- FanGraphs Baseball - http://www.fangraphs.com/blogs -

Piniella Loses His Marbles

In the last month, the Cubs have played 27 games. 15 of those have been started by Geovany Soto, while 12 have been started by Koyie Hill.

Soto is hitting .268/.409/.458, good for a .387 wOBA.
Hill is hitting .236/.267/.292, good for a .245 wOBA.

It gets worse. We’re over halfway through the month of June, and Soto has 22 plate appearances. Hill has 27. As the Cubs season slips away, Lou Piniella has decided that one of the ways he can get his team to win games is to change catchers, despite the fact that Soto is one of the best hitting catchers in the game while Hill is one of the worst.

The reason, of course, is the old manager crutch: handling pitchers. Since Hill can’t hit, he’s earned the reputation as a good defender. Piniella believes he’s simply exchanging offense for defense by putting Hill in the lineup. The problem is that there is absolutely nothing in the record that he could possibly lean on to support playing Hill with such frequency.

Soto is poor at throwing out basestealers. He is just 8 for 41 this year, a 20 percent success rate. Hill? 3 for 16, a 19 percent success rate.

Lou doesn’t like the way Soto handles a pitching staff, and believes the guys on the mound perform better with Hill behind the plate. Opponents are hitting .253/.324/.392 when Soto catchers, and .236/.308/.383 when Hill catches. The difference is tiny, and is entirely wrapped up in BABIP – the team’s BB/K rate is actually slightly better when Soto catches.

In fact, if you look back over the last three years, the Cubs have allowed 4.18 runs per game when Hill starts and 4.27 runs per game when Soto starts. Even if you believe in something like catchers ERA (you shouldn’t, but that’s another story), the observed difference between Hill and Soto is less than a tenth of a run per game.

The observed difference between Soto and Hill at the plate is much, much larger. Even using a regressed projection like the rest-of-season ZiPS, we would see a .362 wOBA for Soto and a .289 wOBA for Hill, which translates to about .25 runs per four plate appearances.

Plain and simple: Piniella is screwing up. He’s playing a bad player over a good player in an effort to win more games. It’s not like the team is responding to the move, either. On May 17th, the Cubs were 17-22, 5 1/2 games out of first place. Today, they are 29-36, 6 1/2 games out of first place. They’ve gone 12-14 since Piniella decided to make Soto a part-time player.

The Cubs are almost certainly going to have a house cleaning at some point in the near future. In the best interest of the organization, their manager should probably be part of that, and the franchise should make “Is Geovany Soto a better catcher than Koyie Hill?” the first question they ask in the interview process.