How Juan Soto can get even better in '22

March 29th, 2022

Juan Soto had yet another career year in 2021. Building off an otherworldly 47 games in the shortened 2020 season, he showed that performance was no small-sample fluke. He posted a career-high 7.1 Wins Above Replacement, per Baseball Reference, led the Majors in walks with a whopping 145 and led all qualified hitters in on-base percentage for the second straight year.

He’s the best hitter in baseball, with a stellar eye that led to just a 12.2% chase rate last season. No other batter who saw at least 750 out-of-zone pitches had a chase rate below 15%. He swung at 35% of pitches he saw, also the lowest such rate (min. 1,750 pitches seen).

But when he swung? He made it count, with 23.9% of his swings producing hard contact, the highest such rate in MLB (min. 250 batted balls). His 52.7% hard-hit rate was a career high.

Soto has improved in one facet or another each season of his career, which begs the question: what could be next? Here’s a look at three ways Soto can get even better in ‘22.

Continue to hit the ball in the air more

Soto had one of the best quotes about participating in the Home Run Derby last year leading up to the event. “It might mess with the swing of all the guys that are locked in, but I think it’s going to fix mine because I’m hitting too many ground balls,” he said. “I hope it fixes my swing trying to put the ball in the air. That’s what we’ve been trying the whole year, so I hope it fixes mine.”

This is where we cue up the emphatic “Soto gets it” tweet. It makes all the sense in the world that the best hitter in baseball knew, midseason, what he had to do to get better. And he did, going from 40.1% of his batted balls being line drives and fly balls in the first half to 46.9% in the second half. Overall, 43.2% of his contact was in the air, the second-lowest such rate of his career behind only his rookie 2018 campaign (40.2%).

Why the fixation on hitting the ball in the air? Because it simply leads to better results. League-wide, batters hit .453 and slugged .891 in at-bats ending on fly balls and line drives in 2021. For the masterful Soto, that advantage was even more pronounced: a .563 batting average and 1.190 slugging percentage. Now, imagine if he made the contact that leads to those results at a higher rate.

The idea here isn’t to change a superstar’s swing rate or anything of the sort -- it's simply to optimize the existing swings he’s taking and the contact he is making, and putting more of that in the air.

See more pitches in the zone -- and feast

Yes, this header implies something beyond Soto’s control -- he’s good, but he can’t exactly will opposing pitchers to throw him strikes. But a teammate can, by extension. Enter Nelson Cruz, the Nationals’ big offseason signing, who gives the team another dose of power. Never mind the fact that Cruz was signed as an amateur free agent eight months before Soto was born -- this duo is going to be dynamic.

47.8% of the pitches Soto saw last season were in the zone, which was actually the second-highest rate in his four-year career behind 2018 (48.3%), though it was still below the MLB average. Nobody is expecting pitchers to be daring enough to throw more in the zone to Soto … but what if they have to, to avoid a tough situation against Cruz and his .527 career slugging percentage? This creates an ideal scenario for everyone who loves to see Soto crush the ball.

Having Cruz in the lineup should lead to more hittable pitches for Soto, and as already detailed, he’s an expert at capitalizing on the exact pitch he needs. League-wide, batters hit .280 and slugged .488 on in-zone pitches in 2021. But, stop us if you’ve heard this before, Soto feasted even more. He hit .344 and slugged .600 when pitches were in the zone, which leads one to wonder how hurlers were even brave enough to throw 47.8% of pitches there.

Statistically, lineup protection does not exist as a cut-and-dry concept. But anecdotally, there’s no question that a more fearsome lineup will lead to situations where pitchers will have to locate more carefully.

Beyond the plate

When the Nationals acquired Kyle Schwarber last offseason, Soto moved to right field full-time, a position he had played in the final six games of the 2020 season. For Soto, it was a familiar move, as right field was his most common position during his brief time in the Minors -- before he was called up to a Nats squad that had Bryce Harper manning right.

Something else that happened with that move in ‘21 was an improvement defensively for Soto. After -2 Outs Above Average in left in 2020, he was +5 in right in ‘21. He’d had a positive year in the outfield by the metric once before, in 2019 (+6) after being -6 in ‘18. Soto was 90th percentile in OAA and 47th percentile in outfielder Jump in 2021 -- and nobody would fault the best hitter in baseball for doing that the rest of his career. But given the boost that he got defensively by moving back to his natural position in ‘21, it’s fair to wonder how high the ceiling might be in the outfield for Soto.

What the projections say

What might happen if Soto continues to get better? His 2021 earned him his highest MVP finish yet, coming in second behind former teammate Bryce Harper. He continued along the Hall of Fame track we’ve seen since his debut. ZiPS projects more of that Barry Bonds-like production from the plate discipline master. He’s projected for 144 walks, 41 more than the next player on the list (Harper). Soto already ranks sixth since at least 1901 in walks before turning 24, and he’ll be 23 for the entire ‘22 season. Another 144 walks would give him 517 for his career, far more than the current leader on that list through age 23: Ted Williams, with 468.

Williams was bound to come up here, as he is Soto’s historical comp yet again, in what has become a frequent comparison. Soto is projected for the highest on-base percentage in the Majors, again, at .461 -- well ahead of second place Mike Trout’s .418. That would be Soto's third straight season leading MLB in on-base percentage. The last player to do that in at least three straight seasons? None other than Bonds in four straight, 2001-04.

ZiPS has Soto leading in batting average, too, at .314, and in WAR with 7.7. He’s projected for a career-high 35 homers and 120 RBIs, the latter figure being the second highest such projection.

All of this to say: Juan Soto is still Juan Soto, continuing to get better, and we are so lucky to witness his career -- in whatever form it takes this season.