.75 ERA) -- and never got it back.

Ankiel decided, with the Cardinals consent, that after trying for a few years he simply couldn't pitch any more, and would go to the minors to learn a different position. In order to do that, he had to clear waivers. He was not picked up by any team (lucky for him) and went to the minors, but in the counterfactual, one of the other teams picks him up and orders him to continue pitching. Under the uniform contract, this would be allowed.

It strikes me that the problem is not so much based on contractual or labor law, but on antitrust law. By any reasonable legal definition, Major League Baseball is a monopoly. If my union (if I had a union) has a contract with a term I don't agree with, I can go work somewhere else, because I'm not a baseball player.

Soriano had no choice if he wanted to play baseball other than signing the contract provided, quitting, or going to Japan or somewhere. I don't think generalized contract or labor law will get you everywhere you need to go without considering the antitrust aspects prominently.
3.23.2006 9:44am
CJColucci (mail):
Alfonso Soriano is this generation's Juan Samuel.
3.23.2006 9:57am
NYU Jew (mail):
Huh wrote "I don't think you'd have to be nuts to sign Alfonso Soriano."

You might not be nuts, but you wouldn't be that smart.

Alfonso Soriano's home/away split (Soriano played half his games in Arlington, which behind oxygen-deficient Coors Field is the most hitter-friendly park in baseball):

HOME AWAY
HRs
25 11

RBIs
73 31

AVG
.315 .224

Do you think that Alfonso Soriano will get more than 25 HRs, 70 RBIs, and bat higher than .275 on Washington? I don't know how hitter-friendly RFK stadium is. Oh, wait. It isn't hitter friendly:

Jose Vidro's (the Nats' current second baseman, whose spot Soriano wants) home/away split (Vidro's home games were played in RFK in Washington, DC):

HOME AWAY
TBs
47 84

AVG
.226 .314
3.23.2006 10:34am
J..:
Home/Road splits are only partially relevent. People play different home/road for all sorts of reasons and the mere difference isn't enough to ignore one set in favor of the other -- in general, we can't toss out one subset of data in favor of another without distorting the data.

The best thing to do is to understand the data properly. An easy way to do that is to look at a players (properly) park adjusted overall numbers. Something like Equivilent Average ("EqA", at baseball prospectus) does that in a good enough way. His EqA last year was .272 (league wide average is .260). That is pretty close to exactly an average corner OFer, while it was about 5% better than an average 2B. (BTW: the main player traded for Soriano was Brad Wilkerson, who had a .269 EqA, and plays good defense in the OF.)
3.23.2006 10:44am
Julian:
Well said, John M. Was thinking many of the same things.
3.23.2006 11:01am
Edward Lee (www):
A better real-world analogy for what Soriano is being forced to do is perhaps the case of a consultant who's working on a new project with a new client in a new city for six months.

Yeah, becoming an outfielder is an adjustment, but it's still baseball. Catch the ball and throw it to your teammates. I don't see why it should be considered so traumatic.
3.23.2006 11:14am
DNL (mail):
Alexi Yashin says that Soriano loses, if Soriano played in the NHL.
3.23.2006 11:30am
Wrigley:
I knew there was a reason I liked VC.

Any place where I can debate both Booker and Rick Ankiel is awesome.
3.23.2006 11:58am
Dubs:
DNL is correct -- the Alexi Yashin saga is the perfect precedent. Granted, it's a different league with a different CBA, but I'd imagine that Soriano would've received the same treatment.
3.23.2006 12:14pm
RPS (mail):

Since he will be a free agent at the end of the season, I assume he wanted to try to protect his reputation in order to maximize his value.


