Juan Soto Isn’t Having a Juan Soto Year

Juan Soto
Orlando Ramirez-USA TODAY Sports

The Josh Hader trade isn’t the only deadline deal that has yielded less-than-rewarding results thus far for the Padres. Juan Soto hasn’t been as bad as Hader at his worst (the closer has lately righted the ship), but after a good start for his new team, he’s fallen into a deep slump. As the Padres battle to hold onto the third NL Wild Card spot, his struggles are worth a closer look.

When he was acquired from the Nationals in an eight-player blockbuster on August 2, Soto was in the midst of a solid-but-not-great season by his own high standards. While his 151 wRC+ was only four points off his career mark, his .246/.408/.485 line was far below his typical slash stats (.291/.427/.538) — not enough to be a dealbreaker or to rate as a significant long-term concern, but notable nonetheless. That said, the Padres’ right field mess made my Replacement Level Killers list, and an on-base percentage above .400 will cover a multitude of sins.

Soto debuted with the Padres on August 3, going 1-for-3 with a pair of walks in a 9–1 rout of the Rockies. He continued to hit well (.286/.438/.460 from August 3 to 21), but on August 23, he was scratched from the lineup with what the Padres called “left mid-back tightness.” Via MLB.com’s AJ Cassavell, “His back flared up while he was swinging in the batting cage shortly before first pitch. During the game, Soto took further swings in the cage, hoping he might get a chance to pinch-hit, but he wasn’t able to.”

Soto didn’t play again until August 27, though he missed just three games thanks to a schedule that bracketed a two-game series against the Guardians with off days on either side. Upon returning, he collected hits in his first two plate appearances against the Royals’ Daniel Lynch, and the next night homered off Anthony Misiewicz. But in the 13 games since then, he’s gone 3-for-42, all singles, and didn’t collect an RBI until Tuesday night. He’s walked 12 times during that stretch and was hit by a pitch — causing him to leave a September 7 game with a right shoulder contusion, which may be a contributing factor here — en route to a .120/.313/.180 post-injury performance. In all, his six hits over a 15-game span is the second-lowest total of his major league career; he had five hits in 15 games in two overlapping stretches in September 2019.

Is the slump as bad as it looks? My assumption going into this investigation was “probably not,” given that even with his return against the Royals, we’re talking about a total of 64 plate appearances and even fewer batted ball events. With the caveat that this is some small sample spelunking, it’s worth noting that since his absence, Soto has pretty much matched his Statcast stats for the first four and a half months of the season, which is to say that he’s hit the ball as hard, more or less:

Juan Soto Statcast Splits
Split BBE EV LA Barrel% HardHit% AVG xBA SLG xSLG wOBA xwOBA
Through Aug. 21 333 90.8 8.8 12.6% 47.1% .252 .273 .481 .527 .391 .415
Since Aug. 27 44 90.4 16.4 9.1% 47.7% .120 .234 .180 .377 .253 .357

Soto has produced a similar average exit velo and hard-hit rate and a slightly lower barrel rate (the difference in the smaller sample amounts to falling about two barrels short), but very different expected and actual outcomes. Note the difference in average launch angle; Soto generally ranks among the game’s top power hitters despite the fact that he hits the ball on the ground about half the time (career 48.6% groundball rate) and has an average launch angle below 10 degrees. In fact, since his debut in 2018, he’s one of four players with a slugging percentage above .500 (.528) and an average launch angle below 10 degrees (8.4); the other three — Eloy Jiménez, Vladimir Guerrero Jr., and Christian Yelich — all have SLGs in the .507–.510 range with angles in the 5.9–8.3 degree range. If Soto is averaging 16.4 degrees even for a stretch of time, something is probably off.

A closer look suggests a couple things are amiss. For one, over this short stretch, he’s produced an infield fly ball rate of 37.5%, about five times his career rate. He’s hit seven pop-ups — balls with virtually no chance of becoming hits — during this slump, where we’d expect him to hit about one. For another, he’s pulling the ball about 46% of the time in this span (and around 44% since the trade), compared to about a 36% career rate.

I do wonder if Soto has gotten a bit-pull happy given the dimensions and difficulties of Petco Park. On the one hand, it’s only 322 feet down the right field line thanks to a small section that cuts a notch in the corner, compared to 334 to left. But on the other, Petco still has a park home run factor for lefties of just 95; it’s not an easy place to hit one out.

