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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.