How Soto can have a monster year in NY

December 14th, 2023

If  gave the Yankees his 2023 season in 2024, that would be enough.

That'd be 30-plus homers, 100-plus RBIs, an OPS well over .900. And that's just your normal Juan Soto season -- his numbers look like that almost every year. It'd be an MVP-level season, though, and with any luck, Aaron Judge would put up one of those alongside him, too.

But what if Soto gives the Yankees his 2020 season -- over a full 162 games?

That season, in case you forgot, Soto led the league in every slash line category: .351 batting average, .490 on-base percentage, .695 slugging percentage, 1.185 OPS. It was a 60-game season, of course, but here's the thing: That type of season isn't out of the question for Soto in New York.

Here's how he can put up those numbers over a full year. And hint: It's NOT by trying to pull everything to the Yankee Stadium short porch.

Soto knows that already. He said as much during his introductory press conference: "We all know there's a really short porch there, and it's got to be on your mind. But definitely, I'm going to try to stay in the same approach I've been doing. That's what has taken me all the way to where I am right now, so there's no reason to change anything."

Soto will keep the same hyper-disciplined, all-fields approach with the Yankees that's always been the foundation of his potential Hall of Fame career. And the early 2024 projections already think he's about to do something special in New York. Steamer is projecting Soto for a career year with the Yankees -- including 38 homers, 108 RBIs and a .983 OPS -- and to be the best all-around hitter in the Majors, with a 170 wRC+.

But if he layers these three small adjustments on top of that foundation -- and they're all things he's done before, in previous seasons, without compromising his identity as a hitter -- 2024 could be even more of a monster year for Soto.

1) Attack the zone

Soto isn't the same type of hitter as a Corey Seager or Freddie Freeman. But he could take a tiny bit of inspiration from his fellow elite lefties and their brand of "aggressive discipline" -- where they stay aggressive in the strike zone against the pitches they can do damage on, but get more and more disciplined the farther from the heart of the zone you go.

Soto sits a lot more toward the "disciplined" end of the spectrum than the "aggressive," but he's capable of maintaining an elite balance. He showed that in 2020. But in the last couple of seasons with the Padres, he grew more extreme in his patient approach.

While Soto always has one of the lowest chase rates in baseball -- that's why he also always leads the league in walks -- he's been swinging at fewer pitches in the strike zone than he used to with the Nationals.

Soto's in-zone swing rate by season
2018: 61%
2019: 67%
2020: 61%
2021: 60%
2022: 56%
2023: 58%
With Nationals (2018-21): 63%
With Padres (2022-23): 57%

To show the impact of that trend on Nationals Soto vs. Padres Soto, we can use Statcast's batting run value metric, which takes the result of every pitch a hitter sees and adds up the offensive value he's created for his team.

Here's how Soto's value on pitches in the heart of the strike zone changed from 2020 and '21 with the Nationals to 2022 and '23 with the Padres, even while his value on pitches in the chase region stayed the same.

Soto's run value, heart of zone vs. chase zone
2020-21: +12 runs -- heart | +45 runs -- chase
2022-23: -8 runs -- heart | +68 runs -- chase
Heart: More than one baseball's width inside the strike zone
Chase: More than one baseball's width out of the strike zone

By taking those few extra pitches in the zone, just maybe, Soto is leaving a few hits, extra-base hits, even home runs on the table. That's where he could take a page out of Seager and Freeman's books.

That's not an overhaul of one of the greatest approaches in modern baseball, it's just a return to what Soto was doing during his peak seasons with the Nats in 2020 and '21. His walk totals still dwarfed his strikeout totals in those seasons; Soto just added more production inside the strike zone on top of his existing plate discipline.

2) Find the sweet spot

Now let's look at Soto's contact. His underlying quality of contact is always top-tier, any way you want to measure it -- exit velocity, hard-hit balls, barrels, expected batting average and slugging percentage, you name it.

Except one way: the launch angle sweet spot. Statcast defines that as any ball hit between 8 and 32 degrees off the bat, because it encompasses both the line drives that are most likely to be base hits and the fly balls that are most likely to be home runs.

Soto rips the ball, but a surprisingly low amount of his contact is those sweet-spot line drives and fly balls. His hard-hit rate in 2023 was 55%, ranking among the top 1% of MLB hitters; his sweet-spot rate was just under 29%, ranking in the bottom 5% of hitters.

Similar to Soto's in-zone swing trend, his sweet-spot rate was higher with the Nationals than it was with the Padres. But that also means that just like with his in-zone swing rate, he's also more than capable of getting his batted balls back in the optimal range.

Now, part of Soto's low sweet-spot rate is likely due to his level swing plane, which helps him out-battle even MLB's best ace pitchers and strikeout artists, but can also yield a lot of ground balls.

But Soto's sweet-spot rate used to be solid, even with his bat path. In 2019, for example, it was a career-high 36%, ranking in the top third of the Majors. In 2020, it was 33%,  still right around league average.

So he can get that back, too. A higher sweet-spot rate might even be tied to a higher in-zone swing rate, since attacking more hittable strikes naturally leads to more productive contact. And Soto is already starting from a higher baseline of contact quality than nearly every hitter.

3) Take back the edges

Soto's signature is that he owns the strike zone. He might have the most consistently competitive at-bats of any hitter in baseball, and he's one of the toughest hitters to put away, especially when he digs in with two strikes.

But he needs to take back the edges -- those borderline pitches that can determine an at-bat, where the hitter has to decide: strike or ball, swing or take.

Statcast classifies any pitch within a baseball's width of the strike zone borders, in or out, as being on the edges. Ideally, you want a hitter who can lay off the edge pitches that are out of the zone, and fight off the edge pitches that are in the zone.

Soto is usually a genius at identifying which is which. But over the last couple of seasons, he's lost a bit of his, well, edge there.

With the Nationals, Soto swung at over 53% of the in-zone edge pitches he saw overall, and over 80% of the ones he saw with two strikes. With the Padres, his swing rate fell to under 47% against all in-zone edge pitches, and under 70% with two strikes.

In 2023, he swung at a career-low 46% of in-zone edge pitches overall, and 66% with two strikes. That means a few more strikeouts that didn't used to be there, a few less battles won against the pitcher.

The Soto we got used to with the Nationals was a master of the edges. He can reclaim that title, along with everything else.

Let's go back to that 2020 season specifically, since that's what we're dreaming of for Soto over a full year with the Yankees. It was the most balanced season of Soto's career.

Here's how valuable Soto was in every region of the hitting zone -- from the heart of the plate, to the edges, to chase pitches, to extreme out-of-zone waste pitches -- and how that would extrapolate to a 162-game season.

Soto's run value by region in 2020
(With extrapolation for 162-game season)
Heart: +5 ➡️ +14 over full season
Edges: +6 ➡️ +16 over full season
Chase: +9 ➡️ +24 over full season
Waste: +6 ➡️ +16 over full season
Overall: +25 ➡️ +68 over full season 

Soto's career high batting value for a full season is his +57 runs created in 2021. If he breaks +60, which is well within his ceiling, that's "most valuable hitter in the Majors" territory. And that's exactly what the Yankees could get.