Whether it’s that or mechanical issues related to his injury (or unrelated, who knows?), the fact remains that even if we expand our focus to include his whole season, Soto’s slash line (.237/.402/.448) and 142 wRC+ are decidedly atypical. Again, his Statcast splits provide a tip-off:

Juan Soto Statcast
Season BBE EV LA Barrel% HardHit% AVG xBA SLG xSLG wOBA xwOBA
2018 316 90.5 6.2 9.8% 42.2% .292 .262 .517 .483 .392 .372
2019 416 92.0 12.5 12.3% 47.8% .282 .285 .548 .575 .394 .409
2020 126 92.1 4.3 18.3% 51.6% .351 .332 .695 .696 .478 .475
2021 414 93.0 5.8 13.3% 52.7% .313 .305 .534 .545 .420 .429
2022 377 90.7 9.7 12.2% 47.3% .237 .269 .448 .511 .376 .408
—WSN 280 90.4 8.3 12.5% 46.1% .246 .270 .485 .525 .390 .413
—SDP 97 91.8 13.7 11.3% 50.5% .212 .266 .336 .469 .333 .396
SOURCE: Baseball Savant

Soto’s producing his lowest average exit velocity, barrel rate, hard-hit rate, and xWOBA since his 2018 rookie season, as well as his highest average launch angle since ’19. Yet his expected and actual stats have never diverged by this much, particularly in the direction of underperfomance.

Again, Soto’s atypically high average launch angle offers a hint that leads us to this year’s 12.1% infield fly ball rate, the highest mark of his career, 4.5 points above his career mark and 5.4 points above last year’s mark. The 17 infield flies he’s this year are as many as he hit from 2019 to ’21 combined!

Digging deeper onto his Statcast page, Soto is making more poor contact than usual. “Weak” contact is defined as any balls hit below 60 mph, including bunts (of which he has just one this year, his first since 2019). I don’t know the exact parameters for “topped” or “under,” but a combination of common sense and a glance at his radial graphs for 2021 and ’22 (available via the Visuals & Statcast Pitch Highlighter path, which took me awhile to locate) should give you an idea:

The barrels are the red area, solid contact is that pink outline around it, flares/burners are the peach-colored diagonal, topped is the light green area with low launch angles, under is the light blue area with high launch angles, and weak contact is the inner yellow area. Note how much more of the last three areas are filled in on the 2022 graph than the ’21 one. Here’s a table showing his season rates for each type as well as aggregations of the first three (“Poor%”) and the last three (“Good%”):

Juan Soto Quality of Contact
Season Weak% Topped% Under% Flare/Burner% Solid% Barrel% Poor Good
2018 3.8% 38.9% 15.5% 23.4% 7.3% 9.8% 58.2% 40.5%
2019 2.6% 29.3% 21.4% 25.5% 8.7% 12.3% 53.3% 46.5%
2020 2.4% 36.5% 11.9% 24.6% 6.3% 18.3% 50.8% 49.2%
2021 3.1% 37.4% 17.1% 23.4% 5.3% 13.3% 57.6% 42.0%
2022 4.5% 35.1% 22.9% 17.8% 7.4% 12.2% 62.5% 37.4%
SOURCE: Baseball Savant
Yellow = career high rate.

Baseball is hard! Even an elite hitter like Soto makes poor contact more than half the time he connects. But this year, he’s been making a lot more of it than usual, particularly when it comes to getting under balls; that’s a lot of pop-ups and routine fly outs.

But wait, there’s more! Within that already poor contact, Soto’s been worse than expected:

Not Juan Soto’s Greatest Hits
Season Poor% AVG xBA SLG xSLG wOBA xwOBA
2018 58.2% .168 .130 .212 .165 .165 .134
2019 53.4% .115 .116 .156 .159 .112 .119
2020 50.8% .172 .133 .188 .160 .157 .133
2021 57.7% .164 .149 .197 .180 .156 .147
2022 62.5% .089 .129 .102 .151 .084 .123
SOURCE: Baseball Savant
Poor% = percentage of batted balls defined as weak, topped, or under.

Woof. Without building more tables, I can report that Soto is underperforming his worst contact when connecting with fastballs (.064 wOBA/.098 xwOBA in 116 PA) and breaking balls (.061 wOBA/.131 xwOBA in 58 PA), which reflects his more generalized performance dips against both pitch classes. Against all fastballs last year, Soto hit .370, slugged .674, and produced a .475 wOBA, but this year he’s down to .283 AVG/.558 SLG and a 442 wOBA. Against all breaking balls, last year he hit .234, slugged .379, and produced a .325 wOBA, but this year those numbers — brace yourselves — are down to .149 AVG/.272 SLG and a .269 wOBA. By Statcast’s pitch values, the drop in his performance against fastballs (from 31 runs to 13 against four-seamers, and from 12 runs to zero against sinkers) is more drastic than against breakers (from 4 runs to -2 against sliders, but from 0 to 1 against curves because he’s whiffing far less), but the latter really isn’t what we expect from this generation’s Ted Williams.

