Throw It Like a Ballplayer

providing baseball commentary and ponderings since April 2010

Who’s Who Behind the Plate, pt. 1

Posted by dannmckeegan on August 6, 2010

Geovany Soto (http://a.espncdn.com/photo/2010/0301/fantasy_g_soto_576.jpg)Koyie Hill (http://thebloggerinthegloamin.mlblogs.com/koyiehill.jpg)Welington Castillo (http://blogs.desmoinesregister.com/dmr/wp-content/uploads/2010/07/icubs.jpg)

Geovany Soto won the 2008 National League Rookie of the Year Award, joining Kerry Wood in 1998 and Jerome Walton in 1989 as Cubs to earn the honor in my lifetime.  After a disappointing 2009 campaign, Soto has bounced back in 2010 and begun to earn consideration as one of the top catchers in the majors.  He is currently joined on the Cubs’ 40-man roster by two fellow catchers, backup Koyie Hill and Iowa catcher Welington Castillo.  The 2010 season has also revealed some organizational depth at the position that is intriguing both for the future and as potential trade bait.  The goal here is to give something of a onceover to the catchers in the Chicago Cubs system, from the major league roster all the way down to the Dominican Summer League.  The three most important names – Soto, Hill and Castillo – will be profiled in this installment.

Geovany Soto (http://i.dailyherald.com/stories/105/105647.jpg)

Geovany Soto, according to FanGraphs, has been worth 3.1 wins above replacement (WAR).  That’s good for fourth in MLB, behind only All-Star starters Brian McCann and Joe Mauer and Colorado’s Miguel Olivo.  Soto’s statistical value is driven almost entirely by his offensive output.  Among the 30 MLB catchers with at least 200 plate appearances, Soto swings at the fewest pitches outside of the zone (16.6%), ninth-fewest in the zone (60.2%), and second-fewest overall (37.5%).  At the same time, he ranks in the bottom five in contact rate for all three of those ranges.  Soto also is by far the best catcher in MLB at taking care of fastballs.  For every 100 fastballs seen, his bat is worth 2.91 runs above average, 84% higher than second-ranked Jorge Posada (1.58 wFB/C).  He also handles curveballs, cutters and split-fingers to positive pitch values.  Being that catchers are notoriously slow, ground balls are generally their enemies as hitters.  Geovany Soto, however, has the third-lowest ground ball rate (37.5%) of all catchers with 200 PA.  Meanwhile, he is in a virtual tie with Mike Napoli of the Angels for first in HR/FB rate at 19.5% and with Torrealba and Mauer for the highest line drive rate at 24%.  His BABIP ranks sixth at .324, which seems to be a fair number for him (.332 in 2008, .246 in 2009), as opposed to John Buck of Toronto, whose .330 BABIP looks like luck compared to his .286 career BABIP.  Only Posey’s wOBA (.404) and OPS (.939) are higher than Soto’s .397 and .917.  While only six catchers strikeout more frequently than Soto (24.4%), no one is as willing to take a bases on balls (15.9%).  His 87 games played ranks eighth among catchers, while his 15 HR is good for a second place tie with McCann behind Napoli.  Soto has the most unintentional walks at 47, while somehow managing only to rap into 5 double plays.  Only six catchers with 200 or more plate appearances have grounded into fewer, while the Nats’ Pudge Rodriguez and Mauer have hit into 20 and 17, respectively.

Koyie Hill (http://www.chicagobreakingsports.com/koyie-hill-bat-187.jpg)

