Offensive Production Masks Solid Defense

Lost among Alfonso Soriano's gaudy offensive numbers  --  45 home runs, 39 steals  --  are his 19 outfield assists. Defense
Lost among Alfonso Soriano's gaudy offensive numbers -- 45 home runs, 39 steals -- are his 19 outfield assists. Defense "means the most to me," he said. (By John Mcdonnell -- The Washington Post)
By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, September 12, 2006

PHOENIX, Sept. 11 -- Alfonso Soriano's first -- and perhaps only -- season for the Washington Nationals will be long remembered for the sheer offensive numbers. He entered Monday's game against the Arizona Diamondbacks needing just one stolen base to become the fourth player with 40 steals and 40 homers in the same season, putting him in elite company.

But ask Soriano what he is most proud of this year, and the answer is somewhat surprising.

"The defense," he said. "That means the most to me."

Soriano moved, quite reluctantly, from second base to left field this season, and though scouts still consider him below average at the position, he is infinitely better than he was during spring training. Monday night, he threw out Arizona's Orlando Hudson -- who was trying to stretch a single into a double -- for his major league-leading 20th outfield assist, making him the only player in history with 40 homers, 30 steals and 20 assists.

"To go to left field for the first time and throw out 19, 20 guys, no one thought I could do that," Soriano said before the game. "That's the first time I do it, the first time I play left."

Recently, teams have stopped running on Soriano as much as they did early in the season, and his chances for assists have fallen off precipitously. He admits to finally being comfortable in left, but he doesn't agree with the suggestion that playing the outfield -- a less demanding defensive spot than second base -- actually has helped him offensively.

"They're two different games," he said. "When I'm hitting, I never think about my defense. When I play defense, I don't think about my hitting."

Schneider's Numbers Fall

From 2003 to '05, catcher Brian Schneider threw out 43.5 percent of would-be base stealers, the best mark in baseball over that three-year span. But this year, his percentage has fallen off alarmingly. Entering Monday's game, Schneider had thrown out only 18 of 67 runners, a percentage of 26.9 -- 10th in the majors.

The number eats at Schneider, who takes pride in his defense, and he was particularly irked last month when a poor throw led to questions about whether he is healthy -- leading to an uncharacteristic, profanity-laced tirade in the clubhouse. But pitching coach Randy St. Claire believes Schneider's statistics would be markedly better if his pitching staff did a better job of holding runners on.

"Absolutely, it's affected him," St. Claire said. "We've had some guys who are slow to the plate -- way too slow -- and he's had no chance."

St. Claire wants his pitchers to have a time of 1.3 seconds or better from the time they break their set to when the ball hits the mitt. "We have guys that are 1.5 or more -- sometimes much more," he said.

St. Claire is working with the young staff, and he said several players have improved later in the season. (Livan Hernandez, a particularly egregious offender, was traded to Arizona.) In turn, Schneider has thrown out six of the last 13 men to attempt steals against him.

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