So, yes, Soto is in some kind of slump lately, and in a down year overall, with more trouble than usual against breaking balls and fastballs. Thanks to a 20.7% walk rate, his post-trade 117 wRC+ isn’t a total loss (Padres right fielders had combined for a 76 wRC+ when I made the Killers list). For all of the focus on his woes here and elsewhere, he’s still hitting better than fellow deadline acquisitions Josh Bell and Brandon Drury (both 88 wRC+). And even with these moves not yet panning out, the Padres (78–64) have a two-game lead on the Brewers (76–66) for the third NL Wild Card spot, as well as an 83%–24% edge in terms of our Playoff Odds. Given that Soto is just 23 years old, I think it’s fair to say this isn’t an age-related decline thing, and even with the difficulties that Petco Park presents, it’s probably not a can’t-play-in-San-Diego thing (can one wither in the glare of the gaslamps?). Whether it’s an injury or mechanics, the odds are that he and the Padres will figure it out, but in the meantime, it doesn’t look great.





Brooklyn-based Jay Jaffe is a senior writer for FanGraphs, the author of The Cooperstown Casebook (Thomas Dunne Books, 2017) and the creator of the JAWS (Jaffe WAR Score) metric for Hall of Fame analysis. He founded the Futility Infielder website (2001), was a columnist for Baseball Prospectus (2005-2012) and a contributing writer for Sports Illustrated (2012-2018). He has been a recurring guest on MLB Network and a member of the BBWAA since 2011. Follow him on Twitter @jay_jaffe.

89 Comments
Oldest
Newest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
daygo
11 days ago

Padre fan here! And I am done with him. Another Preller L of a trade. We either need to bench him or send him to AAA.

jamesdakrnmember
11 days ago
Reply to  daygo

Honestly, I think Preller really really really needs to look at what the Giants and Dodgers have done w player development

That’s 100% been the differencemaker for the Padres I think the last couple yrs.

They ahve all the talent to win 95+ games, but they just don’t get the best versions of the players they get b/c of their 20th century player dev system

tung_twista
11 days ago
Reply to  jamesdakrn

>[Player development]’s 100% been the difference maker for the Padres I think the last couple yrs.

Let me push back here a bit.

I believe the main problem with Padres the past couple of years is that their trades have been bad.

Yes, Tatis for Shields is the most famous lopsided trade in recent years, and Cronenworth trade was brilliant as well.

But that is not enough to cancel out Kemp for Grandal, Myers for Trea Turner, Upton for Fried, Nola for France, Clevinger for Quantril & Naylor, etc.

howieloader
10 days ago
Reply to  tung_twista

Braves fans thank the Padres every 5 days for Max Fried.

Fernando
11 days ago
Reply to  daygo

Dodgers fan here! We’ll take him off your hands, no problem.

padres458
11 days ago
Reply to  daygo

Same. I haven’t been impressed. Part of it is also he is clearly not an outfielder.

Last edited 11 days ago by padres458
Jason Bmember
10 days ago
Reply to  daygo

Do you send all your .400 OBP hitters with a 143 wRC+ to AAA?

Pepper Martin
10 days ago
Reply to  Jason B

Since coming to the Padres he’s hitting .209/.385/.330, which is similar to but better then — although not a lot better than — the 2022 numbers of Aaron Hicks (.209/.324/.293). If Soto is going to hit like this and play defense like this then he’s got a nice career ahead of him as a second-division DH.

Jason Bmember
10 days ago
Reply to  Pepper Martin

he’s got a nice career ahead of him as a second-division DH”.

I will, uh, take the over.

(I get that he has been a disappointment thus far and not what the Padres expected – fair point, and point taken. But “send the bum to AAA!” and “he’s gonna be a Jeremy Giambi 2nd tier DH” overstates the case just a tad.)

Last edited 10 days ago by Jason B
mikejuntmember
10 days ago
Reply to  Pepper Martin

lol 60 points of OBP does not ‘approximate’ Aaron Hicks.

I’m sorry that Juan Soto has ONLY been 18% above league average since he came to the Padres but man you should definitely send him to AAA.

willl
10 days ago
Reply to  Pepper Martin

This is such a bad comparison. Even if you cherry pick data (you’re comparing a full season of Hicks vs. the worst month and a half of Soto’s career and season), your comparison is still .100 OPS points off. Soto’s OPS is .715 and Hicks’ is .617.

That would be like me saying 2022 Mookie Betts (.275/.348/.558) is similar to but not a lot better than 2022 Hunter Renfroe (.252/.313/.490).

I could say that, but it would be stupid.