Koyie Hill is the third-worst catcher in the big leagues.  That’s not my opinion.  It’s the statistical analysis provided by FanGraphs’ WAR ratings.  Only Wil Nieves of the Nats and Detroit’s Gerald Laird have stolen more money from their respective employers.  Hill’s -0.6 WAR is equivalent to a loss of $2.5 million, in addition to the $700,000 he earns in 2010.  His offensive worth is 11 runs below that of an average player, while his supposedly stout defense is worth 1 run below average.  By way of comparison, Nats backup Jamie Burke is worth -0.1 runs above replacement offensively, while both Padres catchers (Hundley and Torrealba) are each even par on their defensive RAR values.  There is a reason that Hill, who made his MLB debut for the Dodgers in 2003, maintained his rookie status into 2007.  While Hill had a strong defensive season in 2009, he is now 31 years old, with a surgically reassembled throwing hand.  He has only gunned down 4 of 26 potential base-stealers in 2010, while his .194 average and .482 OPS aren’t that far from San Diego starting pitcher Jon Garland’s .189 and .433.  Hill’s value, it seems, lies in his Crash Davis-like ability to coax performances out of young pitchers.  However, Hill barely has the Four-A type of offensive prowess that would make him an intriguing story beyond his table saw accident.  He did hit 17 home runs in his 2008 tour with triple A Iowa, but the presence of six seasons on his triple A résumé negates his .778 career OPS at that level.

Welington Castillo

Welington Castillo gives Brandon Allen the business and records an out at the plate in a 2009 Southern League matchup. Picture found at: http://media.knoxnews.com/media/img/photos/2009/05/25/plate_t607.jpg

As recently as the 2008-2009 offseason, scouts and analysts regarded Welington Castillo not only as the Cubs’ top catching prospect, but also as one of their entire system’s best prospects.  At that time, Baseball America had him fifth in the Cubs system, while Scout.com rated him fourth overall.  He’d earned a “C+” from Minor League Ball and “2 stars” from Baseball Prospectus.  Then, 2009 happened.  Playing 95 games exclusively at double A Tennessee, Castillo hit only .232 with an OPS in the mid-.600’s.  Twenty-seven of 74 hits went for extra bases, but he struck out 71 times to only 15 walks.  At the same time, he caught 44% of attempted thieves and allowed only 10 passed balls, down from 13 with 15 errors in 2007 and 21 with 8 errors in 2008.  Having provided enough defensive improvement and offensive promise, Castillo was moved up to triple A Iowa for this season, his fifth stateside in the organization at age 23.  His defense is statistically even with his 2009 numbers, with 7 passed balls, 7 errors and 41% CS in 62 games.  Offensively, Castillo has bounced back from his low 2009 average, showing what a poor BABIP can do, and has improved his discipline.  He possesses a slash line of .257/.316/.523 in about 250 plate appearances.  With 17 2B, 13 HR, 7 sac flies, and 2 more walks now (17) than he had in 85 more plate appearances in 2009 (15), all the while maintaining his K rate virtually unchanged despite the jump in level.  While he has nowhere near Ivan Rodriguez’s Hall of Fame-caliber ceiling, similarities exist in their early struggles with passed balls, strong CS rates, low initial plate discipline, and slow-to-develop power.  At this point, Castillo looks to me like Miguel Olivo: good power, mediocre batting average and on-base, high CS%, plenty of defensive miscues.  He’s definitely more Rod Barajas than Henry Blanco, that’s for sure.

Prognosis

It certainly looks like Geovany Soto can be the Cubs permanent catcher for the long run, however long that may be.  Both his and Hill’s depressed CS% this season are largely due to poor holding of runners by the pitching staff.  One of Carlos Zambrano’s “little things” is his fantastic pickoff move both to first and second.  On the other hand, the young and overused bullpen has been easy to run on because of inexperience and a general lack of good runner-holding in relief pitching.  Currently 27, Soto should be a quality starter into the 2014 season, in some small part due to his late arrival.  Already there are rumblings in the Chicago Tribune that such fungible assets on the current roster as Hill, Nady, and the FonteBaker may soon be put on waivers to clear space for more young and/or productive minor leaguers.  Castillo’s name is at the top of that list, along with OF Brad Snyder, OF/1B Bryan LaHair and MI Darwin Barney.  That would, in turn, clear the way for some late-season farm system moves involving a handful of players in the lower tiers of the system.  In the second half of this Who’s Who, the major players will be covered.  These include Tennessee catchers Robinson Chirinos (likely to move up to Triple A), Steve Clevenger (likely to return to Triple A), Chris Robinson (likely to move down to Double A or move out) and the surprising Michael Brenly (likely to move up to Double A).

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