Player highlight: Geovany Soto

Well, I realized that we actually can do some hitter profiles if we are a bit selective. Since we don’t have HitTracker data on minor league players anyway, we can evaluate them right now. To kick things off, let’s take a look at Cubs catcher Geovany Soto. Let’s first check out his minor league numbers for the past three years.

Numbers

YEARAGELEVELABCRBB%BB/KLD%BABIPHRAB/HROF FB%HR/FB2B3BAB/(2B+3B)AB/XBH
200522AAA29278%14%0.6614%0.33247326%7%1402116
200623AAA34281%11%0.5618%0.33265728%8%2101613
200724AAA33875%12%0.5620%0.407261336%24%314106

Power

Wow. Where did that power come from in 2007? He went from hitting one home run every 57 at-bats in 2006 to hitting one every 13 at-bats in 2007 while seeing a rather large decrease in his contact rate. His HR/FB increased from 8% to 24%, and his fly ball rate significantly increased as well. Where did that all power come from? One might first think that it was there all along, and that it simply took Soto some time to translate it into home runs.

If we look at his at-bats per extra base hit (AB/XBH), we see another jump from 2006 to 2007. It looks like it might have been pretty decent to begin with when we look at it in comparison to AB/HR, but it really isn’t. In the majors in 2007, the average HR/FB was 6% and the average AB/HR was 66 among players with an AB/XBH between 13 and 16 and at least 250 plate appearances. If we look at players with an AB/XBH between 4 and 8, we see the AB/HR jump to 17 and the HR/FB jump to 19%. With that knowledge, I have a hard time believing he had all this power lying just below the surface.

So that begs the question: where did it come from? Well, it should be mentioned that it was Soto’s third year at Triple-A, but let’s not forget that he was 22 in his first go-around, which is pretty young for Triple A. He was still just 24 this past year, so a power spike shouldn’t be incredibly hard to believe. In addition, a sudden increase in power for a minor-leaguer is a little more believable than one for a major league veteran. It shouldn’t, however, be taken at face value, so let’s see what else we have to work with.

At First Pitch Arizona, John Sickels of Minor League Ball had some interesting things to say about Soto. The first was that he added strength this year. I haven’t been able to find this anywhere else on the internet (if you guys have, please let me know), but I think Sickels is a pretty reliable source for this type of thing. He also said that Soto tweaked his swing to add more loft to the balls he hits. If we look at his batted ball breakdown, we see that this statement is right in line with his numbers.

YEARLDOF FBGBIF FB
200514%26%56%3%
200618%28%51%3%
200720%36%40%4%

We see that in 2007 his ground ball rate took a significant dive, and his three types of balls that are hit in the air all increased. This seems to lend credence to what Sickels said about him altering his swing.

Putting all of this together, I have to believe that Soto’s power is, for the most part, for real. We are only looking at a one-year sample size, but the evidence looks to be in favor of Soto’s ability. It helps that his new-found power seemed to show up in his doubles and triples and not just his home runs.

Contact hitting

While Soto’s power increased exponentially in 2007, his contact rate fell to the lowest point of his 7-year minor league career. My first thought was that his new approach had something to do with it, but this table makes me skeptical. It shows the major league contact rates among players whose ground ball rates decreased by at least 5 points from one year to the next (at least 200 plate appearances in each year).

YEAR# QUALIFIEDYEAR 1 CRYEAR 2 CR
2004-20053282.8283.20
2005-20065582.6081.10
2006-20072285.8585.21

Note: Conclusions were the same even if we increase the margin between the ground ball rates.

As you see, the large decrease in contact rate that Soto experienced doesn’t appear in a larger sample size.

EDIT: Thanks to Dave Studeman for the following idea. Not sure why I didn’t think to check this along with ground ball rate. — D.C. 11/16/07

If we run a similar test using players who increased their HR/FB rates, we do see a trend emerge. The following table shows the change in contact rate from year-to-year among players who increased their HR/FB percentages by at least 5.

YEAR# QUALIFIEDYEAR 1 CRYEAR 2 CRDIFFERENCE
2004-20053982.7581.79-.96
2005-20063383.9882.05-1.93
2006-20071582.1880.73-1.45

If we alter the table to show the change when HR/FB percentages increase by at least 8, we see the difference get even larger. Be aware, though, that we are in small sample size territory here.

YEAR# QUALIFIEDYEAR 1 CRYEAR 2 CRDIFFERENCE
2004-20051982.7379.61-3.12
2005-2006782.3978.51-3.88
2006-2007480.7678.55-2.21

So maybe the drop in Soto’s contact rate isn’t unsubstantiated after all. His HR/FB percentage increased by 16 from 2006 to 2007, so a 6% drop in his contact rate isn’t unreasonable.

If he plays in the majors next year (which we’ll talk about in a little bit), I think a contact rate around 73% would seem about right, assuming the adjustment to the next level. It could be higher, but I think that is a good guess.

END OF EDIT: The final stats have also been adjusted to reflect the changed contact rate prediction.

The final component of batting average is BABIP. His .407 BABIP this year was ridiculous (in both a good and lucky way), and will certainly regress, but it is still an excellent sign. While we’ve already established that line drive rate isn’t a very stable statistic, it was 18% last year and 20% this year, and his new swing should only help keep it around this area. As we know, BABIP is incredibly difficult to predict because of the high variability of it, but Soto looks well-equipped to put up some pretty good ones.

