A Flimsy Excuse To Write About Juan Soto

A weird thing happened in 2020. Well, lots of weird things happened in 2020 — my statement is maddeningly vague — but one in particular surprised me. The Nationals came into the season as strong contenders in the NL East despite losing Anthony Rendon in free agency, not least because of playoff superstar Juan Soto.

Of course, calling Soto a playoff superstar sells him short. His genius isn’t limited to the postseason. He’s simply one of the top five players in baseball, full stop; his combination of unparalleled batting eye, tremendous bat control, and startling power are exciting enough, and that’s before considering the fact that he didn’t turn 22 until this October. Quite simply, he’s a huge part of the future of the game. Heck, ZiPS comped him to literally Ted Williams earlier this offseason.

Right, we were talking about a weird thing and the Nats. Just before the season started, Soto tested positive for COVID (he believes it was a false positive). He didn’t play his first game until August 5, and the Nats never got into gear; per our playoff odds, they were under 10% to make even the expanded field by the time the calendar flipped to September:

Because of that, it’s easy to forget about Washington’s 2020. Before the season, they were defending champions, and then BAM, it was over. Weird! But this is an article about Soto, and Soto didn’t fade like the rest of the DC nine. He hit, and hit, and hit some more, to the tune of a Bonds-looking .351/.490/.695 slash line. It’s hard to think about that line, because what in the world does a .490 on-base percentage look like? .695 is a middle infielder’s OPS, not a slugging percentage. It beggars belief.

Perhaps my favorite part of Soto’s game is how it feels like you can think along with him. As a rookie, he was of course transcendent. He did it with great talent but also one simple trick: when people threw him offspeed and breaking pitches, he simply didn’t swing. That’s impressive, particularly at age 19, and it suggests room for improvement: as it turns out, there are some offspeed pitches you should swing at.

In 2019, Soto stepped out of his comfort zone a bit. He upped his swing rate across the board. Here, consider it in this oversimplified grid presentation:

Juan Soto’s Plate Discipline by Type/Zone
Year Zone Fastball OZ Fastball Zone Breaking OZ Breaking Zone Offspeed OZ Offspeed
2018 66.7% 18.2% 45.4% 14.4% 68.3% 25.4%
2019 65.5% 21.7% 64.4% 18.2% 75.0% 19.5%

The main change Soto made was swinging more at breaking pitches of all stripes. Most of it was in the zone — Soto is outrageous, remember? — but he also chased a few more, which is the cost of swinging more often overall. You couldn’t see it in his stats. In 2018, Soto struck out 20% of the time and walked 16% of the time. In 2019, those numbers were nearly unchanged — 20% and 16.4%, respectively. Under the hood, however, he was doing it differently.

In 2018, Soto was downright disdainful of pitches outside the strike zone until there were two strikes, swinging at only 11.2% of them. That number ticked up to 14.5% in 2019, largely on what I’ll call pitcher’s pitches: pitches that are in Baseball Savant’s “Shadow Zone,” the borders of the strike zone, but still out of the zone. Think of a fastball just above the zone or a slider that doesn’t quite clip the outside corner. On those pitches, Soto’s swing rate increased from 20% to 26.8%.

Those changes came with a benefit. By thinking swing more often, Soto also pulled the trigger more often on pitches down the heart of the plate. In 2018, he swung at 60.2% of pitches down the middle (in non-two-strike counts). In 2019, that ticked up to 68%. In other words, he was looking to do damage, hunting pitches he could drive. If that came with a few extra swings at suboptimal pitches, so be it.

Fast forward to 2020, and Soto made another change. Let’s start again with that generic in-or-out-of-zone depiction:

Juan Soto’s Plate Discipline by Type/Zone
Year Zone Fastball OZ Fastball Zone Breaking OZ Breaking Zone Offspeed OZ Offspeed
2018 66.7% 18.2% 45.4% 14.4% 68.3% 25.4%
2019 65.5% 21.7% 64.4% 18.2% 75.0% 19.5%
2020 60.8% 18.1% 58.9% 13.0% 65.7% 13.0%

Broad strokes here: Soto throttled down a bit on fastballs, kept most of his aggression on in-zone breaking balls, and stopped swinging at secondary pitches outside the zone altogether. For someone who mashes fastballs as much as Soto — he’s finished in the 94th percentile or higher in production on counts ending in fastballs in each of his three major league seasons — it’s not the end of the world to swing slightly less often at them, because it hardly gives pitchers license to come after you with fastballs. Attack Soto with fastballs? He could swing far less and that would still be a bad idea.

Meanwhile, swinging a little less often in good spots helped him swing far less often in bad spots. Look back up at the table. Those swing rates on secondaries that missed the zone are absurd. Here’s a list of every player who swung at 13% or fewer of the pitches they saw that matched those criteria:

Secondary Pitch Chase Rate, 2020
Player Breaking Swing% Offspeed Swing% Combined Swing%
Juan Soto 13.0% 13.0% 13.0%

Yeah, look, sorry. It’s a stupid table, that’s on me. I just want you to appreciate the mastery on display when Soto steps to the plate. Meanwhile, he’s middle of the pack when the pitches cross the plate, swinging at 61.8% of them against a league average of 66.4%.

