Cubs rookie Soto shows seasoning
Soto is the catcher for the Chicago Cubs, the anchor of the NL’s best rotation, the bat that thrust the Cubs from good to dangerous, the bilingual bridge between the Cubs’ Latino players and the rest of the team, and, yes, even the apple of crusty ol’ Lou Piniella’s eye.
“He’s come along real quick for a young catcher,” said Piniella, the Cubs’ manager. “He’s one of the big reasons we’re here where we’re at.”
Which is first place in the NL Central and on the way to clinching the league’s best record. Soto, too, occupies first in a number of important categories among rookies: home runs (21), RBIs (80), batting average (.288), on-base percentage (.367), slugging percentage (.502) and extra-base hits (56).
While Soto’s emergence hasn’t been a surprise, the level at which he continues to play confounds the Cubs. They see his bruised legs and think ball-blocking veteran. They know he’s 25 and figure that’s too old for a player of his caliber to be in his first season. And they hear him – the way he commands the pitching staff and how he conducts himself around the rest of the team – and figure that such knowledge can’t be inborn.
“He just gets it,” Cubs starter Ted Lilly said. “It’s in his blood. Why are some guys naturally great piano players? Maybe that’s the case with Geo. It’s just instinct that can’t be taught.
“You can go over scouting reports, but as the game progresses, things change and you have to make adjustments, and Geo has a good feel for that. I’ve been around guys with lots more experience than him and not nearly as much feel.”
Some of it, Soto figures, came from the past three years, the first two of which included September call-ups. Last year, Soto crushed the ball over the last month and found himself the Cubs’ starting catcher in the postseason.
So, yeah, he’s a rookie only according to the rules.
“I still feel young, but a rookie? No,” Soto said. “I belong here and can play well here. I am surprised sometimes about the things I’m doing. It gives me more of a breather that I can play here at this level, and now we’re in September, and I needed to know that.”
Two years ago, Soto wasn’t sure he could cut it at Triple-A. After the 2006 season, he wasn’t much of a prospect. Never showed power. Didn’t hit for average. Good glove and decent arm, yeah, but that’s the recipe for a lifelong backup.
Soto resolved to lose weight that offseason and dropped 30 pounds. A company delivered three microwaveable meals a day, he said, and coupled with 5 a.m. runs with Cubs catcher Henry Blanco, Soto shed the weight.
He saw an inverse effect on his power numbers. Soto hit 26 home runs and drove in 109 runs in only 385 Triple-A at-bats. By the time he arrived in Chicago, Soto was a welcome change from light-hitting Jason Kendall, and he laid the groundwork for this season.
Soto came into spring training trying to win the trust of the pitchers, every one of whom was older than him.
“I’m really happy the way I’ve carried myself around this team,” Soto said. “They respect me a lot. They respect my job. That’s one of the most important things a catcher needs. A rookie especially. It’s not simple.”
Advice from the 37-year-old Blanco, in his 11th big-league season and fourth with the Cubs, helped ease Soto in, as did his outgoing personality. Soto built a rapport with each pitcher, the starters especially, and said he tries to play soothsayer when they’re on the mound.
Earlier this season, Lilly said, he had gone three innings without throwing a slider. He figured it was a good time to throw one. And when he looked down to Soto for the sign, there it was: slider inside.
“It’s not easy to prove yourself in the big leagues,” Blanco said. “We’re proud of him. Everybody thought it was going to take a couple years, but he was prepared, and it didn’t take him that long.”
Now it’s September, and for the second straight season, Soto will get postseason at-bats. Only this time, he understands the pitchers, who they are, how they think. And he gets his manager, who has relied so much on him. And he knows his role in the lineup is to drive in all the runs the heart of the order doesn’t.
No longer is he a rookie in any manner.
“It feels like the season started only three months ago,” Soto said. “It’s gone so fast.”
OK, so maybe he sounds like a rookie.
Though as long as he doesn’t play like one, the Cubs will take it.