Tuesday, April 27, 2010

It's not over until the fat lady swings.

ROUND 14: Geovany Soto (C, Cubs)

I found round 14 to be the most interesting part of the draft, in retrospect. Everybody seemed to be taking chances here, whether on rookie phenoms (Heyward, Strasburg), potential one-year-wonders (Prado, Garrett Jones, Scutaro), or restoration projects (Webb, Wood, Price, Soto). To be honest, I would have been happy with any of the players that went here.

I knew I didn't have to take a starting pitcher here because Fabian already had about twenty seven of them. With all the closers not named Matt Capps gone (Lindstrom wasn't projected at the time to have the closing gig), I had to look at filling some positional needs. SS was still open, but everyone had theirs and we weren't at the point of drafting bench players, so I could wait. I would normally have been happy drafting a catcher in round 21 like I did last year (Navarro, eventually dumped for Miguel Montero) because usually down this far they're all the same, but Geo Soto was still on the board.

Yahoo's stable of professional fantasy guessers ranked Soto between 6th and 8th, for catchers during the preseason, ahead of players that had already been selected (Napoli [this round], Suzuki [round 9!], and Russell Martin [round 7, wtf]). This is probably because, in the sphere of paid fantasy writing, the reputation penalty for missing a stud/rebound is far worse than the penalty for overselling a sleeper/washed-up-star. Everybody remembers the big out-of-nowhere picks and ascensions to greatness. Nobody will remember this same brain trust declaring Brandon Phillips the fourth best second baseman in MLB, ahead of Cano and Zobrist. This is why every Matthew Berry column or podcast or chat is nothing but a laundry list of "I'm high on Chris Davis", "I'm in on Heyward for .280/30/100", etc, but nobody's column cautions about Brad Penny or Yunel Escobar or Michael Young or anybody that hasn't already been abysmal for three years. So despite Soto's pedestrian .218/.321/.381 last year in over a hundred games, his rookie stats (.285/.364/.504) demonstrated enough potential that he qualifies for fantasy analyst ball-licking for at least another year or two.

Is there something tangible to hang this on? Soto's 2009 campaign was poor by even catcher standards. According to the new stat I just submitted to fangraphs.com, that season was worth about 2.8 CLEs (Carlos Lee Equivalency units), which is towards the bottom of the scale for paid professional baseball players at the major league level. Scott Pianowski claims that Soto's improved batting eye is proof positive of good things in 2010, enough to rank him second in the "Catchers I Love" column, behind heavy 2010 disappointment Miguel Montero. Did Soto's 2009 batting eye demonstrate improvement over 2008?

His walk rate increased from 11.0% to 12.9%. Is this a significant increase? His strikeout rate decreased from 24.5% to 23.3%. I guess you could point to this wafer-thin lining of silver and claim an improved batting eye, but then you'd also be ignoring pitcher trends across these two seasons. In 2009, Soto saw more fastballs and cutters than 2008, and fewer offspeed pitches. It suggests that pitchers challenged Soto a bit more in 2009 (or that the cutter is spreading like wildfire), which, given his weight issues that season, was probably a good idea. Some fatties can really turn on a fastball, but most fall behind. But this isn't the whole story.

Fangraphs tracks contact trends, for balls and strikes. As it turns out, Soto really did swing at fewer balls outside of the strike zone (17.8% of them, versus 20.1%) and increased his in-the-strike-zone contact rates four percentage points. He also cut his swing-and-misses by almost a fifth. What do you know, Scott Pianowski actually did some homework and didn't just pull a factoid out of his ass for a column on a deadline.

Of course I didn't actually perform this analysis myself before the draft. I had no fucking clue about anything in the world of Geovany Soto, had never seen him play, never seen him swing a bat, never saw his tremendous girth rippling in the soft Chicago breeze. But hey, Pianowski says he's primed for a good season, and Brad Evans says he lost weight over the winter by remembering he's a paid professional athlete and actually exercising and monitoring his food intake. Crazy. I just knew that Soto had upside, and the next catcher on the list (Doumit) had injury concerns I didn't want to bother with. Soto was the last catcher on the board guaranteed a majority of his team's playing time, and now he's mine.

This meant he'd start his 2010 season in the same slump as Teixeira, Lee, Phillips, Escobar, Abreu...basically all of my hitters except Braun and Crawford. His first week resulted in a .286 OBP, .091 SLG, no RBI no run no SB flop, otherwise known as 1.7 CLE. He had one hit and three walks, though those walks seem to be forming a trend. Since that first week ended on the 11th, Soto has been on base every game he's played, with 14 hits and 12 walks in 11 games. His current line is .349/.517/.512. A higher OBP than SLG is an obvious red flag. Surely his batting eye hasn't become Bonds-esque.

His walk rate is an astounding 25.9%, the best in the majors for everyday players that weren't called up last friday. He's nearly doubled his line drive rate (a whole lot of singles) and more than doubled his HR/FB rate. The two possible outcomes here are: 1) Geovany Soto is the second coming of Babe Ruth, and 2) It's early in the season and this is all largely meaningless to make projections on, especially immediately after a hot week. After all, Colby Rasmus and Kelly Johnson are in the top 5 batters in various metrics. Soto will come back down to earth eventually. His BABIP is .433, third in baseball behind Austin Jackson and Martin Prado, so a regression is clearly coming. However, his patience at the plate is promising, and in the end if he can climb his way out of 8th in the lineup (he's been 7th the past few games) and put himself in a position for better counting stats, I'll consider Soto a steal in the 14th round.

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