Buy Low on Soto

One year after capturing the N.L. Central division crown by a sizeable margin, the Chicago Cubs limped to a deflating 83-78 mark in 2009. There were a number of reasons for the downturn, outside of the usual hocus-pocus about goats and an overeager fan with questionable taste in lime green turtlenecks.

Aramis Ramirez missed considerable time with a shoulder injury. Milton Bradley left his power stroke at the airport baggage claim. Alfonso Soriano turned in a sub-replacement-level campaign.

Another oft-cited reason for Chicago’s mild performance was the “sophomore slump” of catcher Geovany Soto. Geo crushed pitchers in 2008 for a .371 wOBA, displaying secondary skills that most backstops could only dream of.

But in 2009, the injury-wracked Soto posted a .310 wOBA. His bat declined by nearly two and a half wins: Soto compiled +17.1 Park-Adjusted Batting Runs in ’08, but he declined to -7.7 Batting Runs in ’09. Slowed by shoulder and oblique problems, Geovany lost playing time to Koyie Hill down the stretch. What gives? Was Soto a flash in the pan?

The answer would appear to be a resounding “no.”

Soto drew walks in 11.2% of his PA in 2008, while offering at 20.1% of pitches thrown outside of the strike zone (25% MLB average). In 2009, he walked 13.1%, while showing even more restraint on out-of-the-zone offerings (17.8 O-Swing%).

Geo’s K rate was largely unchanged. He punched out 24.5% in ’08, and 23.3% in ’09. Soto actually did a better job of making contact this past season. The soon-to-be 27 year-old put the bat on the ball 83.4% of the time on pitches within the zone in 2008. In ’09, his Z-Contact% climbed to 87.3% (87.8% MLB average).

Granted, Soto didn’t hit for as much power in 2009. But how many catchers not named “Piazza” can hold a near-.220 ISO year in and year out? We should have expected that number to regress in 2009. And it’s not like Soto was a weakling this past year: he had a .163 ISO.

So, Soto posted a higher walk rate, swung at fewer pitches off the plate, punched out less often, made more contact on in-zone pitches and still displayed plenty of pop for the position that he plays. How is it that his line tumbled so badly?

In 2008, Geovany had a .337 BABIP. In ’09, his BABIP fell off a cliff, down to .251.

As a catcher who runs like he has a piano strapped to his shoulders (2.0 career Speed Score, compared to the 5.0 MLB average), Soto won’t beat out many close plays at first. But his career minor league BABIP was .359, and his career BABIP in the majors is .310.

We can use Derek Carty’s Expected BABIP tool to get a better idea of Soto’s BABIP range, based upon his rate of HR’s, K’s, SB’s, line drives, fly balls, pop ups and groundballs.

Carty’s tool is based upon the excellent research of Peter Bendix and Chris Dutton. Their work found a positive relationship between BABIP and batter’s eye (BB/K rate), line drive percentage, Speed Score and P/PA. Dutton and Bendix’s XBABIP model does the best job of predicting future BABIP.

Based on his 2008 numbers, Soto’s XBABIP was .316, compared to his actual .337 mark. In 2009, Geovany’s XBABIP was .314. Remember, his actual BABIP was .251, a staggering 63 points lower. Even assuming all additional hits were singles, Soto’s line would have been .281/.384/.444 instead of his actual .218/.321/.381 triple-slash.

Soto had some extra bounces go his way in ’08, and then appeared to have terrible luck on balls put in play in 2009. His core skills, however, scarcely changed. His XBABIP numbers in 2008 and 2009 were nearly identical, and match up quite nicely with his career .310 BABIP.

Bill James’ projections peg Geo for a .273/.361/.469 line in 2010, good for a .362 wOBA. Sean Smith just released his CHONE 2010 projections, and he has Soto at .265/.354/.456. That equates to a wOBA around .355.

For reference, only six catchers with 300+ PA posted a wOBA better than .350 in 2009. The average wOBA at the position was .310.

Don’t forget Soto’s name on draft day. Some may have soured on him, but the Cubs backstop looks like a prime bounce-back candidate.