Are finances part of it? Probably so, but I'm not sure that's the first assumption I would make. What about the possibility that he enjoys it? After the Yankees asked him to move from SS to the OF, which he did without complaint, they asked him to move from the OF to 2B, which he did without complaint. Then he spent several years playing that position and became comfortable with it. He realizes he's a horrible defensive 2B. It is not as if he thinks any day now the light is going to come on and he will get better, but he prefers to play 2B, I don't think that makes him a bad guy. I'd also note that it is not as if Vidro is a defensive wizard. I believe the Bible ranks Soriano 24th and Vidro 20th.


Yeah, becoming an outfielder is an adjustment, but it's still baseball. Catch the ball and throw it to your teammates. I don't see why it should be considered so traumatic.



Not quite. The difference between the OF and the IF is quite significant. Yes, some players have made the transition successfully, but plenty of others have not. It is not as if he is simply shifting IF positions, which itself is not easy. Putting aside the brief time he played the OF, he has no experience judging the ball off of the bat, which can be very hard to master; he has no experience on what angles to take, again a slight misjudgment is the difference between a single and a ball rolling to the wall for a triple; and his arm has been conditioned to make short throws, not the long ones required by OFs.

RE: Home/Road Splits

Yes, his home/road splits the last two years were not good, but the two years before that with the Yankees he put up huge numbers on the road, so it is not as if he has never had success hitting away from Arlington. And Yankee Stadium is no picnic for righthanded batters. Soriano has declined generally over the last two years, I don't think it has anything to do with home/road. His home numbers just helped cover up the decline.

Of course, I agree it was a bad baseball move. Wilkerson is underrated, especially considering he was hampered by injuries last year.
3.23.2006 12:20pm
KeithK (mail):
Richard, yes Major League Baseball is a monopoly. But the league has a congressionally mandated anti-trust exemption. So antitrust issues are irrelevant here.

Many, many times throughout baseball history players who came up as infielders have been moved to the outfield because their defense is poor. Soriano is a major league hitter, but he's not a major league second baseman. If Chuck Knoblauch hadn't inexplicably lost his ability to play defense Soriano would have been an outfielder five years ago. He ought to suck it up and start learning his new position.
3.23.2006 12:30pm
Timothy (mail) (www):
Biggio has played Catcher, Second, outfield and I think First for a time. I don't think players being asked, or told, to change positions is all that uncommon. Pitching is different, I think, but (and I use him as an example because I am an Astros fan) Brandon Backe used to play short stop in the minors or college, so it's not unheard of to move to pitcher.

That said, if everyone knows that Soriano is the worst defending second baseman in the national league, I don't see how moving to left (traditionally where one buries the guy with the weakest arm) decreases his value any.
3.23.2006 12:43pm
B. B.:
I wonder if some team won't try to make Soriano a CF instead of an LF eventually. Given a whole spring training to teach him (and he's got speed and an arm, the only unknown would be his instincts on fly balls), he might be decent at it. A center fielder with his HR/RBI and speed would command serious coin, probably comparable to a 2B with his stats. The number of center fielders who hit 30 HR's is not particularly high.

I still think it would be great if the Yankees could get Jeter into center field. He's marginal at best as a defensive SS, but given his instincts for the game (see the famous play in the playoffs that got Jeremy Giambi thrown out at the plate) and his cannon arm would make him potentally one of the great center fielders in the game to go with his quality bat. But that's a pipe dream. I'm satisfied letting the Yankees play with a sub-optimal team, it helps my White Sox.
3.23.2006 12:44pm
RPS (mail):

That said, if everyone knows that Soriano is the worst defending second baseman in the national league, I don't see how moving to left (traditionally where one buries the guy with the weakest arm) decreases his value any.


As others have noted above, the average LF puts up offensive numbers comparable to Soriano, whereas he's among the Top 5 or 6 offensive 2B. The thinking is that even though Soriano is a defensive liability at 2B, the number of runs he costs you is much less than the number of runs he generates compared to who you would replace him with.

In others words, all things considered:

Soriano + average LF >> average 2B + Soriano.

What I find ironic about all of this is that for years the same argument has been made to justify Vidro playing 2B. Make no mistake, Vidro has always been a very bad defensive player, but his bat, which was well above-average for 2B, is what kept him in the lineup.

