Juan Soto Is Finally a Bright Spot for the Padres

Juan Soto
Nick Wosika-USA TODAY Sports

Players the caliber of Juan Soto are rarely available via trade, so when the Padres acquired him via trade last summer from the drowning Nationals, it made a huge splash on the level of dropping a Sherman tank into your neighborhood swimming hole. But rather than continue his previous level of superstardom, he struggled to meet expectations in San Diego. His .236/.388/.390 line was still enough for a solid wRC+ of 130, but relative to his normal level of excellence, it’s hard to call that line anything but a disappointment.

Soto’s start in 2023, though, pales even next to his post-trade performance last year. April 17 may be the nadir of his career in San Diego: the Padres were shut out for the second game in a row, and he put up his fifth consecutive hitless game, leaving him with a triple-slash of .164/.346/.361. For the calendar year ending on that day, he was hitting .230/.391/.435 and had compiled 3.5 WAR — good enough for mere mortals, but not entities made of sterner stuff.

Around this time, Harold Reynolds talked a bit on MLB Network about Soto’s swing and the changes he was making. While I’ve criticized Reynolds plenty for his general analysis when it crosses into the jurisdiction of analytics, I bookmarked this video at the time, as the analysis rang true to me. He believed that Soto’s tinkering would pay dividends, and whether it’s a coincidence or not, he’s looked a lot more like the Soto we love over the last month. In 23 games since then and through Sunday’s action, he hit .321/.447/.571 and amassed 1.2 WAR, the kind of MVP-level production we’ve expected to see from him in mustard and brown and largely have not.

Some have attributed Soto’s problems with being too pull-happy, but I don’t think that’s really accurate. For one, he’s been even more pull-happy over the last month. Heck, his nine pulled groundballs for hits — thank you, shift ban — are already more than halfway to his career high of 17 in 2019. For another, his relative struggles were present before he started pulling the ball a lot more; Statcast’s xBA uses just launch angle and exit velocity, and there was clearly something not quite right with him even before the trade:

See that lowest dip around Soto’s 1,400th career ball in play? That’s not from this year or post-Padres trade; that covers from the end of 2021 to June 2022. His pull rate was actually lower than his career average at this point.

One of the big reasons Soto’s numbers were crashing is that his exit velocities were trending down:

By the end of the season, these numbers were actually recovering. I would submit that pulling the ball more has been part of his approach to his issues, not the cause of them. To me, the 2022 and 2023 struggles are different; I think that the problem early on this year stems from his passivity at the plate, a trap that I call Ben Grieve Syndrome (or Jeremy Hermida Syndrome). There’s an invisible threshold out there where plate discipline becomes a drag — when you’re waiting too long for the pitch you can crush. Soto’s zone-swing percentage hit a career low in 2022 and, for the first three weeks of the 2023 season, was down around 55%; meanwhile, his out-of-zone swing rate, while still in the healthy low-20s, was a little on the high side for him.

Historically, Soto has swung at 70–75% of fastballs thrown in what Statcast defines as the heart of the plate. Naturally, he’s punished those; coming into the season, 44 of his career homers had come on those pitches, with a collective .951 slugging percentage:

Juan Soto vs. Heart Fastballs
Year Heart Fastballs Swings Percentage
2018 171 129 75.4%
2019 200 139 69.5%
2020 64 48 75.0%
2021 284 204 71.8%
2022 234 166 70.9%
2023 (Through 4/17) 29 15 51.7%
2023 (Since 4/17) 36 28 77.8%

Based on his career average, Soto’s passivity here cost him six total bases through April 17 — a pretty big number considering that at that point of the season, six bases was worth about a hundred points of slugging percentage. And since that inflection point, he’s started going after these pitches with gusto once again. His overall in-zone swing rate has rebounded up to 65% over the last month, and his out-of-zone swing rate has gone the opposite direction, back down to just under 19%. In other words, he’s swinging rather than looking at the right pitches more often, and his exit velocities have jumped to an average of 95.3 mph.

It’s important he stays aggressive on these pitches, because pitchers are more and more careful not to give them to him. The rate at which they throw into Soto’s three best Gameday Zones (high-middle, middle-middle, middle-inside) has dropped almost in half this year, making it even more important to take advantage of the opportunities.

Juan Soto in Three Favorite Gameday Zones
Year Soto Preferred Zones % Pitches Swings Percentage SLG HR
2018 353 17.4% 250 70.8% .860 15
2019 417 15.0% 313 75.1% .878 16
2020 123 14.9% 90 73.2% 1.171 7
2021 393 15.0% 274 69.7% .844 15
2022 465 16.8% 320 68.8% .737 17
2023 (Through 4/17) 54 7.1% 32 59.3% .333 1
2023 (Since 4/17) 69 9.1% 53 76.8% .714 2

It’s not surprising to see Soto make adjustments in his game. This has been the longest slump of his career, and he doesn’t have a great deal of practical experience struggling at any point professionally. It’s easy to forget, given that he came up in 2018 and COVID makes that seem like it was 100 years ago, but he’s still very young in baseball terms; he doesn’t even turn 25 until sometime during the World Series. Seventy-four players have made their major league debuts so far in 2023; only 20 of them are younger than Soto. If anything, learning how to fail — so long as the lesson is learned — might be beneficial to him in the long-term. Baseball is a game of adjustment, and how do you learn to adjust if you’ve never had to before? Baseball history is full of stars who peaked in their early 20s and never got any better.

