Can Soto shake off another slow (for him) start?

June 26th, 2022

Juan Soto’s start to the 2022 season hasn’t been exactly reflective of the “best hitter in baseball” moniker he’s earned over the last few years. His .215 batting average and .434 slugging percentage are not in the echelon we’ve come to expect of him. Of course, for a player like Soto, those expectations are impossibly high.

To that point, he has a 130 OPS+ – which means he has been 30% better than league average, offensively.

If this sounds familiar at all, it’s because last season, Soto had a similarly not-as-good-by-high-standards first half before crushing it in the second half. Before the All-Star break last year, Soto had a 139 OPS+, along with a .283 batting average and .445 slugging percentage.

Then he participated in the Home Run Derby to help him elevate the ball more, and had a 216 second-half OPS+, hitting .348, slugging .639 and reaching base at a Bonds-ian rate.

In other words, he’s turned around a slower start before. Here’s a look at how and why he can do the same again this year.

The plate discipline is still there, but needs to feast more

From the day he debuted, Soto’s eye at the plate has set him apart. That underlying foundation is still there this year. He’s second in the Majors in walk rate, at 18.1%. His chase rate is in the 95th percentile. At 18.8%, it would be the second-highest of his career, but the perspective is important – it’s still a well below average chase rate, and an elite mark.

Last year, Soto coupled the lowest swing rate in baseball with the highest percentage of swings producing hard contact – waiting for his pitch and then making each swing count. This year, he ranks 18th in percentage of swings producing hard contact.

What’s been different about those swing decisions? Last year, he had 57 swing/take runs, where every individual pitch is assigned a value based on its outcome, and swing/take adds those together. Only Vladimir Guerrero Jr. had more, with 61. So far this season, Soto is tied for 89th in swing/take runs – meaning that even with taking his walks, his swing decisions haven’t been the best.

“I’m feeling pretty good, my swings feel very on time,” Soto said earlier this month. “I’ve just been missing a couple balls and just taking a couple pitches that I shouldn’t take.”

Part of what makes Soto such a great hitter is his understanding of the zone – and he’s completely on point here. If we break down those swing/take runs further, we see that he has 15 in the chase zone, which leads MLB, and nine in the waste zone, which is tied for the lead. But in the heart of the zone, he’s -11, and he’s -8 in the shadow zone.

To Soto’s point, he has just a 65.7% swing rate against pitches in the heart of the zone, which would be the lowest of his career. That’s “taking a couple pitches that [he] shouldn’t take.”

When Soto does make contact on those pitches, he’s hitting .289 and slugging .629 – with an expected batting average of .379 and expected slugging percentage of .834 that indicate the results should be even better. More on that later.

Make more optimal contact

Remember the second-half focus on elevating the ball last year? That would be a prudent approach this year, too. Soto’s current 26.0% sweet-spot rate would be a career low. That tells us how often he makes contact in the launch angle sweet-spot zone of 8-32 degrees. Or, put more succinctly, how often he makes line-drive and ideal fly-ball contact.

Why does this angle of contact matter? Soto is hitting .611 and slugging 1.463 when he makes sweet-spot contact this season. Hit the ball in the air – without skying it too high – and good things happen. Thus, it seems logical to try to make more of that kind of contact.

“He’s starting to pull off,” manager Dave Martinez said recently. “I think he’s trying to do too much again. We’ve got to get him back to stay really in the middle of the field and stay on top of the baseball. He’s getting underneath a lot of balls, and that’s because he’s opening up a little bit.”

We talked about his hard-hit rate on a per swing basis above, and it’s also down on a per batted ball calculation. His 43.8% hard-hit rate would be the second-lowest of his career. As with sweet-spot, it would behoove Soto to make that sort of contact more frequently. He’s hitting .484 and slugging 1.077 when hitting the ball with an exit velocity of at least 95 mph this season.

The expected stats tell a different story so far

While there’s no question that making more sweet-spot and hard-hit contact would improve Soto’s outcomes, his expected stats, based on quality of contact plus walks and strikeouts, indicate that his numbers so far should be better. His expected batting average is .272 and expected slugging percentage is .568, both of which are a lot closer to the Soto we are used to seeing.

Among batters with at least 150 batted balls, his “unlucky gap” between his actual and expected batting average is fifth-largest, and the same for slugging is sixth-largest.

Further indication that luck may be working against him lies in Soto’s batting average on balls in play. It’s just .211, after being at .312 or higher in every other season of his career. Some of that comes from less-than-ideal contact, with those non-sweet-spot batted balls being common for him and not giving him as good of a chance at a hit. But his expected batting average on BABIP outcomes, so excluding home runs, is .292 – which again, sounds more like it.

What’s next

The full answer to getting back to what we’d consider Soto-esque production lies somewhere in between “he’s been unlucky” and a need to maximize optimal contact. The good news for everyone involved is that Soto is an inordinately perceptive hitter and is already aware of the fact that he could improve some of his swing decisions, per his quotes.

When Soto is hitting well, he’s a joy to watch, and even a slower start for him is all relative. There’s no question that he has all of the tools to have a monster rest of the season, while we all get to enjoy the show.