What's Wrong With Soriano?

Amid all the talk and frustration regarding the maligned Yankee bullpen, one question that was on the backburner is now starting to come to the forefront for both the Yankees and their fans: What's wrong with Alfonso Soriano? A guy dubbed by Sports Illustrated as "The Next Great Yankee" is suddenly looking very ordinary. Where's the guy that was looking like an MVP in April and May?

Baseball, like all sports, is about making adjustments. Established major leaguers stick around because of their ability to adapt to the always-changing way opponents go about trying to best them. That's why so many flash-in-the-panners struggle to hit their weight after a few months in the bigs. Once a weakness is found, it is exploited and exploited until one of two things happens: either the player combats that weakness with an adjustment or he's asking customers if they want paper or plastic.

Remember Kevin Maas, the stud prospect who was turning the Yankee Stadium bleachers into his personal baseball deposit safe? Didn't hear much from Maas after that first year or two though. Why? Word spread that he struggled with pitch X (and probably Y and Z), and pretty soon it was evident he couldn't hang with the big boys.

Now, it's not like the Yankees are ready to send Soriano down or give up on him. There has never been a major leaguer who avoided a prolonged batting slump. Better players than Soriano have had streaks where they hit the skids a lot harder and a lot longer than he has. A handful of people around baseball probably don't even think anything of this recent slide.

But it's the way that he has struggled that might be cause for alarm. Not much is made of Soriano's free-swinging ways when he's ripping liner after liner into the gap. But the pea rods coming off his bat back in the spring have been replaced by lazy popups and flailing whiffs in summer. Could it just be fatigue? Perhaps, given that Soriano was carrying the load when Derek Jeter and Bernie Williams were shelved with injuries, Jason Giambi's vision was worse than a bat's, and Hideki Matsui was giving every AL second baseman fielding practice.

Yet it seems like Soriano has been swinging at more bad pitches than usual. At times, it's as if he's deciding to swing before the pitcher releases the ball. The result: only three multi-hit games the past month (he started the season with six straight), a mere eight homers since May 30th (he had that many in April alone), and an ugly on-base percentage, particularly for a leadoff hitter, of .330.

Soriano will never be a prototypical leadoff man; it's not his nature. He's made it this far because of his aggressiveness, his attacking approach at the plate. Unfortunately for him, he seems to have crossed the fine line between aggressive and undisciplined. The Yankees can deal with his 26/91 walk-to-strikeout ratio when he's hitting .320, but not nearly as comfortably when he's hovering around .280.

Always a plate-crowder, Soriano appears to stand closer to the dish than ever. Owner of possibly the quickest hands in the game, he has been daring pitchers to beat him inside. While fastballs still don't get by him, all he can do with a tight heater is pull it foul. In addition, he has shown little will power in laying off breaking balls in the dirt. It's no coincidence that he has been receiving an increased dosage of that pitch lately as well.

Aside from the technical aspect of his performance, here's another thought on Soriano: his mannerisms are not always up to par, particularly by Yankee standards. Manager Joe Torre has had to lecture Soriano on several occasions about his showboating/admiring of long fly balls. Note to Alfonso: follow the lead of your double-play partner and start acting a little more professional. There's something to be said for the connection between playing like and champ and acting like one.

Now don't take these observations as an overreaction. Soriano has the tools to be one of the all-time greats. Guys with the ability to go 40-40 for the next two decades don't come around too often. But as the old adage goes, talent can only take you so far.

Soriano is facing the first bit of adversity in his young career. Part of every Yankee fan says that he'll soon break out of his slump, that his talent will take over and #12 will regain his true form. But another part has to be concerned when Torre moved him down to 8th in the order. It's clear that his skid is lasting longer than expected.

The adjustments Soriano makes are key to his growth and development as a player – not to mention vital to the team. The next few weeks will show a great deal about not only Soriano's ability, but also his character.

It may not be time for the panic button, but it is time to start hitting.

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