I asked Geovany Soto if he believes in the sophomore jinx.
"What's that?" he said.
OK, good. He's not being weighed down by the burden of wondering whether something beyond his control is causing his current struggles. Something like, say, a jinx.
(It does occur to me that he might go into a complete tailspin now that I've introduced the concept to him.)
When a player's second season is not as good as his first one, the sophomore jinx is often viewed as the culprit. The sophomore jinx is like the Sports Illustrated cover jinx but without the benefit of an annual swimsuit issue as a mitigating factor.
This isn't that.
Baseball is not as easy as Soto made it last year, when he won the National League Rookie of the Year award. The game has a way of reminding players of that, and it can be very, very humbling. What he's going through is not a jinx. It's real.
Soto has had a tough 2 months. Going into the Cubs' game in Atlanta last night, he was hitting .216 with one home run and 12 runs batted in. In 2008, he hit .285, had 23 home runs and drove in 86 runs. He was the first rookie catcher to start for the NL in the All-Star Game.
In recent days, Cubs manager Lou Piniella has wondered out loud about Soto's lack of power at the plate and his poor throwing from behind the plate.
"We're talking about one home run at the first of June," Piniella said. "He slowly has been getting better, but I don't know where the power has gone."
If it makes Piniella feel any better, which it won't, Soto isn't exactly sure what happened to the long ball either.
"I'm doing the same things as last year," he said. "I'm coming out of a slump and trying to find myself again."
It's not as easy as sending out a search party.
Last week, Dodgers pitcher Jeff Weaver threw Soto a fat, juicy 3-1 fastball with the bases loaded and nobody out. It was the kind of pitch and situation professional athletes dream of when they're not dreaming of contract extensions.
Soto fouled it off.
"Those are the sort of pitches you can't foul off," he said. "You know it's a fastball coming. You know he's coming right at you. You can't miss that pitch. At least put it in play."
He has been watching lots of video, comparing his approach at the plate this year to his approach last year. Nothing obvious stands out. He said the only thing that comes to mind is that he's swinging too hard instead of letting the barrel of the bat do the work.
"Maybe I'm trying to do too much," he said. " . . . I want to do great. I want to help. I want to contribute to the team. Sometimes as a player, you want to do too much, and that's where you fail."
It's not just Soto, of course. The Cubs have struggled up and down the order, but especially in the 6-7-8 holes, which were a huge strength for the team last year. Of course, Mark DeRosa and his .285 average, 21 home runs and 87 runs batted in were still on the team last year. And Soto was hitting like a madman.
His numbers have deserted him. His confidence hasn't.
"We're winning games," he said. "I'm catching pretty good games now. For me, hitting is a plus. Right now, my No. 1 job here is to catch games and take care of the staff."
Ah, the catching.
Going into last night, he had thrown out just six of 32 baserunners this year (18.8 percent). Last year, he threw out 26.6 percent. He has been working with Cubs first base coach Matt Sinatro, a former catcher.
"The throwing is concerning me," Piniella said. " . . . I mean, we have to throw some people out, help our pitching."
If Soto has one regret about the first 2 months of the season, it's that he didn't get between Carlos Zambrano and umpire Mark Carlson last week when Zambrano misplaced his mind. Zambrano is serving a six-game suspension for bumping Carlson, throwing a ball into left-centerfield and attacking an innocent Gatorade dispenser with a bat.
When you sign up to catch Zambrano, you sign up to be a lion tamer.
"I should have been right in the middle of that," Soto said. "I reacted to the call and turned around. When I looked back, he was thrown out. I wasn't there. I should have been."
Another lesson learned. It's not always easy being a soph . . . a second-year player.
"There are a lot of guys in the lineup who are slumping, and they're not sophomores," he said. "That's part of the game. You have to keep grinding it out and try to fix it." *