By Tommy Rancel //
It was not too long ago when Geovany Soto was considered a future star in Chicago. The Cubs catcher looked like a major offensive weapon at a position largely void of heavy hitters, hitting .285/.364/.504 (AVG/OBP/SLG) in his breakout 2008 campaign and earning National League Rookie of the Year honors.
The bar was set high for Soto in 2009. But his season got off to a rough start. As a member of Team Puerto Rico in the World Baseball Classic, word broke of a failed drug test. In addition to the off-field problems, Soto struggled on the field for most of 2009, hitting just .218/.321/.381 in his second full season.
Soto saw steep declines in several categories, including: home runs (23 to 11), RBI (86 to 47) and runs scored (66 to 27). After playing 141 games in ’08, he played just 102 games in ’09, as a strained oblique knocked out a chunk of his summer.
Healthy, and seemingly clear of trouble, Soto has rebounded to 2008 levels and beyond. The 27-year-old is hitting .298/.463/.468 after 32 games in 2010. He has already scored 17 runs after crossing the plate just 27 times last year.
Soto’s strong start is similar to that of Carlos Ruiz; whom we spoke about last week. Like Ruiz, Soto has been the beneficiary of a lucky batting average on balls in play (BABIP). His career BABIP is .310. So far this year that number sits at .353. On the other hand, his .246 BABIP in ’09 suggests there was some bad luck last season.
His high 2010 BABIP is driven by a robust 26.4% line drive rate. As mentioned in the Ruiz post, only four players had an LD% above 24% last year. Soto’s career rate is 20.3%.
There will likely be some regression here, but it shouldn’t be too damaging. ZiPs projects him to hit .275 at season’s end. That’s an expected 23-point drop from his current level, but still above his career average of .268.
In another similarity to Ruiz, Soto is walking more than ever. Soto has always had a good walk rate (12% career), but is now walking nearly 1/4 of the time. For the first time in his career, his walk rate (23.6%) tops his strikeout rate (23.4%). That’s a rare feat seen only among players with the sharpest batting eyes.
The improved walk rate has a direct correlation to improved pitch selection. Career-wise, Soto has swung at 18.8% of pitches outside of the strike zone (O-Swing%). In 2010, he is chasing just 12.5% of pitches out of the zone – the second-lowest percentage in the majors (min. 90 plate appearances).
If you own Soto, hang on to him. His batting average will likely regress, but the improved plate discipline should allow him to maintain an excellent on-base percentage. He also continues to show good power from behind the dish, another rarity.
If you don’t have Soto and need a catcher, make sure to put his name at the top of your shopping list. The bounty is likely too high right now, but if his average starts to slip, the price may come down. At that point, be prepared to strike quickly.
For more on Geovany Soto, Carlos Ruiz, and potential breakouts, check out Bloomberg Sports’ fantasy kits.