Juan Soto put on a show in his first-round Home Run Derby matchup against Shohei Ohtani on Monday, and that was just the beginning of what is setting up to be a monster second half for the Nationals’ young star. At just 22 years old, in his fourth Major League season, Soto has quickly established himself as one of the best hitters in baseball.
After leading the Majors in OPS and the NL in batting average in 47 games played in the shortened 2020 season, Soto’s ‘21 campaign got off to a slower start when he landed on the injured list in mid-April with a strained left shoulder. Overall, Soto’s power hasn’t been at the level we’re accustomed to seeing from him thus far, but it’s been on the rise of late -- and not just in the Home Run Derby. After hitting .270 and slugging .387 in 40 games through May, Soto has hit .296 with a .504 slugging percentage in 39 games since June began.
There aren’t likely to be any more 520-foot homers, fueled by the Colorado air in the no-humidor Derby, but Soto’s process stats and underlying metrics thus far in 2021 suggest that he’s ripe for a second-half breakout. Here’s why.
He knows what he needs to do
When Soto spoke leading up to the Derby, he actually cited one of the main things that’s kept his power from equaling his previous career levels: not hitting the ball in the air enough. He currently has a 55.4% ground-ball rate, which would be the highest of his career.
“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,” Soto said of the Derby in the days leading up to the event. “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.”
It was clear that he mentioned that concept to his teammates, too, after he finished his first round at the Derby. He returned to a group of Nationals teammates who congratulated him, and Trea Turner pointed out that Soto only hit two ground balls -- audio we are privy to thanks to the MLB YouTube channel’s ‘Play Loud’ segment where both Soto and Ohtani wore microphones for the matchup. Hitting the ball in the air more is definitely a priority.
Why does that matter? Ground balls are far less likely to lead to extra bases, of course. The league-wide slugging percentage on ground balls is .261 this year. On fly balls and line drives, it’s .890. For Soto this year, those differences have been even more pronounced, with a .252 slugging percentage on ground balls and a 1.034 mark on fly balls and line drives. Elevate, celebrate, you know the drill.
He’s been better than the results show thus far
Even with that need to elevate more established, Soto has actually made better contact thus far than the results he has to show for it. He’s slugging .445 on the season, which would be by far a career low, but his expected slugging percentage, which is based on quality of contact, plus strikeouts, is .543. That means that based on the contact he’s made, his slugging percentage should be almost 100 points higher -- and much closer to what we are used to seeing from him.
That difference, of .098 points between his xSLG and the actual mark, is the fourth-largest such difference among all players with at least 200 batted balls this season.
A similar phenomenon is true of his expected and actual batting averages, which are 32 points apart -- a .283 batting average and .315 xBA -- the eighth-largest such "unlucky gap."
Part of that comes from how hard he is hitting the ball, with launch angle and exit velocity being the quality of contact components. Soto’s 54.1% hard-hit rate would be a careerhigh, surpassing his 51.6% mark last season. Now, imagine if more of that hard contact was coming on line drives and fly balls.
The plate discipline is still there
One of the hallmarks of Soto’s game since he reached the Majors has been the way in which he owns and knows the strike zone. His plate discipline is part of what makes him one of the best hitters in baseball. And even amidst a year where certain facets of his game haven’t been at the levels we’re used to, the plate discipline elements have been there, providing the foundation.
In 2020, Soto had a 15.7% chase rate, fourth-lowest in the Majors among batters to see at least 400 out-of-zone pitches. This year? He’s down to just a 13.8% chase rate, which is the second-lowest behind only Max Muncy at 13.2%.
He doesn’t strike out much, at just 15.7% this season, which is up from 2020 (14.3%) but down from 2018-19 (20%). Soto is the only qualified hitter in baseball that is in at least the 80th percentile in strikeout rate (86th) and 95th percentile in hard-hit rate (96th). His combination of plate discipline and raw power is unmatched, and provides a window into all that is to come in the rest of the season for the young star.
The gap between Soto’s expected and actual stats provide an indication that he’s likely to start seeing those better results soon. And the fact that he headed into the Derby with elevating the ball more in mind seems like the final piece for Soto to return to the MVP-caliber levels we’ve seen from him before.