What Soto brings to Yankee Stadium, and about that short porch ...

December 7th, 2023

Juan Soto is at long last a Yankee, and it’s truly difficult to overstate what that means.

Soto, who only turned 25 in October, has a career .946 OPS in parts of six seasons, and that rates among the very best hitters through his age in the history of the sport. That’s in no way hyperbole; as we examined recently and several times over the years; if you get off to a start that good, that young, then your place in Cooperstown is all but assured, barring injury or off-field problems. It’s why he’s long been compared to Ted Williams. (His closest player comparisons through age 24 at Baseball Reference: Bryce Harper and Frank Robinson.)

He is more or less the safest bet that a team can make, given his youth and track record. Looking ahead to 2024, he’s projected to be the second-best hitter behind only Yordan Alvarez, and while that’s not the same thing as second-best player -- Soto’s defense is not a strength -- it’s a massive upgrade for a disappointing offense that just had the fourth-weakest OBP and an OPS basically identical to that of Kansas City’s.

Even if he’s a Yankee for just one season -- which, despite being represented by Scott Boras, is not guaranteed, given that they now gain a full year’s head start on pitching him to stay long-term -- he’ll give the Yankees something they haven’t had in recent history. The last Yankee lefty hitter to have an OPS+ better than the 158 mark Soto just posted was Jason Giambi, back in 2002 and ‘05. The last Yankee lefty outfielder to do it in a season of 500-plus plate appearances was the criminally underrated Bobby Murcer, way back in 1971-’72. Before that? Roger Maris.

So now you’re thinking: Soto, in Yankee Stadium, with that short porch to aim at? It’s going to make him even better, right? Not exactly. Here’s what should actually happen.

1) He’s going to help improve a truly dreadful outfield.

Last year, Aaron Judge was worth 5.3 WAR, an impressive figure given how much time he missed due to injury. Also last year, the Yankees outfield as a whole was worth 2.9 WAR, the sixth-weakest in the Majors. That is indeed saying what you think it is -- the non-Judge outfielders were so unimpressive that as a group, they cost the Yankees about two wins.

Soto was worth 5.5 WAR for San Diego, but he’s also not arriving alone, because the Padres sent the defensively elite Trent Grisham in the deal as well. On Tuesday, the Yankees traded for Alex Verdugo from Boston. There are so many new outfielders here.

With the trio, we can show you how much that group just improved using FanGraphs projections. Because Judge rates so well, he somewhat inflates the entire group by himself. But since he was positioned mostly as a right fielder before this set of moves that might have him playing more in center, we’ll show just the team’s ranking in LF+CF combined, as well as outfield as a whole.

  • Late November, pre-trades
    Outfield // 4th overall
    LF+CF // 27th overall
  • After Verdugo trade
    Outfield // 4th overall
    LF+CF // 16th overall
  • After Soto-Grisham trade
    Outfield // best overall
    LF+CF // best overall

Fourth-best projected outfield to best might not seem like a huge leap, but 27th-best projected left-and-center to best ought to catch your eye.

Last year, the Yankees gave nearly 1,500 plate appearances to a group of players like Willie Calhoun, Jake Bauers, Billy McKinney, Franchy Cordero, and several others, who, as outfielders, hit .216/.279/.354, with a .633 OPS. They’ve added approximately nine projected wins, mostly due to Soto, but also because the projections see both Verdugo and Grisham as average players, and “average” is quite valuable when you had a net negative last year.

2) He brings a lefty bat to baseball’s weakest lefty lineup.

For years, the Yankees have been lacking in left-handed bats, and it’s not just about the ballpark, as we’ll get to below. In 2023, they had two issues. First of all, they simply didn’t have the lefties to give plate appearances to, as the Yankees had the second-fewest plate appearances taken by lefties in the game. That’s not in and of itself a bad thing, because the Astros and Blue Jays were first- and third-fewest, and you can get away without this if the rest of your lineup is good enough.

But the second problem is that the lefty bats the Yankees had didn’t produce at all, even a little. No team’s lefties had a weaker OBP than New York’s .295, and that was the second-weakest lefty OBP from a Yankees team in the years since reliable platoon splits were available in 1974, better than only the 95-loss 1990 team of Deion Sanders and an injury-limited Don Mattingly.

Put it this way: 10 different lefty batters got at least 50 plate appearances for the team last year. Only two of them managed to post even average production (Anthony Rizzo and McKinney), and even then, only exactly average. The Yankees were one of just two teams, along with the White Sox, to not have a lefty hitter take 200 plate appearances with above-average production. That couldn't last in 2024, and it surely won't now.

3) He comes to a park that doesn’t help as much as you think.

One thing that won’t matter nearly as much as people want it to, however, is the effect of adding a powerful left-handed bat to Yankee Stadium, at least not for Soto. It’s absolutely true that the short porch in right field helps to create some home runs; Statcast’s park factors show that over the past three seasons, only Cincinnati’s Great American Ball Park has a higher home run factor for lefty bats.

But there’s a cost to that, which is that it’s extremely difficult to hit doubles and triples, to the point that over the past three seasons, no park that was in full use over that span saw fewer lefty non-homer extra-base hits. Because there’s so little ground to defend in right, you can position your right fielders shallower against lefty batters there than anywhere else in the Majors -- and teams do, by a lot.

Put it all together, and Yankee Stadium from 2021-’23 was actually a below-average hitter’s park (tied for fifth-weakest), believe it or not.

For Soto, that’s especially true, for one simple reason: He’s an outstanding all-fields hitter. He’s a lefty, yes. He’s powerful, sure. But when he puts the ball in the air, via fly ball or line drive, he’s incredibly balanced. Of those balls, only 25% were pulled last year, 45% were up the middle, and 30% went to the opposite field. When he hits the ball hard in the air to his pull side, they’re not cheapies. They stay hit.

In fact, if he’d played all of his home games in Yankee Stadium last year, he’d have had fewer homers, because the deeper left and left-center in the Bronx would have swallowed up some of his opposite-field drives.

By Statcast’s figures, instead of the 35 he hit, he’d have had only 30 (if only the wall heights and distances of Yankee Stadium are considered) or 27 (if environmental factors are included as well). Either way, fewer, and it seems inadvisable to ask him to try to pull for more power.

(Only 34 of his 35 homers were actually considered, because he hit one against the Giants in Mexico City, without Statcast tracking. It was also to left-center field.)

So sure, he’d have picked up some short porch jobs, like this one, or this one.

But as many or more of those oppo homers -- like this one or this one -- might turn into hits, or outs. It's not so much that the ballpark is going to hurt him, because he's an elite hitter. Just don't expect it to massively increase his power output, either.

As we wrote last week, it was relatively difficult to find similar recent trades, where a young superstar was moved ahead of his final year of free agency. Of the three others, the teams acquiring Francisco Lindor and Mookie Betts absolutely wouldn't undo their moves, and the team that acquired Jason Heyward probably wouldn't either. It's almost never a bad idea to be the team acquiring the all-time great young player. We can't imagine the Yankees will regret this one, either.