Change-UpApril 29, 2010
Geovany Soto's Ridiculous Start to 2010
By Patrick Sullivan

It's April 29, the Cubs are 10-12, and they sit 2.5 games back of the Philadelphia Phillies and San Francisco Giants for the National League Wild Card. They're 4.5 games back of the hot-starting St. Louis Cardinals in their own division. It's been a mixed bag thus far for the Cubs, with slow starts by key players and bullpen woes mitigated in part by surprisingly strong performances from players they did not expect as much from. On the whole, despite coming off of a home series loss to the Washington Nationals, I think the Cubs should feel encouraged by how the season has played out to date. When your biggest problems are Derrek Lee and Aramis Ramirez, there's hope.

No player has contributed more to the Cubs winning efforts thus far in 2010 than Geovany Soto, as heartening a sign as any for Cubs fans. After a banner 2008, he fell off badly last season. Since he only had two years of full-time service to his name, it was hard to tell which Soto to expect. Well the 27-year old catcher has started the year at a .362/.516/.511 clip and while I don't think a .516 on-base represents the player Soto really is, his torrid start would seem to suggest that he is very much capable of another 2008.

How Soto has managed this start has been a case study in the virtuous cycle that is a solid approach at the plate. Let's dig into Fangraphs' plate discipline stats for Soto. We'll look at his 2010 numbers versus an averaged figure for 2008 and 2009.

Here's a quick rundown of the definitions of each of the stats listed:

* O-Swing%: The percentage of pitches a batter swings at outside the strike zone.
* Z-Swing%: The percentage of pitches a batter swings at inside the strike zone.
* Swing%: The overall percentage of pitches a batter swings at.
* Zone%: The overall percentage of pitches a batter sees inside the strike zone.
* SwStr%: The overall percentage of swinging strikes

          O-Swing%  Z-Swing%  Swing%  Zone%  SwStr%
'08-'09:   18.6     64.7      41.9    50.2    9.7
2010:      12.1     52.9      28.9    41.1    5.8

Here's what we learn from this: Soto is swinging at way fewer pitches outside of the strike zone, swinging at fewer pitches inside the strike zone, swinging less overall, seeing far fewer pitches inside the strike zone and incurring far fewer swinging strikes. What's more interesting is the inter-related nature of these numbers.

If you swing at fewer pitches outside of the strike zone (balls), you can be more selective within the strike zone while up in the count. If you aren't swinging at balls or difficult-to-hit strikes, you will walk more frequently and make better contact when you do swing. In Soto's case, this is revealed in his ridiculous 36.8 line drive percentage and unsustainable .417 batting average on balls in play (BABIP).

Basically, he's been perfect at home plate this season. In full counts, Soto has hit .333/.684/.333, compared to the 2009 NL average of .235/.475/.380. Unbelievably, he's posted a .500 on-base percentage in 18 plate appearances after the count ran to 1-2. Again, the 2009 NL average on-base percentage after the count was 1-2 in was .234. Basically, while most hitters more or less freak out and ditch selectivity altogether while down in the count, Soto has been unfazed.

This is all very unlikely to keep up, of course, but it's hard to imagine some of Soto's new approach won't stick. He seems to be coming to the plate with a real plan this year, and that's to swing less. The result is that he's hitting more, better than any other catcher in baseball this April.


Who says that Soto's BABIP is unsustainable? You can't use a .300 BABIP for hitters like you can for pitchers as a mean. It varies per hitter -- that's why xBABIP is so great. (I haven't checked Soto's xBABIP.)