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A recent graduate of Duquesne University, David Golebiewski is a contributing writer for Fangraphs, The Pittsburgh Sports Report and Baseball Analytics. His work for Inside Edge Scouting Services has appeared on ESPN.com and Yahoo.com, and he was a fantasy baseball columnist for Rotoworld from 2009-2010. He recently contributed an article on Mike Stanton's slugging to The Hardball Times Annual 2012. Contact David at david.golebiewski@gmail.com and check out his work at Journalist For Hire.


12 Responses to “Buy Low on Soto”

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  1. From both a real-life and fantasy perspective, Geovany Soto’s 2009 season has been a massive disappointment. From a .285/.365/.504 triple slash line in 2008 to a .218/.323/.380 line in 2009, many people (from sports radio hosts to blog writers) have called Geo Soto this season’s biggest disappointment, citing such baseless claims as “the sophomore jinx” and “it’s mentally difficult to play in Chicago.” I would agree that Geovany Soto’s 2009 season has been disappointing, but for entirely separate reasons, many of which leave hope for 2010.

    At the first and foremost level behind “the slump,” Geovany Soto’s 2009 season has been marred by a series of shoulder and oblique injuries. Injuries that, especially early on, the Cubs never let properly heal. After straining his shoulder in the beginning of the season, a look at Soto’s game log reveals that the Cubs only sat their backstop out for five games (pinch hitting him once in that span). Shoulder injuries, as anyone named B.J. Upton or this Orthopedic study will attest, can unequivocally disable a player’s performance level. I’m no Doctor, but from what I can gather, the shoulder muscles (specifically the supraspinatus muscle) are essential to arm elevation and stabilization of dynamic arm motion. Additionally, injuries and pain in the shoulder “may manifest throughout the body.” This is not to even mention the fact that hitting for power comes from the torque generated by the hips and from the oblique muscles.

    So what does this all mean? It means you absolutely don’t rush someone with a shoulder strain (or an oblique injury) back to the lineup; you give them time to heal and recuperate, rather force them to play hurt and potentially aggravate minor injuries (for more information on aggravating minor injuries, check out what the Mets did to Johan Santana this season, despite an All-Star break evaluation that indicated Johan was pitching through persistent soreness). A look at Soto’s monthly splits from 2009 highlights the effect of injury on a player’s game — the .398 OPS in April and .731 OPS in May clearly indicate that Soto’s power stroke was greatly affected by the early season injury that was never allowed to properly heal. He looked healthy come June (.916) and early July (.841), until a oblique injury in the beginning of the second half sidelined him over a month and again affected his power stroke (.492 OPS). Soto’s been strong in the EXTREMELY tiny sample size of September PA’s he’s been given (1.214 OPS in 9 PA’s), but with the Cubs disasterously disappointing 2009 season almost over (11.5 games back of the Cardinals), the Cubs (and Geovany Soto) should focus more on resting their all-star backstop for next season rather than “breaking him out of his slump” — especially because Soto’s core skillset has improved each season in the majors, including this year.

    Outside the power aspect, which I strongly account to mismanaged injury, Geovany Soto’s peripheral statistics have simultaneously improved and been the subject of poor luck this season. In 2007 and 2008, Soto has respective K rates of 25.9% and 24.5%. This season, Soto has continued to shave down the strikeouts, posting a 23.2 K%. Over this same time frame, Soto has increased his BB rate from 8.5% to 11.2% to a current rate of 13.4%. Soto has gone from a batter with a giant hole in his swing (0.36 BB/K in 2007) to a hitter with quality command of the strike zone (0.67 BB/K, 0.50 MLB avg). Soto has largely accomplished this step forward in his game by gradually cutting down on his hacks at pitches outside of the zone (22.3% O-Swing in 2007, 20.5% in 2008, 18.1% in 2009; MLB avg is around 25.1%). Soto has also increased his contact rate this season (77.6% in 2009, 74.7% in 2009).

    The usually elite line drive rate is down a significant chunk (from 21% to 19.8%) compared to last season, but that may have a lot to do with his shoulder injury early in the season (it is difficult to drive the ball when you have lingering soreness and pain lifting the shoulder). This may account for some, but not all of the 86-point plummet in BABIP — the rest has been pure bad luck. Even at his depressed seasonal LD%, Soto’s quick XBABIP (LD%+.120) is somewhere around .315 or .320 — well below the .251 mark he’s posted on the season. The massively low BABIP (and consistent 1.9ish speed score over 2007-2009) screams for better days ahead. It’s not like smoking marijuana slows down your reflexes or anything, right?