Of course then you have Cristian Guzman, who is horrible at both.
3.23.2006 1:03pm
The NJ Annuitant (mail):
I have heard talk about the Mets being interested in Soriano. I hope they stay away from him. In the first place, Shea Stadium is a pitcher's park in every respect. Soriano will not have very good numbers at Shea. Secondly, with Delgado at first base, the Mets need a second baseman with good range,and a good glove. That's not Soriano ( nor is it K. Matsui). But it could be Anderson Hernandez, or possibly Jeff Keppinger.
3.23.2006 1:10pm
Richard Bellamy (mail):

Richard, yes Major League Baseball is a monopoly. But the league has a congressionally mandated anti-trust exemption. So antitrust issues are irrelevant here.


This is true, as to antitrust issues. However, I believe it can still be relevant background informing analyzing contract and labor laws. For example, if you want to use contract law and are considering whether you have a contract of adhesion, the fact that baseball is a monopoly may tip the balance in one direction. Similar uses are available in labor law.

The issue isn't whether you can challenge baseball as a monopoly -- it is that other relevant laws may be interpreted differently in monopoly vs. non-monopoly fact patterns.
3.23.2006 1:41pm
Edward Lee (www):
<i>Soriano + average LF >> average 2B + Soriano</i>

But looking at the Nationals' roster this year, it looks like they don't have an average LF, just a bunch of replacement-level ones.

Presumably they could make Vidro switch to LF instead of Soriano, but that yields the same offense and worse defense than the current arrangement.
3.23.2006 1:50pm
Matt Barr (mail) (www):
Until free agency the only leverage a player has is to not play (and not get paid). Whether you want to antagonize someone you've signed as a free agent might be informed by whether you want to re-sign him, or other free agents, but there's no such concern with a younger player.

The hypothetical about asking someone who isn't qualified to catch to catch doesn't ever come up -- the team would suffer fielding a catcher who couldn't play the position. It would simply cut, bench or demote someone they didn't want in their lineup.

Before they re-oriented themselves to the value of defense, the so-called Moneyball teams were signing good offensive players and worrying about where to play them afterward. (Ex.: Scott Hatteberg.) There's value in that philosophy, but now you see the A's fielding three center fielders in their everyday lineup -- defense does matter. The days of having talented offensive players play the most demanding defensive position they can physically survive are over.
3.23.2006 2:45pm
Bob Montgomery:
Alfonso Soriano isn't a good-fielding 2B, but fielding average doesn't tell you that. Fielding average tells you almost nothing useful about fielding performance.

The days of having talented offensive players play the most demanding defensive position they can physically survive are over.
Over for the As, maybe. The Red Sox and Yankees get by pretty well using that philosophy for about half the diamond. Bernie Williams and Derek Jeter have been poor defenders and excellent hitters (until recently for Williams) for about 6 years. The Yankees have won a lot of games during that time.
3.23.2006 3:25pm
Frank Drackmann (mail):
Anyone remember the American League player who played all 9 postions in one game back in the 1960s?
3.23.2006 3:52pm
B. B.:
If Williams and Jeter have been poor defenders and excellent hitters for the last six years or so, note how many titles the Yankees have won in that time?

For every '04 Red Sox team that mashes like hell and has OK defense and decent but not excellent pitching, there's teams like the '05 White Sox, who had an all-or-nothing HR offense, but great defense (two CF's and an athletic RF in the outfield and plus defenders all around the infield except maybe Konerko, who's not bad) and a quality, deep rotation. Since Billy Beane is all about finding inefficiencies to maximize his dollar value (the entire point of "Moneyball"), one might take notice that defense is likely undervalued as a skill right now...
3.23.2006 3:57pm
Kovarsky (mail):
Soriano is not a good fielder. That being said, his fielding percentage numbers are not as bad as they look (and they look REALLY bad - I believe the worst EVER), because he gets to so many balls that a lot of other 2B's wouldn't get to.