2008 Outlook – Playing time

As of now, there are only two catchers on the Cubs’ 40-man roster. Those two catchers are Henry Blanco and our new friend, Geovany Soto. 24-year old Jake Fox is also on the roster, but he played mostly first base and outfield this year. Jason Kendall is a free-agent, and it doesn’t appear that the Cubs will look to re-sign him.

I have a hard time seeing the Cubs starting Henry Blanco, especially after Soto’s breakout year. They could look to bring in a more established veteran catcher, and having Lou Piniella as a manager probably isn’t the ideal situation for a young guy looking for consistent PT.

Still, I don’t see a whole lot of better options for the Cubs. Even if they brought in a guy like Yorvit Torrealba or Ramon Castro, would they really expect him to be a huge upgrade over what Soto could do? I just think the Cubs will decide that the money is better spent elsewhere, leaving Soto the winner by default (even though he certainly deserves the opportunity).

All this being said, I’d put my money on Geovany Soto as the Opening Day catcher for the Chicago Cubs.

2008 Outlook – Stats

So, assuming Soto gets the job catching for the Cubs, where does that leave his likely stat output? As I say everytime I project a minor leaguer, there is a good deal of uncertainty with this. Still, I think the measures we’re using are pretty darn good, so let’s give it a go.

First, let’s put him at a 73% contact rate and a .320 BABIP. I think they both seem reasonable, although the BABIP could easily be a higher or lower. It was great in the minors, but how good will it really be as a rookie in the majors?

The power is a bit more difficult to predict. He managed 3 homers in 54 major league at-bats this year (20% HR/FB) and — as we’ve discussed — did quite well in Triple A. Let’s give him a 15% HR/FB for 2008.

The easiest projection is the steals. He’s attempted two over the past three seasons and was caught both times. I think 0 steals is a good guess, don’t you?

With that information, where do we see him hitting in the Cubs lineup? Well, the #1, #3, and #4 spots seem pretty set with Alfonso Soriano, Derrek Lee, and Aramis Ramirez. I don’t see Soto hitting second, either, where Ryan Theriot will probably hit (unless they sign Kaz Matsui, in which case he could hit second and Theriot could be #8).

That leaves #5-8 for Soto and a few other guys. Right now it looks like Felix Pie, Matt Murton, and Mark DeRosa are the most likely to fill those spots. A 5-8 of DeRosa, Soto, Murton, Pie might be a decent guess. Of course, the Cubs could easily add another big bat, which would certainly change this up.

In 2007, Michael Barrett spent most of his time batting 6th, while Jason Kendall was primarily used in the 8th spot. Soto is much more comparable to Barrett, so I think 6th is a reasonable place to put him.

Let’s put him down for 500 plate appearances. Let’s also assign him an 8% walk rate. He has shown a good ability to walk in the minors, but it is likely to decrease a little at the next level. 8% is still good, and that would put him at 460 at-bats.

When we run the calculations on the all the above numbers, we get a .260 batting average and 18 home runs over 460 at-bats.

For curiosity’s sake, if we bump the BABIP up to .350, Soto’s batting average would be .280. If it were .290, though, the batting average would be .239. Not a lot of room for error… or bad luck.

As far as the two remaining categories go, I think he should fare pretty well with RBIs. As long as the power is there, batting sixth should give him enough RBI opportunities to have positive value in that category.

He’s pretty slow and won’t have many power bats behind him, so his runs probably won’t be as good. Really, though, how many catchers score a lot of runs? His walk rate should help, so I don’t think he’ll really hurt you with runs. We’ll be able to get more precise as the season nears and we have a more certain lineup in place.

Market value

I’ve decided to make “market value” its own section given how important it is. In here, we’ll simply list the player’s rankings from different lists as they begin to come out and what we should make of them. For now, we have lists from CBS Sportsline, FOX Sports (thanks, John Halpin, for the e-mail!), and a few others I’ve run across. Once the NFBC starts listing Average Draft positions for 2008 (which should begin next month), we’ll add that to the list as well.

If you guys have come across any more lists, please shoot me an e-mail. The more information we can gather about the market, the better!

CBS Sportsline: 25th Catcher
FOX Sports: 10th Catcher
MLB 411: Not in Top 10 Catchers
FantasyScope: Not in Top 10 Catchers

Looks like CBS isn’t too high on Soto, but it seems that John Halpin at FOX Sports is really high on him. Halpin said, “Soto’s been installed by Vegas oddsmakers as the early favorite to be the player that’s on all my fantasy teams in 2008.” Let’s hope this doesn’t become a trend, as Soto would be a fantastic pick if you could get him for the market value CBS has set. It’ll be interesting to see where Soto ranks as more sites start to chime in.

Concluding thoughts

Well, that concludes THT Fantasy Focus’s first hitter profile of the off-season. Overall, I think Soto could be a great fantasy pick in 2008, but his value is a bit limited.

It would take an abnormally high BABIP, a home run rate that doesn’t drop off from its AAA level, or a career-best contact rate for him to raise that batting average to a more acceptable level. His homers and RBIs should be good, though, and we can’t forget that he is a catcher. A .260 batting average for a catcher isn’t nearly as bad as it would be for, say, an outfielder.

We’ll have to wait until I run the projections on all the catchers, but I think Soto could be set up as an excellent value pick in 2008. As the 10th catcher, the return on him would be severely diminished, if existent. If you can grab him as your second catcher after 15 or so other have come off the board, though, I think Soto could be considered a bona-fide sleeper. This is a situation to watch very carefully as the season nears, preparing to pounce if more people don’t realize what Soto is capable of.

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