In the today’s “stats vs. scouts” baseball world, defense is often a serious point of contention between the two camps, particularly when discussing the catcher. There are people who would argue that so great are the catcher’s responsibilities behind the plate, that any offense he contributes should be considered gravy. Then there are those who simply believe that no matter who you are or where you play, that everyone has to hit.
Most Cub fans are probably all too familiar with this argument, seeing as for the past 3-plus years we’ve witnessed Michael Barrett butcher the catcher position—while hitting 16 homers each season. Rightfully so, reactions were extremely mixed when Barrett was sent to San Diego (which reflects how much some people really did like Barrett, considering just how bad he was behind the plate, and because no one was or should have been thrilled about getting Rob Bowen). Basically, it was the perfect storm for an epic argument between stat land and scout world. Just how valuable is Barrett’s bat? How much did his defense hurt us? What does Rob Bowen bring to the table? We’ve discussed all those questions here over the past few weeks.
Personally, I don’t read much into defensive “statistics.” As much as I value offensive stats and embrace the new information that is constantly being poured into the game, I just don’t buy that you can put a number on how good a defender is. I mean, it’s hard to trust all of the different metrics out there that measure defenders when they seemingly have no level of consistency. I really believe defense is one of those things where you just have to eyeball it, and really trust your scouts.
With that said, Helen Keller with her two blind eyes could have told you Barrett was brutal behind the plate. In fact, it wasn’t just the physical mistakes. It just seemed like Barrett would have these “What the Fuck Are You Thinking” moments that seemingly cost us 2 or 3 games a year (for as long as I live, I will never forget the game in Philly when Barrett ruined that run-down that let Rollins score to end it). While Barrett’s bat will be missed (Remember that grand slam against the Cardinals last year? It was on ESPN and when he hit it I remember the crowd went absolutely nuts. After that I was thinking “This is going to be a great year.” Wow was I wrong.), I think moving him may have been the right decision. Not necessarily because Rob Bowen is the second coming of Johnny Bench, but I think the Cubs will benefit from not having his empty head on the field.
Nevertheless, you have to draw the line somewhere. As good as our pitching (and our record) has been since trading Barrett; our catchers haven’t hit a lick. Koyie Hill has “hit” .157/.241/.255, and Rob Bowen has as many errors as he does base hits (1) since he was acquired. You can argue that their presence behind the plate has had something to do with the Cubs recent run of success, but their performance at the plate has been almost enough to negate any defensive contributions.
Obviously, Bowen isn’t going anywhere. In his defense, a handful of ABs is not enough to run the guy out of town. But Koyie Hill is a different story. He couldn’t hit at any other stop in his career, he can’t hit now, and he isn’t going to wake up tomorrow and suddenly know how. He is just an organization guy who was called up simply to fill-in when both of our catchers were out of commission (Blanco was hurt, and Barrett had just gotten his ass pounded by a certain 255 lb. Venezuelan). I say it’s time to lose Hill. But with Blanco seriously injured and possibly out for the rest of the season, someone has to take Hill’s place.
Enter Geovany Soto. At 24 years old, in the middle of his 7th season in the minors, it looks like Soto is putting it all together. Now, I’m not suggesting that if Soto were called up today that he could duplicate those numbers. In fact, in all likelihood Soto is hitting over his head right now at AAA. His BABIP of .373 would certainly suggest so. Plus, his line this season is way better than his career line. But even if you were to correct for that inflated BABIP mark, Soto would still be left with a pretty impressive line—especially considering that he’s a catcher. And at 24 years old, it isn’t out of the question that he is just turning a corner. You have to take into account that—like a lot of Cub prospects—Soto was promoted extremely aggressively, and was significantly younger than his peers at almost every level (Soto accumulated 5—count ‘em—5 ABs at low-A before he wound up in Hi-A Daytona—a really tough environment for hitters-- for his first year above rookie ball. In fact, Soto was just 22 when he made his first trip though Iowa.
If you’re concerned that Soto might mess up the defensive mojo the Cubs have got going right now, worry not. He has long been considered a strong receiver behind the plate. In fact, it’s totally possible that he could be the best defensive catcher in the Cubs organization—including the major league team.
It’s one of those things where—similar to my idea of calling up Ronny Cedeno—the Cubs simply don’t have anything to lose. While Koyie Hill is of absolutely no value to the club in the near or long term, Soto could be worth something down the road. Apparently, the Cubs feel the same way, considering he was awarded a spot on the 40-man roster back in 2005. Now is the time to follow up on that move and reward Soto—he’s earned it.