[Ed. – The following is another guest post from freelance reporter and ESPNChicago.com contributor, Sahadev Sharma. Last week, I asked whether we were ever going to see a nice “farewell” article about Geovany Soto. Sahadev answered.]
It’s been over a week since Geovany Soto was traded to the Texas Rangers for AA pitcher Jacob Brigham, and Soto’s absence has barely been acknowledged by both fans and the media alike. Count me among those who has hardly been rocked by Soto’s departure. I once felt like one of Soto’s biggest supporters, but with the Cubs heading toward a complete youth movement, moving Soto in favor of playing Welington Castillo was clearly the right move.
But Soto did have some good times in a Cubs uniform. Once he got a chance to play, he immediately paid dividends. He earned a spot on the 2007 playoff roster due to a great September with the bat (.389/.433/.667 in 60 PAs). In that postseason, he gave the Cubs their only lead – one that didn’t last past the next half-inning – with a two-run homer against the Diamondbacks.
Undoubtedly, 2008 was quite memorable. Soto started the All-Star Game, was a major contributor to a team that won 97 games, and topped it all off by being named Rookie of the Year.
Then came 2009, which was an unmitigated disaster. Soto showed up to Spring Training noticeably out of shape. The bad press only got worse as it was later revealed that Soto had tested positive for marijuana prior to playing in the World Baseball Classic. To top off the makeup issues that were now becoming a concern, he also battled injuries, missing 29 games due to shoulder and oblique injuries. His .218/.321/.381 line that year did nothing to quell the complaints that were coming from all directions.
For some reason I still believed Soto could turn it around. It wasn’t just a blind guess that he could succeed; obviously he had played markedly better in the past and even in 2009, he led all catchers with a 12.9% walk rate. But, keep in mind that I’m the guy that falls in love with a catcher that shows any semblance of offensive competency. I’m still waiting for Rick Wilkins to repeat his amazing 1993 season (.303/.376/.561 with 30 homers) or for Michael Barrett to continue to build on his three consecutive season of posting an .800 or better OPS from 2004-06.
In 2010, a slimmed down Soto rewarded me for sticking with him. While putting the questions about his work ethic and dedication to the game behind him (for some at least, since as recently as last September I still heard some wondering if Soto would once again show up out of shape and reeking of weed), Soto once again submitted a rather outstanding season. Soto put up a .280/.393/.497 line and led all catchers in BB% (16.0) and wOBA (.385), was second in ISO (.217), and sixth in fWAR (3.4). He did all that despite missing 32 games with shoulder and foot injuries.
But, after watching Soto’s walk rate climb in each of his first three full seasons with the Cubs, it dropped in 2011 to 9.5%, and was at 9.6% when he was moved to the Rangers on July 30th. He also missed 47 games due to injuries over his last season and a half with the Cubs.
The most obvious explanation for the fluctuation in Soto’s walk rate is the type of pitches at which he’s been swinging. From 2008-10, the percentage of pitches outside of the zone that Soto swung at (O-Swing%) dropped from 21.8% to 19.7, then all the way down to 15.5. Over the past two seasons, he’s jumped back up to 20.4 and 21.4 respectively. Simply put, Soto is swinging at more balls out of the strike zone than he was in 2010. That obviously will lead to a reduction in walks.
Along with his sometimes-productive offense, Soto doesn’t get the credit he deserves on defense. He may just be average at throwing runners out and calling a game (something that may be less of an issue with the Rangers with Mike Maddux providing a very strong influence on the pitching staff), but as Mike Fast, formerly of Baseball Prospectus, discovered, Soto is very strong at framing pitches. And if you’ve been watching Welington Castillo push strikes out of the zone to the detriment of his pitchers, you know this is a very important aspect of a catcher’s job.
So the question remains as to what Soto’s future holds. Will he ever consistently be the player he showed he could be in 2008 or was that just his Wilkins-in-2003 season? His 2010 makes me believe that there is some legitimate ability for Soto to build upon. Maybe it’s his inconsistent BABIP (.332 and .324 in 2008 and 2010 as opposed to .246 (2009), .280 (2011) and, thus far, a paltry .218 in 2012), or perhaps his inability to stay on the field keeps him from developing a rhythm at the plate.
Whatever has kept Soto from delivering on a consistent basis, hopefully in Texas, he’ll be able to shine. In an offense where he’ll hardly be expected to be a major force – if he can stay on the field – perhaps Soto can once again tap into what made him such a potentially special player at the plate in 2010.
Combine all that with the ever helpful ‘change of scenery,’ and I still have hope that Soto could be a successful everyday catcher once again. Call me a sucker for catchers that show an ounce of success with the bat, but I just can’t get off the Soto bandwagon, even if it’s in Arlington.