On Friday, MLB.com reporter Sarah Langs wrote an article entitled, “Juan Soto is even better than you think he is.” Soto is already good. Like, really good. And he’s only 21 years old. Langs took Soto’s 2020 ZiPS projections and envisioned the continued growth he could see this upcoming season. If the projections hold up, we could be seeing a historic season from the young Dominican, as Langs explained:
“The only players to have multiple qualified seasons with a 140 or higher wRC+ before their age-22 seasons are Mel Ott (3), [Mike] Trout, Mickey Mantle, Ty Cobb, Rogers Hornsby and Ted Williams. Each of those players’ outstanding starts to their young careers resulted in a Cooperstown plaque, except for Trout, who’s still active but by all measures seems headed there, too.”
ZiPS projects a 5.5 WAR season for Soto with a 149 wRC+, a seven point increase over his 2019 mark. Only six other players are projected to accumulate more WAR and just three are projected to post a higher wRC+ than Soto. After placing second in Rookie of the Year balloting and a year after placing ninth in the NL MVP voting, Soto has a strong case to be one of the early frontrunners in the NL MVP race heading into this season:
ZiPS sees moderate improvements to Soto’s plate discipline, projecting a lower strikeout rate and a higher walk rate. That’s pretty terrifying because Soto’s ability to lay off bad pitches and crush the right ones is a big reason why he’s had so much success so quickly.
The projections also see a slight improvement in his power output. His .266 ISO from 2019 ranked 18th among all qualified batters. ZiPS sees him posting the 13th highest ISO in the majors in 2020, a pretty decent jump. Soto’s hard hit rate, barrel rate, and average exit velocity are all elite — each of them sits in the 89th percentile or higher. He certainly has the raw tools to be considered one of the premiere power hitters in the game.
The ZiPS projection shown in the table above is his 50th percentile projection. What does the computer think he’s capable of if he’s able to take a bigger step forward?
While hitting his 90th percentile projection would certainly be fun, by its nature, it’s incredibly unlikely to happen. But the 60th and even 70th percentile projections are within the range of likely outcomes and they indicate there’s some untapped power potential in Soto’s bat. But what would need to change in his approach to unlock the ability to hit 40 or 50 home runs in a season?
The key to unlocking Soto’s power could lie in this extremely impressive home run he hit in Game 1 of the World Series off of Gerrit Cole:
As Craig Edwards put it the day after the game, “Crushing a tough-to-hit ball is difficult, but crushing it the other way is near-impossible.” That homer off Cole was a phenomenal piece of hitting and it’s indicative of Soto’s ability to hit for power to all fields. Of his 34 home runs last season, 10 were hit to left field, nine were hit to center field, and 15 were pulled to right. Soto’s spray chart is a magnificent display of using the entire field:
This ability to hit with power to all fields is a signature piece of Soto’s approach. He’s able to take whatever the pitcher gives him and deal damage no matter where it’s located in the zone. That kind of approach allowed him to launch a 96 mph elevated fastball 417 feet the other way. But even though he possesses such prodigious power to left, would he be better off if he adjusted his batted ball profile to swing to the pull side more often?
Among the qualified batters with an ISO higher than Soto’s, only one pulled the ball less often than he did: Christian Yelich. They both pulled the ball around 39.4% of the time, a surprisingly low rate considering the power they’re capable of generating. If we focus our attention just on elevated contact — fly balls and line drives — both of them stand out even more. The league average pull rate on fly balls and line drives is around 31%. Both Soto and Yelich sat below that mark in 2019. But for other elite power hitters, their rate of pulled contact in the air is much higher. Players like Mike Trout, Cody Bellinger, and Alex Bregman are pulling 40% or more of their elevated contact.
Here’s a look how Soto’s key pull power metrics compare to the four other players mentioned above:
|Player||Elevated Pull%||Hard Hit%||Avg. Exit Velocity||Avg. Distance||wOBA|
Soto doesn’t pull the ball in the air all that often, but when he does, he simply crushes it. How high would Soto’s ceiling be if he started pulling even a league average amount of his contact in the air? Is elevated contact to right field the best form of contact for Soto? Here’s a look at his key power metrics based on the batted ball direction:
|Player||Elevated Contact%||Hard Hit%||Avg. Exit Velocity||Avg. Distance||wOBA|
Soto has the most productive outcomes when he’s pulling his elevated contact. That’s not surprising. Pulling the ball produces more favorable contact. But such a dramatic change in his approach might have other knock on effects. I don’t think Soto should adjust his approach to match the Joey Gallo’s of the world. Actually, Yelich might possess a batted ball approach that could fit Soto’s strengths. He doesn’t pull the ball in the air any more often than Soto already does, but he does produce a ton of contact to center field. That shift away from contact to the opposite field, even if it isn’t pulled, should have a beneficial effect on Soto’s production.
Last season, Soto added a ton of elevated contact over what he produced in his rookie year. His fly ball rate increased by more than eight points but his spray distribution stayed relatively the same. He was able to make the adjustment without negatively affecting the rest of his approach. His ability to recognize pitches and adjust his swing to maximize damage go hand-in-hand. If he’s able to make a similar adjustment, this time focusing on pulling the ball in the air a little more often, he could see huge improvements in his power output. That’s one of the primary avenues he has to hit those upper echelon projections.