The Cubs’ starting pitchers have been lined up through the end of the season, but so far no announcement concerning the starting catchers, which might be the more useful information. While (except for newcomer Gorzelanny) the pitchers have pretty much the same record, the two catchers have win-loss records that diverge widely.
Until very recently, Geovany Soto was the number-one catcher and Koyie Hill was the reliable backup; but there has been a detectable shift over the past month or two. With Soto returning from the disabled list in early August and Hill about to get a well deserved rest, Carrie Muskat quoted the GM and the manager on Hill’s value to the team:
“He really saved us,” Cubs general manager Jim Hendry said of Hill. “It’s so out of the norm to catch 25 games in a row. It’s a tremendous effort, he’s a tremendous team player, a mentally tough guy, and we seem to win a lot of ballgames when he catches.”
. . .
“We know the record,” Piniella said. “He’s done a really, really nice job, and we’re appreciative, but we have to get Soto ready to catch, too. It might be 60-40, two-thirds, one-third, I don’t know exactly how [they'll share playing time]. Believe me, we’re not going to go strictly one way.”
Since his return on August 7th, Soto has started 26 games. In those games, the Cubs are 9-17.
In the same span, Hill has started 21 games. The Cubs are 14-7 in those games.
Overall in games started this season, Hill is 42-24. Soto is 38-49.
Hill had win-loss numbers like this in 2007, when he went 17-8 as the temporary first-string catcher after Barrett departed and before Kendall arrived. At the time, it was a small data sample, a blip, an anomaly. Now the data sample is larger and the results are the same.
One factor that has been mentioned this year as benefitting Hill is that when Aramis Ramirez went on the DL from May 9th through July 5th, Soto did most of the catching. Of those 50 games, Soto started 40. In those games, the Cubs scored an average of 3.86 runs per game. In all other games–games in which Aramis has not been on the DL–the Cubs have scored 4.75 runs per game, a number that is higher by nearly a run per game. It’s easier to win, obviously, when you score more runs.
On the other hand, the Cubs were a respectable 24 and 26 in the games in which Ramirez was unavailable. In Hill’s ten starts in that period, they won seven and lost three. Soto was 17-23.
Here is a number that has virtually nothing to do with Ramirez’s presence or absence, unless you think that Ramirez’s glove is a difference-maker. In Hill’s 66 starts, the opposing team has scored an average of 3.79 runs. In Soto’s 87 starts, the other team has averaged 4.44 runs. That’s about two-thirds of a run per game.
Hill leads the league right now (the majors, in fact) with a caught-stealing percentage of 43%; but Soto is not bad at 28%. In passed balls and fielding percentage they are about the same. With starts fairly evenly divided between the two men, the Cubs are a laboratory right now in the effect of catching intangibles–pitch selection and general in-game captaincy and coaching–on the outcome of a game. What else can explain the difference? The sample size is not small any more.