Juan Soto will bounce, but can he make the necessary changes?

© Mitch Stringer-USA TODAY Sport

There is probably no good way to introduce Juan Soto. The man is simply impossible: he finishes an inch outside the zone and will take the field with a big step, celebrating the occasion with his characteristic shuffle. End up anywhere near his comfort zone and he’ll put him in the outfield for a double, or worse, over the fence for a home run. You just have to pray and hope Soto messes up his timing. He’s been blessed with a supernatural talent for dish discipline to pander to legitimate power and, to wrap up this sentence, he’s very good at it.

At the same time, the pitchers have to do something right, because so far Soto is experiencing the worst season of his career. With a 125 wRC + at the time of writing that may be top marks from other hitters, Soto simply looks deadly in 2022. So what’s going on? I don’t claim to have all or even necessarily the right answers, but I do have some ideas.

Before proceeding further, I must point out that Soto’s underperformance is largely a product of bad luck, plain and simple. Soto has a BABIP .207. Nobody has a BABIP .207! Joey Gallo also has a .256 BABIP. The batting average on the balls in play has mysteriously dropped in 2022, but it’s nowhere near enough to explain why Soto was a bottom dweller in this regard. Another oddity this year: Almost everyone is lagging behind the predicted wOBA because Statcast’s metrics haven’t been calibrated for the new offensive environment. Even so, the gap between Soto’s actual and predicted wOBA is the 28th largest in baseball. Soto isn’t really acting like an inferior version of himself. The contact is there. The discipline is there. We are still in June and there is plenty of time for a correction.

But it also appears that Soto’s underperformance is the result of a better understanding of his weaknesses by pitchers. There’s no good way to talk to him, yes, but there are ways to minimize the damage. At this point, it’s no secret that a good chunk of Soto’s otherworldly production comes from ambushing hard stuff. Here is a graph showing Soto’s wOBA on contact by court type (fast balls, out of speed, break) in each season:

In fact, Soto absolutely crushes fast balls. He more than compensates for his relatively modest numbers against slower, heavier-moving courts, but if he ever goes mad against them like he did in 2020, we’ll have an all-time season in our hands. However, it is easy to see what needs to be done against Soto. He is seeing a fastball rate at his career low this season: 50.9%, down from 55.6% last season. If we isolate the four-stitched fastballs, which Soto not only demolishes but never swings (literally), the decline is even more marked: he sees them 26.8% of the time, compared to 34.7% last season. When Soto recently talked about the lack of tone to hit, I suppose that is part of it. More than ever, opposing pitchers are unwilling to meet Soto on his terms.

Since Soto has an insatiable appetite for quick balls, that’s pretty clear where is it in the strike zone he loves to attack. This time, here is a heat map of Soto’s ISO (isolated power) for BIP (ball in play) by field position during his career. The data is a little noisy, but you can see the red-flooded areas:

Quick balls usually end up near the letters. It’s no surprise, then, that Soto’s Happy Place sits at the top of the area. We can also tell where he is not so happy to be. Do you see the blue lake that is low and out of a left-handed hitter’s perspective? This has traditionally been Soto’s weak point. Obviously, attacking is easier said, since any throw outside the zone that isn’t perfectly executed will likely result in a ceremonial mixed bag. But the challenge involved in doing so has yet to discourage pitchers. The away pitch rate against Soto is steadily increasing and this season has reached an all-time high of 27.4%.

The count doesn’t seem to have much influence on when pitchers are positioning themselves low and far away. You would think it would avoid a slider when Soto is ahead in the count, but at 26.7%, the rate of decline in that situation is not far off the overall rate. In fact, the degradation rate of pitchers when Soto is behind in the tally, when it is potentially vulnerable, it is down compared to last season. Perhaps what pitchers are looking for is not a strikeout, but rather a weak contact. If you want to know why Soto doesn’t have maximum ISO against low and far shoots, this spray chart provides a concise answer:

The points above represent every low and away shot Soto made contact against in 2022. They also reveal a strange dichotomy. When Soto hits the ball on the ground against such a field, he often does it on the shooting side. This fact offers insight into why teams are moving against him so often – in 60.3% of his pot appearances, to be exact – despite Soto not being an archetypal hitter. The two-step strategy of throwing where it’s least comfortable, then picking up a Grounder seems to work, at least in a limited sample.

When Soto hits the ball in the air against a low court, however, he often does so at the in front of side. Soto does not shoot (and may never shoot) most of his air balls due to the nature of his swing. He reacts later rather than earlier to throws, which helps him spit on borderline fields but also moves his point of contact back, resulting in balloons flying to the other side. It was never a big deal; Soto has been one of the league’s biggest hitters since his arrival, after all.

Here’s the thing, though. Baseball’s drag coefficient right now is the highest ever in Soto’s major league career. As a result, flying balls and line units average the lowest distance recorded in the Statcast era. However, some air spheres have a more negative impact than others. You may have noticed that shooters aren’t wavering from the effects of a dead ball, mainly because their approach gives them room for error: shooting the ball maximizes exit speed and thus results in contact. But hitters aiming for the opposite court need every foot they can get and, so far, the new ball has turned many of their home runs into harmless fly outs.

In this environment, it is imperative for hitters to have shooting power, even if it is in their back pockets. Now, Soto isn’t just about left field, but what’s a little troubling is how recently he’s been out of touch with his shooting sensitivity. The table below shows the percentage of Soto’s volleyballs and line drives hit opposite each season, as well as the results corresponding to contact:

Soto’s Oppo Air Ball Rate

Year In front of% wOBA
2018 37.8% .766
2019 37.2% .472
2020 35.7% .868
2021 39.1% .548
2022 41.9% .237

SOURCE: Baseball Savant

Fly ball and line drive.

It’s not a huge increase, mind you, but in a year where balls hit on the other side are finding glove after glove, it has left a noticeable dent in Soto’s production. The why is hard to pinpoint: all those low, faraway shots seem to be the culprits, but so does the proprietary data that suggests Soto’s vertical bat angle He obtained flatterhelping to increase mishaps (and therefore lateral rotation, which kills the distance).

Even so, a .237 wOBA is terribly low, reminding us that the root of Soto’s problems is his bad luck. Few things in baseball are that simple, but it’s true. That hideous .207 BABIP has a far greater grip on its cutting line than any combination of off-speed / break throws, low and away throws, and opposing court air balloons. Let’s face it: there is a roughly 99% chance that the part in this article about Soto’s “collapse” will become irrelevant in the coming months. Just think of last season, when Soto had a 128 wRC + in the first half but a 199 wRC + in the second half. He changed things first. If he’s still close to the Mendoza line in September, well, we’ll talk.

The balls will start falling from the shots. The Soto average will return to normal. After an anemic April, league-wide offense is on the rise. This does not mean, however, that the above trends will disappear. They are still part of Soto’s silent 2022, with the potential to become one Moreover relevant once his BABIP is back to life. I have a vague suspicion that Soto’s projections for power have been inflated by the environments he played in prior to this season. Soto is clearly a generational talent. He is someone who could happen to Mike Trout as the best player in the universe, but for that to happen, he will have to adapt. He will need to survive on a diet consisting of fewer fastballs and will have to start throwing more of his fly balls. I know that associating someone’s future with Trout is a ridiculous exercise, but looking at Soto, it’s hard not to get greedy. The pitchers gave their best response to his talents. Now it’s his turn to return the favor.

The statistics in this article are for matches on June 22nd.

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