The Nationals slugger has gotten off to another slow start in 2022. How can this be explained?
Juan Soto is a generational talent. This much is clear. At the ripe age of 23, he is already an All-Star, Batting Champion, two-time Silver Slugger award winner, Babe Ruth award winner, two-time top-five MVP vote-getter, three-time All-MLB honoree, and, perhaps most importantly, a World Series Champion. He has drawn (deserved) comparisons to Hall of Famers such as Jimmie Foxx, Mel Ott, and Ted Williams. Since making his debut during the 2018 season, Soto ranks in the top five in all of baseball in a plethora of offensive categories, including on-base percentage (OBP), on-base plus slugging (OPS), weighted on-base average (wOBA), and adjusted weighted runs created (wRC+). While he is incredibly gifted, the 2022 season has demonstrated that Juan Soto is, in fact, human.
This Might Sound Familiar…
Through June 20, 2022, Soto had posted a slash line of .218/.367/.440 (.807 OPS), with a 127 wRC+. All of these fall far short of his career averages of .290/.423/.535 (.958 OPS) with a 152 wRC+. Though he had struggles through this time in the 2021 season as well, his 2022 slump seems to be of a different nature.
While both of these samples demonstrate well-above-average production in terms of wRC+, they also fall around 25 points shy of Soto’s career mark. Much of the differences in production have to do with power. Soto has hit for much better power numbers in 2022 compared to the same time frame in 2021. Contrary to what one might expect, we do not see the same relationship with hard-hit rate. Using FanGraphs’ Hard%, which measures how often a player hits the ball hard on a per-plate appearance basis, we can see that there is a significant gap between the 2021 and 2022 numbers. We would expect to see higher power numbers in 2021 based on Hard % alone, but we do not.
To explain this, we likely have to look more toward the types of batted balls Soto was producing at that time. As much as I would like to use Statcast data to discuss this, it is not yet available to the extent that I can filter it by date. So, I will instead construct the narrative using stats that can be filtered as I need. There is a small disparity in groundball % (GB%) between the two samples, which could explain some of the disparity in production; maybe he was hitting the ball hard, but right into the ground.
The greatest difference between 2021 and 2022, however, is luck. Batting average in balls in play (BABIP) is an attempt by sabermetricians to quantify luck. It represents the percentage of balls in play that turn into hits. League-wide BABIP typically sits in the .290-.300 range for some context. Through June 20, 2021, Juan Soto’s BABIP was a very normal .303. Over the same stretch in 2022, he has put up a .213 BABIP.
There are a number of possible reasons for this disparity, but speed is one possible factor. In 2021, Soto was in the 51st percentile league-wide for sprint speed, but in 2022 he is in just the 27th. Another strong factor goes back to the quality of contact that was discussed earlier. In 2022, he is hitting the ball hard less often and hitting the ball weak more often, possibly contributing to more routine fly balls and ground balls for opposing defenses.
So, What Is He Doing Wrong?
The problem with a player as young as Soto is that he does not have a decade-long career of data to pull from. To a certain extent, we just have to accept that we’re dealing with relatively small sample sizes in terms of a career. That being said, there are still some interesting trends that we can analyze even for such a short career.
The first part of Soto’s troubles, and the thing that will kick off a chain reaction of related phenomena, is that his chase rate is up. He has chased (swung at pitches outside the zone) more this season than any since 2019. This problem is particularly pronounced with off-speed pitches (change-ups, splitters, etc.).
Simultaneously, Soto has made more contact on those chases than any year since his rookie campaign. He is making more contact on pitches that he shouldn’t really be swinging at. Chasing more and whiffing less on those has probably played a part in his reduction in hard-hit balls. Baseball Savant calculates the ratio of hard-hit balls differently from FanGraphs, but both use the same threshold (95 mph) to determine what is a hard-hit ball. Soto’s Statcast hard-hit rate is 44.7%, once again the lowest mark since his rookie year. Soto is swinging at and hitting more bad pitches than he has at most points in his career, leading to his current stretch of low outlier production.
None of this is to say that Soto has lost the knack of barreling the baseball, however. He is in the 94th percentile league-wide in barrels and the 86th in barrel %, both in line with his career numbers. What it has led to is a career-high soft-hit ball percentage (23.4% via FanGraphs) and medium-hit ball percentage (47.7%). Going back to BABIP, hard-hit balls have by far the highest probability of becoming a hit when compared to all others. Across MLB in 2022, hard-hit balls have a BABIP of .401, medium-hit balls .264, and softly-hit balls just .190. It tracks that Soto’s greater production of non-hard-hit balls has adversely affected his ability to get hits, which has impacted his batting average and in turn his OBP and OPS.
What can he do to fix this?
Soto’s production will likely begin to regress back to the mean as his BABIP rises across a larger sample size. There are still some steps he can take to help him break out of his slump.
- Keep Walking!!!
- One of Juan Soto’s greatest assets is his ability to draw walks and simultaneously keep his strikeout numbers low. During both his 2021 and 2022 slow starts, he was able to keep those numbers right around his career averages. Soto’s ability to walk at an elite level allows him to remain a productive player even when he isn’t hitting the ball particularly well.
- Take a Deep Breath
- The 2022 Washington Nationals are not exactly going to be in any pennant races. This is a fact. However, Juan Soto is one of nine men in the lineup every night. While the other eight might not be Trea Turner, Anthony Rendon, and Howie Kendrick, they are still professional hitters. Josh Bell and Nelson Cruz are actually having pretty decent seasons. All of this is to say that Soto does not and can not do everything himself; just from watching him this season, I get the sense that there may be a little of that going on. There is no need for him to be expanding the zone the way he has been. Tightening up his swing zones and hitting more balls hard would go a long way towards helping his team win more games.
By instituting this one main change, and with time to adjust, I believe we will see the old Juan Soto again in no time.