Again, we’re just scratching the surface of swing/take decisions by crudely separating pitches in and outside the strike zone. Recall those two categories earlier — pitcher’s pitches and ones right down the heart of the plate. On pitchers’ pitches with less than two strikes, Soto swung only 19.5% of the time this year, the lowest rate of his career. His pitch recognition is so good, and his confidence in his ability to hit with two strikes so high, that he lets those pitches go by even if they might be called a strike. That was the seventh-lowest swing rate on those tough pitches, and the hitters in front of him are pretty good too:

Swing Rate on Pitchers’ Pitches
Batter Swings Pitches Swing Rate
Tommy La Stella 27 149 18.1%
Trent Grisham 26 143 18.2%
Alex Bregman 21 114 18.4%
Clint Frazier 22 117 18.8%
Mark Canha 27 141 19.1%
Mike Trout 23 118 19.5%
Juan Soto 26 133 19.5%
Carlos Santana 34 166 20.5%
Cavan Biggio 35 164 21.3%
Max Muncy 34 155 21.9%
Note: pitches just off the plate in any direction. Two strike counts are excluded.

Meanwhile, he finished near average on his swings on pitches over the heart of the plate, at 64%. How many players swung at fewer pitchers’ pitches and more hitters’ pitches than Soto? None, naturally. He’s otherworldly.

All of these words, these in-zones and out-of-zones and pitchers’ pitches and hitters’ pitches and whatnot, are a complicated way of talking about a simple thing. Right now, Juan Soto has the best pitch recognition in the major leagues. He knows what to swing at and what to spit on in a way that no one has since peak Joey Votto. Oh yeah — he’s making contact more often, too. In 2018, Soto had a weakness of sorts. Even when he swung at in-zone breaking balls, he frequently came up empty. His 23.3% whiff rate there was worse than league average, and even when he did make contact, he didn’t hit it hard; he had no barrels and a 19.4% hard hit rate. He was even worse on changeups and splitters; a 27.3% whiff rate and 10% hard hit rate are both pretty dire.

This year, that all changed. In an admittedly small sample, he simply stopped whiffing. He’s down to a 16.1% whiff rate on breakers and a 15.2% whiff rate on offspeed pitches. He’s hitting both types hard more frequently — roughly 30% on each. His barrel rate on in-zone breaking balls was a ludicrous 16.1% in 2020, for goodness sake. That’s the same as Ronald Acuña Jr.’s barrel rate on all batted balls, fastballs included. Good luck pitching to that!

In fact, I’ve been talking too much. Baseball Savant said it better. Want to see some red numbers? Let’s look at some red numbers:

Is that good? I think it’s good.

You’ll notice that I haven’t talked about any actual results in this article since referencing Soto’s eye-popping slash line. That’s because what’s most impressive about him isn’t his 200 wRC+ — though that’s certainly impressive — or his .344 ISO. It isn’t the fact that he batted .350 and walked more than he struck out. Those are all amazing, all jaw-dropping, but what stands out most to me is the purity of his process.

That Ted Williams comparison up above wasn’t an idle one. I wasn’t alive to see Williams play, but his distillation of hitting into a science feels exactly like what Soto is now doing. He’s grinding away inefficiencies, replacing the holes in his game with ever more strengths. His 2018 form was a caricature of a slugger with a good eye: he punished fastballs and ignored breaking balls. In 2019, he got more proactive against everything. Now, he’s synthesized the two to create an unsolvable puzzle for opposing pitchers.

Do I think he’ll improve on his 2020 next year? Nope! He had a freaking 200 wRC+. He slugged .695. That’s not a median forecast for anyone this side of peak Barry Bonds. What I do think is that I’ll enjoy watching Soto more than any other hitter in baseball. I don’t know what he’ll do next, but I love the feeling of wonder I get when I watch him at the plate, shuffling and pondering, deciding what weakness to attack next.

I can honestly say that I don’t get that feeling from anyone else playing right now, which is why I came up with this contrived article. Watching Soto hit is a pleasure. Writing about him is just as much fun, and I’m nothing if not self-serving. So enjoy it! I know I did.





Ben is a contributor to FanGraphs. A lifelong Cardinals fan, he got his start writing for Viva El Birdos. He can be found on Twitter @_Ben_Clemens.

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carter
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carter

I know you cannot project anyone to have a 200 wRC+, and I know Bonds was basically the only guy in recent memory who was that good, but I’ll be damned if Soto doesn’t put up a couple Bonds like seasons in the near future.

Francoeurstein
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Francoeurstein

If Soto posts a .609 OBP, I’ll buy his jersey. And I HATE the Nats.

carter
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carter

OK maybe Bonds – lite. But I bet he is going to run a 180+ for a span of a few years.