    Put this all together and you get the portrait of a productive player who has been hampered by injury and bad luck. Geovany Soto’s minor and major league numbers indicate that he has the legitimate power — even if his true maintainable ISO is only around .180 (Matt Kemp territory), well below the .200 career average mark, he’s still a 20+ HR hitter — and quality eye (13.4 BB% this season, 11.4% career average) to provide the Cubs lineup with the necessary offensive production required for success. 2009 may be a lost cause, but if the Cubs can keep Soto healthy going into 2010 and get some positive luck regression from Geovany Soto (in addition to Alfonso Soriano and Milton Bradley), the Cubs prospects for success in 2010 look pretty good. Not as good as they appeared going into this season, but Cubs fans should have some hope going into next season — especially if pre-wrist injury Derrek Lee is back for good. Let’s just hope the re-sign Rich Harden in the offseason.

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  2. Shilzzz says:

    Even if “pre-wrist injury Derrek Lee is back” he’s still on the wrong side of 30, and rolling down that hill quickly. I like his skill set for aging by and large, but 09 is the last great season DLee will have.

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  3. Big Oil says:

    Well this comment can’t possibly disappoint based on the two above, right?

    Dave, or anyone else who knows, I’ve been curious as to where/how you calculate projected slash lines based off of xBABIP rather than actual BABIP. Could you please explain this to me? I can’t seem to get the side of my brain charged with doing math-related activities going.

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  4. DanDuke says:

    What I would do is use the formula for BABIP (H – HR) / ( AB – K – HR – SF). To find how many extra hits the guy would have with the new BABIP, plug in the new BABIP, hold all other variables the same, and solve for hits.

    Take that new hit total divided by AB to get AVG.
    Insert that new hit total into the OBP formula to get the new OBP.
    SLG will just be AVG + ISO Slug. Since ISO wouldn’t change (assuming all new hits are singles), that simplifies the arithmetic considerably. So just add the new AVG to the current difference between AVG and SLG.

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    • Samuel Lingle says:

      That method probably underestimates slugging a bit then since some of the bad luck he’s getting would probably be on line drives and fly balls getting caught more often when those would usually fall in for extra bases, right?

      I suppose you could look at BABIP on each ball type and figure out how many more fly balls and line drives would drop in and compare that to XBH rates for each of them for that player, but that’s probably way too much work.

      BABIP fluctuations probably don’t affect ISO too much anyway since ISO is so HR reliant, but I’d think they’d have at least a bit of a noticeable effect.

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    • Big Oil says:

      Thanks Dan.

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  5. the fast, easy way is .120+LD

    A guy with avg speed and a 20% ld rate has a .320ish xBABIP.

    there is more on xBABIP at THT:
    http://www.hardballtimes.com/main/fantasy/article/whats-the-best-babip-estimator/

    Also, there is an xBABIP calculator here:
    http://www.hardballtimes.com/main/fantasy/article/simple-xbabip-calculator/

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  6. Phillip says:

    Game Of Inches did a great look at Soto’s 2009 in two parts.

    Part 1 looked at the effect of the types of injuries Soto sustained on his hitting

    http://gameofinches.blogspot.com/2009/09/geovany-soto-where-have-you-gone_08.html

    Part 2 did some overlap analysis that was done in this post.

    http://gameofinches.blogspot.com/2009/12/geovany-soto-where-have-you-gone-part-2.html

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  7. brent griffin says:

    Like Jeff said, the LD% is something of a concern. 2008 he had a 21%, but 2009 was a career low 18.1. I agree the wrist could have something to do with it, but it could also be a huge indication that he will bounce back but not by much. I am just not sure.

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    • I think you should expect big things from my man soto. Catchers not names Wieters/McCann/Mauer/Martinez are incredible fungible. You can get AJ Pierzynski in the 20th rd with a .285 avg and double digit dingers. Why not risk Soto at his current ADP (170ish)?

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