There’s one other wrinkle in this slump to note. Over on Baseball Prospectus a couple weeks ago, Robert Orr talked about Soto’s struggles with pitches with a good bit of lateral movement. That remains a problem, and it may continue to be one going forward and ultimately lower his overall ceiling somewhat. While he’s not outright fooled that easily and still makes contact with these pitches, as Orr notes, Soto looks out of balance and awkward when he does hit them. Here are three more examples of him looking a little out of sorts, all coming from the period in which he’s been an offensive force.

While that’s certainly not a good thing by any stretch, there are a couple of mitigating issues that make me worry about this not quite as much. Soto has never actually been good against these pitches; in his career, he’s .188 hitter with a .245 slugging percentage against sliders and sweepers from lefties. But the rate he’s seeing them is not that much increased, the equivalent of about 20–30 extra sliders/sweepers per season. His plate discipline is a saving grace here: for his career, he’s only swung at 21.1% of those pitches thrown outside the zone, so it’s not like he’s constantly getting rung up Jeff Francoeur-style. Your average lefty throwing a slider may simply not have good enough command to take full advantage of Soto’s weakness. He’s only actually swung and missed at those pitches seven times this season, and only twice in the last month. So while he’s not doing damage on these pitches, he’s also living to face the next pitch more often than not.

Fixing a longstanding issue like this probably requires a lot more work than a simple approach or stance change. I think Soto’s apparent approach — getting his strength back to the level where nobody cares about his weakness — is probably the route to the most gains. Now the question is: can it last?

Soto’s run is certainly good news for the Padres, who have been struggling to put together any offense and now rank 13th in the National League in runs scored. Even Xander Bogaerts, who was blazing hot in the opening weeks of the season, has only hit .223/.324/.330 over the last month. There are enough offensive problems that San Diego can’t afford to not get offense from Soto.

Dan Szymborski is a senior writer for FanGraphs and the developer of the ZiPS projection system. He was a writer for ESPN.com from 2010-2018, a regular guest on a number of radio shows and podcasts, and a voting BBWAA member. He also maintains a terrible Twitter account at @DSzymborski.

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11 months ago

Soto looks a lot like Bryce Harper. At age 22, Harper put up that crazy 9-WAR year and looked like he was poised to sign a super massive contract. Then he slipped to merely excellent and signed just a regular massive contract.

Soto was a lot more consistent through age 22 but never reached the heights Harper did. He’s had a similar dropoff since. It will be interesting to see if he’s back to his old ways now, and what this will all mean for his eventual contract.

11 months ago
Reply to  darren

He reminds me a lot of Bobby Abreu for some reason. Which is not a bad place to be!

Roger McDowell Hot Foot
11 months ago
Reply to  dukewinslow

To me Abreu is a better comp than Harper because Soto is, like Abreu, turning into a classic case of the “young player with old-player skills” problem. Guys who hit the big leagues with their carrying tool being perfect strike-zone judgement at age 22 don’t have the same room to mature — so their aging curve looks “bad” compared to guys whose young performance is driven by the usual young-player skills.

11 months ago

Abreu is a fine comp for the type of hitter Soto is (although he had a lot more speed in his game). The Harper comp was more based on the shape of his career, discussions of a record breaking contract, and their reaching free agency so young. Harper and Soto were also both lacking in defense or elite speed, and and both have excellent walk rates.

11 months ago
Reply to  darren

I think the reality is that unless you’re chemically enhanced there’s virtually no way to be that sort of a hitting god year in and year out. It’s very hard to be that sort of a hitting god even once! Soto hasn’t put together a full season like that Harper season ever; he has topped out at 163 wRC+.

Of course, Soto also is still pretty young, he could do it still. But Joey Votto’s career high in wRC+ is 178 or 174, depending on where you put the PA cutoff. Vlad Guerrero Sr topped out at 160. Dave Winfield topped out at 161. These are some of the greatest and most consistent hitters of all time.

Soto, at age 22, turned in a Joey Votto-like performance, which is pretty impressive considering that Joey Votto didn’t break out until age 25. I think that’s the kind of hitter he is, and he has been for a long time. He came into this league with a remarkable level of skill. And while he can hone it and be even better than he has been lately, I’m not sure there’s a lot of room for him to be better than Votto, who is something like the 12th-15th greatest hitter post-integration. But you can still be a Hall of Famer by cranking out seasons of 150 wRC+ or higher for a decade! I think that’s what you would dream on if you’re offering Soto a contract–the next Joey Votto.

11 months ago
Reply to  sadtrombone

I think there’s a pretty huge difference between Soto and Votto. Besides him getting started with his dominance much earlier, Soto is way stronger than votto. I think sotos floor is a bit below vottos career. The ceiling is much higher. He can definitely have a season or three of the Bryce Harper 2015. (Especially if he ends up playing in yankee stadium). But yeah the patience and contact profiles are similar, as are both of their 80 grade charisma

11 months ago

Good call on the 80-grade charisma. My favorite Soto-ism is when he gets fooled or just misses a pitch and he looks at the pitcher, nods and flashes a playful/maniacal smile. Those moments really encapsulates the cat/mouse aspect of the sport, and that it’s meant to be fun.

Roger McDowell Hot Foot
11 months ago
Reply to  bmasar

Absolutely love the little “OK, you got me” nod when he takes a strike, either because it was a perfect pitch or because he was looking for something else. Don’t know what to call it but BDE.