Francoeurstein
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Francoeurstein

I see a lot of early career Frank Thomas in Soto. I could see him going on a run like Hurt did from ’90-97 (.330/.452/.600, 182 OPS+)

sadtrombone
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sadtrombone

From 1951 to 2019 (which I consider more or less the universe of interesting baseball seasons) there have been 11 qualified seasons with wRC+’s above 200. Four of them are roided out Bonds, who should never be compared to anyone because of the roiding, one from a roided out McGwire (see: roided out Bonds), two of them are Ted Williams (the greatest pure hitter of all time), two of them are Mickey Mantle (who gets his own mention in “We Didn’t Start the Fire”), and Jeff Bagwell and Frank Thomas. All of the are Hall of Famers, or would be if it weren’t for the roiding.

All of this is to note that I would totally buy that he’ll have a season like Bagwell or Thomas (or ’80 George Brett, or ’81 Mike Schmidt). I used to compare him to Joey Votto but I’m starting to wonder if he might be better.

Greg Simons
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Greg Simons

I always wonder what exactly someone means by a “pure hitter.”. Hitting for a great batting average, great OBP, something else? It’s a phrase that is used often, but the definition is elusive.

Cave Dameron
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Cave Dameron

It almost always refers to guys with high batting averages, have high contact rates, & low strikeout rates.

sadtrombone
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sadtrombone

I think the practical answer is “whoever is most similar to Ted Williams” since he tops basically nearly single metric I could come up with when I tried to answer your question.

connjc
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connjc

I think the odds are high that Bagwell and Thomas were roided out too.

Cave Dameron
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Cave Dameron

It’s only fair to assume players are clean until proven otherwise, but you’re probably right given how prevalent steroids were. There isn’t a single player from the 90s or 2000s who I would be surprised if we found out they took steroids.

carter
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carter

I agree to assume players are clean. With that said I am pretty certain Thomas didn’t roid. He was always that big.

sadtrombone
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sadtrombone

I’m pretty sure Frank Thomas was not using steroids to bulk up, or if he was he had to have started when he was in college. I remember him the day he came into the league and I swear he was so big he could block out the sun.

Bagwell is plausible, though.

Cave Dameron
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Cave Dameron

The thing that always stuck out to me was when Frank Thomas was deciding between going pro in football or baseball, part of the reason he chose baseball was because he thought the NFL had a worse steroid problem.

hopbitters
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hopbitters

Thomas was the one person that agreed to be interviewed for the Mitchell Report.

Nats Fan
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Nats Fan

I’d bet a lot that Wally Joyner was clean. there were others! Not everyone is a soulless cheater!

MikeS
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MikeS

People keep bringing up Frank Thomas soni would also like to add that everybody in his family, including his sisters, are big, solid, people. You can’t really know anything for sure about players from that era, but he seemed to have the genes to get that big and strong without pharmaceutical help.

WARrior
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WARrior

You could also point out that their 200 wRC+ years were in a strike-shortened season. Thomas barely reached the minimum qualifying PA threshold for a full season, and Bagwell fell short of it. Not to dismiss their great seasons, but it’s easier to reach high rate stats in less than a full season.

Sonny L
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Sonny L

How does Billy Joel feel about a more three-true-outcome style of play? I imagine I know the answer, but if he could express himself through song, as an ode to Jacob deGrom maybe, I’d line up for that LP.

sadtrombone
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sadtrombone

Trevor Bauer seeking fame
Three true outcomes every game
Soto hitting like a god
J-Lo shacks up with A-Rod

carter
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carter

Frank Thomas was just sooo good. In his 205 wRC+ season (353/487/729), he had a walk rate that was nearly double his K rate 21.1 bb%, 11.8 k%. The year prior he put up a BB rate that actually was double! He struck out only 8% of the time, while walking 16.6%. Oh and he hit 41 hrs while slashing .317/426/607. Sweet mother of god.

sadtrombone
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sadtrombone

Guys like Frank Thomas are why the Hall of Fame was invented. Someday, people who were ’90s baseball teens will tell their grandchildren tall tales like “and then AFTER he hit the home run he lifted up a falling building long enough for everyone to escape.”

MikeS
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MikeS

As long as you want stories….

Must have been the early 90’s since they were playing KC and Bo Jackson was in CF for the Royals. I was in the first row of the left center field bleachers as the White Sox played the Royals. 8th inning, 2 out, 1 on, Sox down 4-3. Thomas comes up. I yelled at Bo Jackson in CF to take a seat because he wasn’t going to have a play to make. Sure enough, Thomas hits a ball well over my head and I’m going HAM on Bo right below me. “SEE!! I TOLD YOU NOT TO BOTHER!!!” Bo just looked up at me and nodded.

sadtrombone
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sadtrombone

I saw him a few times in his rookie season (once in person…maybe twice? probably not, probably it’s just memory that is going) and when the ball came off his bat it just felt…different. Kind of Giancarlo Stanton. Except that Frank Thomas was a much better hitter, and wasn’t hurt all the time.

For reference, I was not a White Sox fan and I went from “who is this guy? probably a nobody” to “please not this guy again.” But wow, was he ever fun if it wasn’t your team he was playing against.

airforce21one
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airforce21one

Wasn’t Bagwell caught up in the ‘roids as well?