The Rise of the Latino Slugger


Back in 1974, The Sports Encyclopedia: Baseball published “The Black, White, and Latin Report,” which examined the performance of these three groups between Jackie Robinson’s rookie year and 1973. It found that black players consistently led the others in batting average, stolen bases, and power over those 27 seasons, while Latino players, on average, led whites in BA and steals, but lagged in homers and slugging average.

This suggested that players of color had to outperform Caucasians to earn playing time, and showed that African Americans were the game’s best sluggers, while Latinos were the weakest.

What a difference a generation can make. Today, the stereotype of the Latino as a speedy slap-hitter is badly obsolete. Hispanic players are now as likely to crush a ball as they are to turn a double play or steal a base.

Not convinced? Witness Sammy Sosa, the only player ever to have three 60-HR seasons. Sammy also has four straight 50-HR seasons, a record shared with Mark McGwire, and one that he could extend this year. Look at Alex Rodriguez, who leads the majors in dingers and has hit more than 50 in each of the past two seasons—no other middle infielder has hit 50 even once. Or check out Viagra spokesman Raffy Palmeiro, who’s gotten enough wood on the ball to put him third on the active lifetime HR list (Sosa is second). According to STATS Inc.’s projections, the player most likely to top Hank Aaron’s lifetime HR total is not current active leader Barry Bonds, but Sosa.

Setting aside four-baggers for a moment, let’s examine some other facets of slugging:

• The first four players to reach 90 RBI this year were named Rodriguez, Garciaparra, Tejada, and Ordoñez.

• Four of the top five RBI positions are presently occupied by Latinos.

• Karim Garcia, a part-time player for Cleveland, recently had 44 RBI in a 35-game stretch.

• Four of this year’s top five doubles hitters are Latino.

• The first six players to reach 250 total bases this season were named Soriano, Rodriguez, Guerrero, Sosa, Tejada, and Ordoñez.

• Alfonso Soriano leads the majors with 89 extra-base hits, 13 more than Barry Bonds.

• Two years ago, Edgar Martinez, contemporary baseball’s least heralded great hitter, broke a Babe Ruth record by batting in 145 runs as a 37-year-old, and followed that up in 2001 with 116, the most ever by a 38-year-old.

Edgar Martinez’s 37 homers at age 37 were also impressive for someone of his advanced age, which brings us back to that key slugging indicator. The recent surge of Latin home-run hitters means that many of the sluggers on the group’s all-time list are active, and thus are still increasing their totals. This is far less the case with African Americans, and it isn’t the case with white guys, now that Mark McGwire is gone. None of the top 20 white home-run hitters are active. Four of the leading 20 African Americans are suited up this year, but an astounding 14 of the top 20 Latinos are active this season. Looking at this year’s performance, the top 10 Latinos are averaging 39 HR so far, compared with 36 for the top 10 whites and 29 for the top 10 African Americans.

The rise of the Latino slugger overlaps another significant development, the emergence of the slugging middle infielder. Shortstop has now become an important power position, and today’s premier slugging shortstops are Latino. (This may be a good place to define Latino for the purposes of this article: It’s someone who has Spanish blood or a Spanish surname, or who comes from a country that’s predominantly Spanish-speaking.)

On August 7, the top three major-league RBI slots were all filled by shortstops, something that would have been inconceivable in the 20th century. Need we say that these shortstops were Alex Rodriguez, Miguel Tejada, and Nomar Garciaparra? While not performing at that astonishing level—who could?—some other Latino shortstops are worth noting: Defensive wizard Omar Vizquel is having his best power season at age 35, peaking with a fine .486 slugging average by the start of August. Jose Hernandez has 24 HR and a .473 slugging average, and Alex S. Gonzalez, Alex Cora, and Edgar Renteria are putting up slugging averages in the .429-.445 range, which is good for the shortstop position.

The most interesting of the current crop of Latino sluggers, and of the power-hitting middle-infielder group, is Yankee second baseman Alfonso Soriano. In only his second full year, he’s on pace to meet some tough milestones and break some records. His 39 HRs lead the team that led the majors for most of the year. His 48 doubles broke the Yankee righty record previously held by Joe DiMaggio.

Soriano’s projected 103 RBI in the leadoff spot would break Darrin Erstad’s ML record. As of last Friday, he needed only one more HR to become just the fourth member of the 40-40 club (HRs and steals), and the third Latino to earn that distinction. Remarkably, he would become the first member of the 40-40-40 club (doubles, HRs, and steals).

Soriano’s offensive skill set creates an interesting puzzle for manager Joe Torre. His speed and stealing ability are well suited to the leadoff slot, but do you want to have a slugger bat first, where he’s less likely to come up with men on base? Standard logic says to put him in the middle of the lineup, where he can knock in more teammates, but another strategy is to keep him at the top of the lineup, where he’ll come to the plate more often.

For all his eye-popping numbers, however, let’s remember that Soriano is still a 24-year-old with some holes in his offensive game. He seems to swing at everything, and it shows in his whopping 159 projected strikeouts and miniscule 20 projected walks—the worst ratio in baseball for everyday players. Here, the Dominican kid fits an old stereotype of Caribbean players: a free swinger unwilling to draw bases on balls. The K’s are not so bad, but the dearth of walks is a problem. He may become the first player in baseball history with 20 fewer walks than HRs, and his walks-to-dingers ratio is now under 50 percent. Consequently, his offensive value is less than conventional numbers suggest. Measured by an advanced method such as Clay Davenport’s “equivalent average” (a number that puts all offensive events into context), Soriano is only the third-best-hitting Yankee, behind Jason Giambi and a fellow Latino, Bernie Williams. He leads the team in outs made, but he’s only fourth in reaching base. As good as Soriano is, he’s still green and has time to improve. If he can learn plate discipline, he could become the best Yankee hitter since the Mick.