Biggio came up as a catcher mid-1988. He won the Silver Slugger award in 1989. He made the all star team in '91 at that position. He was so fast that between '88 and '92 they would play him in the outfield occasionally. In '92 spring they finally got him to move to 2B. He went on to go to the all star team another 4 or 5 times. A few years ago they needed him to play center, so he moved out there. Then Left, so he moved there. Then back to second, because they still can use a 40 year old guy that knocks down 25 bombs a year. For a stretch, the saber metrics guys have indicated that he was the best second baseman ever. 50 doubles and 50 steals. And the guy has gotten popped more than anybody in history.

It's hard for me to sympathize with soriano, watching biggio play his whole career. That being said, he'll be better than most with the nats because he's not a pure pull hitter, and he sprays the ball all over. If you're the Nats, hes more valuable than your average 30/100 guy because of where he hits the ball.
3.23.2006 3:59pm
J..:

one might take notice that defense is likely undervalued as a skill right now

Much like regular markets, if we can notice without any expertise, the market has/will correct :D

because he gets to so many balls that a lot of other 2B's wouldn't get to.

He is such a good athelete that you'd think this was true. Unfortuantely for him, just about every play-by-play defensive rating system says this isn't true: he simply is really bad.

So, for example, Ultimate Zone Rating (put out by MGL, now an analyst for the Cardinals) rated him (in 2005) as 20 runs BELOW the average second baseman per 150 games. This is essentially a ratins system that looks, as the name implies, to measure range. One year's worth of UZR data is not very useful, but I believe his past numbers were similarly bad. And, if you look at David Pinto's Probablistic Method of Range numbers (converted to run estimates here) he is equally dreadful.

He is a really bad fielder.
3.23.2006 5:22pm
Syd (mail):

Frank Drackmann (mail):
Anyone remember the American League player who played all 9 postions in one game back in the 1960s?


Bert Campaneris was the first to do it. Cesar Tovar, Scott Sheldon and Shane Halter also did it. Campaneris left in the ninth inning when a runner collided with him while Campaneris was catching.
3.23.2006 5:51pm
Wonderduck (mail) (www):

Alfonso Soriano is this generation's Juan Samuel.


I'll have to disagree... Samuel could at least pick a ground ball cleanly (usually). With Soriano, the ball needs to stop moving before he can grab it (and throw it into the dugout).

Soriano would be a GREAT DH. I have no idea how good he'll be in the OF, but since he can field a pop-fly without requiring stitches or oral surgery afterwards, I'm thinking he'll be tolerable.
3.23.2006 7:04pm
milo (mail):
Soriano is a terrible defensive 2B but he's a plus hitter there. In LF, he is a below-average hitter and there's nothing to suggest that he'll be a good defender there--he's likely to be below average considering he'll have 2 weeks to learn a position that he's never played in the biggest outfield in MLB (also the worst park for hitters). The question is, why trade a skilled CF in Wilkerson for a below-average LF convert?

Reading from the scriptures (Baseball Prospectus):

"...seeing Soriano move to his left is like watching a wagon train go west in real time--and if the Nats plan to move him to the outfield sticks, they'll discover what Derek Jeter pointed out years ago, that Soriano has the vertical leap of a sumo wrestler. He's about to become a massive disappointment."
3.23.2006 7:24pm
Frank Drackmann (mail):
Who was the major league pitcher who walked the first batter in a game, was thrown out for arguing with the umpire, and then had his relief pitcher retire the rest of the batters for a perfect game, and for a bonus, who was the relief pitcher?
3.23.2006 8:58pm
Frank Drackmann (mail):
Said pitcher was also the only player ever to end a world series by being caught stealing.
3.23.2006 9:21pm
DNL (mail):
Babe Ruth, Ernie Shore. The walked batter was caught stealing.
3.24.2006 9:38am