The unique, almost-impossible swing of Juan Soto

Bat-tracking metrics illuminate the AL MVP favorite's elite skills

May 23rd, 2024

We didn’t really need advanced metrics powered by high-speed cameras to know that Juan Soto occupies a particularly lofty realm of the hitting world. Did we?

After all, it’s now been nearly five years since we noted that a then-teenage Soto was off to one of the most incredible starts to a career ever, and all he’s done since is continue to earn the “he’s the new Ted Williams” comparisons that come up so often. Even now, in his age-25 season, he’s still off to one of the 15 or so best starts in AL/NL history through that age. Assuming health, he is all but assured of a Hall of Fame future.

It’s because of that knowledge that earlier this month, when Statcast released all of the new bat-tracking metrics that the baseball world has been enjoying (see the leaderboard here and explainer here), we maybe didn’t expect that there was much about Soto that would make us stand up and take notice. After all, we already knew he was great. What would this teach us?

The answer: Maybe more than we thought. (Note: all numbers cited below are through Wednesday's games.)

First, we learned that Soto has elite bat speed, which shouldn’t be terribly surprising. Among the 216 qualified hitters as of Thursday, his average swing speed of 76.2 mph was ninth best, or 96th percentile, just ahead of Julio Rodríguez and Gunnar Henderson. "Juan Soto swings fast," as expected, now confirmed.

He’s also elite at squaring the ball up, which is also not surprising. Among those 216 hitters, his 35.8% squared-up rate is sixth best, or 98th percentile. (You can read more about squared-up rate here; it is an expression of a hitter’s ability to turn bat speed into exit velocity, which can only happen optimally on the fat part of the barrel.)

It’s not that he swings a fast bat. It’s not that he squares the ball up well. It’s that he does both, at the same time, in a way that seems almost impossible.

Look, if you will, at the squared-up rate leaders. It’s not that you need elite bat speed to be a successful hitter, because the presence of Luis Arraez and Mookie Betts more than confirm that. But almost everyone on this list has below-average bat speed, which necessarily limits the high-end contact they can get to. Only Alec Bohm and Yandy Díaz, among this group, even get up to average speed. Only Soto has anything resembling plus bat speed.

Now, flip it and just look at the bat speed leaders. Aside from Soto, only Henderson (among this group) is above the 26% Major League average for squared-up rate, and even he's well behind the 36% that Soto is at.

Intuitively, that makes sense, that the fast swings aren't elite at squaring it up, at least if you’ve ever seen a Giancarlo Stanton or Kyle Schwarber swing out of their shoes – they’re fast, but not always exactly precise. It's hard to do both. Nearly impossible.

Then there’s Soto, who somehow manages to do both. As we said, he’s in the 96th percentile for swing speed and the 98th percentile for squared-up rate. Compare that to extremists like Arraez (1st percentile swing speed / 100th percentile squared-up) or Schwarber (99th percentile swing speed / 17th percentile squared-up rate), and you are starting to see how unique a combination this is.

It is, in fact, even more outstanding than just that.

Soto is the only hitter in the 90th percentile or better in both metrics.

He’s one of only two hitters in the 90th percentile or better for swing speed who is also in the 70th percentile or better in squared-up rate (Ohtani).

He’s one of only two hitters in the 90th percentile or better for squared-up rate who is also in the 60th percentile or better in bat speed (Díaz).

It is perhaps more notable when you plot the two metrics against one another, and look at the four corners.

You don’t have a lot of names on the lower left, because hitters with slow swings who can’t square the ball up tend not to stick in the Major Leagues. You can be one type of productive hitter in the top left (the Arraez/Brice Turang zone of slow swings and excellent bat control), and you can be another type of productive hitter in the bottom right (the Stanton/Schwarber realm of fast, imprecise swings).

But to be in the top right, the fast swings that have a high squared-up rate, that’s the truly special area. That’s where Shohei Ohtani, William Contreras, Henderson and Bobby Witt Jr. live. Look how far beyond those guys Soto is, all by himself.

Which, again: You already knew Soto was a generational superstar. But there’s maybe a difference between knowing that his outcomes are tremendous, and being able to say things like “he squares up the ball like he’s Steven Kwan, he just does it with 12 more mph of bat speed.” (As the math goes, every mph of bat speed on hard-hit balls in the air earns approximately six feet of distance. Imagine Kwan with 72 more feet of fly ball distance?)

Imagine Kwan, if he could swing that much harder without losing any bat control to do it. You don’t have to imagine. That’s Soto.

In fact, we can do better than our imagination. We can show you.

On April 16, Kwan flew out to right field in Boston. He took an 86 mph cutter, inside, and the swing he put on it was efficient enough that he got 92% of it, so far as squaring it up goes. He got it in the air, too, with a 20 degree launch angle, and hit to straightaway right field.

He did all that with a 67.5 mph swing, well below the Major League average of 72 mph. It went 369 feet, and outfielder Wilyer Abreu was able to easily corral it for an out.

On May 18, Soto stepped up in New York and got a 90 mph fastball, inside, nearly the same spot that Kwan had received his pitch. He also squared up 92% of it, and had a similar launch angle (22 degrees), and while he hit it ever so slightly less into the power alley than Kwan did, the direction was extremely similar.

These are similar circumstances. The main difference here was that Soto’s bat speed was 80.8 mph, or more than a dozen mph faster than Kwan’s.

That helped him add 17 extra mph of exit velocity (110.2 compared to 93.6), and the 437 feet of projected distance is a full 68 feet longer than Kwan’s was, making for a majestic blast. (Yes, right field in the Bronx is very different than in Fenway, and Kwan might have actually had a homer in Yankee Stadium. No, that doesn’t change the massive distance difference.)

We're now seeing it essentially on a daily basis. On Wednesday, when Soto hit two homers against Seattle, they were both squared-up baseballs (94% and 91%, in order, each above the 80% threshold for 'being squared up'), and they both had fast swings (76.5 mph and 78.8 mph, respectively, each above the 75 mph 'fast swing' threshold.) This makes it all sound so easy. It is extremely not easy.

"My swing is, I try to be on top of the ball. I try to be on top of the ball and be on time," Soto said to’s David Adler earlier this month. "That's my main mindset. That's how I describe it: A swing that is gonna be quick and long in the strike zone. Quick, long in the strike zone and on top of the ball. Those are my main things."

Where most everyone else in baseball needs to slow down to square up, or squares up because they can’t speed up, Soto does both. We already knew he was great, historically so. We’re starting to learn some more about what exactly he does that makes him that way.