Here is why Soto is still projected as No. 1 hitter

February 20th, 2023

Juan Soto, best hitter in baseball. At least, that’s what Steamer projects for 2023, with his 7.1 WAR and 171 wRC+ each leading the way among all offensive players.

At this point, Soto is a perennial All-Star and a feared hitter, but after what was perceived as a “down year” for him, with those latter two words being key, perhaps the projection should be discussed in more detail.

Here’s why Soto is still projected at No. 1 for 2023.

About that (not-so-)down year

Let’s start with the fact that the idea Soto’s 2022 wasn’t up to snuff has a lot to do with the standards he’s set for himself thus far in his young career. He had a 145 wRC+ -- that means he was 45% better than MLB average, offensively. That figure ranked 10th among qualified hitters, just behind Yandy Díaz and Julio Rodríguez (146 wRC+), and ahead of Mookie Betts (144). There were 130 qualified hitters last year, for further context.

This isn’t meant to gloss over more traditional stats, of course. After entering the year with a career .301 batting average and .550 slugging percentage, he hit .242 and slugged .452. But his expected stats, based on quality of contact, indicate that the results should have been better. The “unlucky gap” between his expected batting average of .266 and the actual was tied for eighth-largest among hitters with at least 350 batted balls. Similarly, the difference between his expected slugging of .501 and the actual was sixth-largest. Neither of the expected numbers is still what we’ve come to expect from Soto, but they are closer.

That does get to the key problem for Soto in 2022: As a hitter who takes selective swings, the contact he was making wasn’t doing what we’re used to seeing. He had a .249 BABIP, 12th lowest in MLB, after never having a mark below .312 for a season. With a history like that, this can be accepted as an indicator of bad luck, as the expected stats imply as well, but that isn’t the entire story.

And why it’s fixable

There’s no question that some of what led Soto’s stats to depreciate last season can be attributed to luck -- which is our first clue that this is fixable, since it’s unlikely to last as such. But there’s more to it than that.

Soto is notorious for his selectiveness at the plate, and that remained the case last season as he led qualified hitters with the lowest swing rate for the second straight season. With so few swings, each that does occur becomes that much more important in terms of making optimal contact.

If we look at two indicators of contact, hard-hit rate and sweet-spot rate, we see how his contact could’ve been better optimized, both in terms of power and arc. Soto’s 47.4% hard-hit rate was his lowest since his rookie year in 2018 and his 28.5% sweet-spot rate was the lowest of his career. He hit .478 and slugged .995 on hard contact and .598 and 1.246, respectively, on sweet-spot contact. He just needed to do more of each.

The good news is there’s no reason to believe that a young, talented hitter wouldn’t be able to return to crushing the ball harder and in the air, when he did so for four years prior.

Still a master of plate discipline

Hopefully, we’ve convinced you that what may have gone “wrong” for Soto can be fixed -- beyond what was out of his control, anyway. Further optimism for his results moving forward: In many ways, he was still himself in 2022. Namely, his plate discipline.

He still led MLB in swing rate, as noted above, not letting any perceived struggles lead to more reckless swings. His chase rate went up five percentage points from 2021 to 17.2%, and it still led the Majors. His 14.5% strikeout rate was well better than MLB average and his 20.3% walk rate led MLB.

Soto had more walks than strikeouts for the third time in his young career. The only other player with even two such qualified years through his age-23 season in the Wild Card era is Albert Pujols, with two. Juan Soto doing Juan Soto things.

Not only did his outstanding plate discipline persist, it did so through the noise.

Track record at this young age

The fact we’ve come to expect so much of Soto can’t be ignored -- it’s part of the reason his projections make sense. He’s just 24 -- which bodes well when projecting any player -- and already on a Hall of Fame track.

He has a 157 career OPS+, which is tied with Eddie Mathews for fifth highest through a player’s age-23 season (min 2,000 PA). That trails only Ted Williams (190), Ty Cobb (171), Mike Trout (169) and Pujols (165). Hall of Fame and soon-to-be Hall of Fame company.

We mentioned his MLB-leading 20.3% walk rate earlier. It wasn’t the first or even the second time that he walked in at least 20% of his plate appearances. It was his third such qualified season, tied for the fifth most all time. All time, and he’s yet to play an MLB game as a 24-year-old.

Only Williams (nine), Babe Ruth (eight), Barry Bonds (seven) and Max Bishop (six) had more qualified seasons with a 20% walk rate, and Soto is the only player with three through his age-23 season.

Another thing about that walk rate: It led MLB by a lot. The difference between Soto's 20.3% walk rate and Aaron Judge and Max Muncy at 15.9% was the largest between qualified Nos. 1 and 2 in walk rate in a season since 2004, when Bonds led at 37.6% and Todd Helton was second at 18.6%. Anytime you’re on a walks-related list with Bonds, you know you towered over the competition.

What’s next?

We won’t know whether these projections were on target until the season is complete, but given that what was atypical for Soto in 2022 is fixable and he was still the same hitter who’s built an impressive track record so far, they certainly seem plausible.

If Soto does indeed lead all hitters in WAR, per FanGraphs, he’d be just the second Padres player to do so, joining Fernando Tatis Jr. in 2020 and ‘21.

Regardless of how it goes, Soto should be a joy to watch yet again in 2023.