Nationals Baseball: We don't talk about Soto

Wednesday, June 22, 2022

We don't talk about Soto


 Juan Soto is hitting .215. (.154 in June!)

 I want you to understand how weird that is. 

Here are the total number of days Juan Soto ended the day hitting .215 or lower

2018 : 0 

2019 : 2 (March 28th and April 2nd)  

2020 : 0 

2021 : 2 (April 6th and 7th) 

This doesn't happen.  The latest he's hit this poorly in a season was the first PA of the 5th game of 2021. This next game will be his 70th. 

He's still hitting for power. His .220 isoSLG is under expectations but is in line with last year and would have him in the Top 30 or so in a normal year. 

He's still walking. His walk rate is still exceptional. He not only leads the majors in walks he leads by 10 walks or about 15% more than the next in line. He could probably not walk for a month and still be in the Top 10. 

He just isn't getting base hits. Why? 

The easy answers would be - he's striking out a ton more, he's leaving a lot of fly balls on the track, or he's having terrible luck. 

Is he striking out a bunch more? No.  His K% is around the last two years and is fine. 

Is he leaving a lot of fly balls on the track? Maybe a little. His FB% is up so he's hitting more of them and his HR/FB rate is down so fewer are getting out. But those numbers are a little better than in 2018 when he hit .280.

Is he having terrible luck? A .210 BABIP first suggests yes. That's not only the lowest of his career but the lowest by 100 points. That's like worst in the league BABIP.  But BABIPs can also be earned.  Is he hitting fewer LDs? Is he hitting the ball softer? Are his barrels and EV down? 

YES fewer LDs - he's like down 50% from his former low. 

YES hitting the ball softer - he's up like 10% in soft hits and down 10% in hard hits. 

YES to fewer barrels and lower EV - Barrels are down a little. EV is down from league leading type to pedestrian 

From here you question - is he swinging differently? He SHOULDN'T be - the walk rate suggests no difference in what he can ID as a strike or not - but what else could it be? And he is swinging at more pitches outside the zone than last year (but similar to other years) and making a bunch of contact with them.  But again this is only slightly worst than 2020 when he hit .350.

Is he seeing different pitches? Type or zone? A bit - fewer fastballs, more changes. Zone - not really. Its low but it's been low before. 

So where do we sit? Well we can create a narrative that's this 

Soto, now the only big hitter in the line-up, the only great player on the team is being pitched around a bit more. Fewer FB strikes in the zone. He is trying to compensate with more swinging for the fences and more reaching for pitches that he might normally take. The combination of which are leaving him with weaker hit balls and easier fielded flyballs. Throw in a bit of bad luck and it adds up to your .215 average. 

But I don't know. That still feels very low. It still feels like there is something else missing. 

There are two more stats that could factor in- he's producing less from pitches inside the zone. While the contact is fine the results aren't there. I have no idea of the consistency of this stat so I can't really add it in. The other thing is that they've really upped the shifts on Soto. While capable of hitting opposite field it may be that the type of hits on way versus the other are different and they've capped some of that off. This would take more exploration. 

It's kind of an ideal season for this to happen for everyone involved, assuming he solves it. The team isn't going anywhere. The Nats don't need his value high for a mid-season trade since that's unlikely. He has time to figure this out. My suggestion - FIGURE IT OUT. JUAN SOTO is great fun. Juan Soto, he's just kinda fun.


SM said...

Just the eye test, no fancy swing analysis or stats.

But it looks like opponents are doing to Soto this season what they did to Bryce in 2016. In late or late-ish innings, if the game is close (or one swing makes it close), bring in a lefty. (Is there an official stat for how many times a batter faces a pitching change? Tried to find one in 2016 but couldn't.)

And like Bryce, Soto seems to be facing off-speed stuff--sliders, change-ups, curve balls--
over and over. It's almost reached the point that fastballs are the true

Bryce adjusted and figured it out in 2017. Soto will figure it out, too, but with this lineup it might not be until 2023.

PotomacFan said...

@Harper: thanks for this terrific analysis. I've been trying to figure out why Soto's BA is so low this year. And I don't think it's about protection in the batting order. Bell has been hitting well all year. (After the trade deadline, Soto will not have any protection.)

@SM: I'm not sure lefty v. righty matters that much to Soto. In the past, he has hit everyone well.

Hard to figure that it took the league four years to figure out how to pitch to Soto, but maybe that's the case.

In all events, I'm still a believer. Can we get a discount now on a long-term contract? Or do Soto's difficulties make him want to go to another team even more?

Harper said...

SM - can't really find exactly that but his percentage of relievers seen is down, lefties is up. They've just faced a few more LH starters it looks like. He might be getting the late game treatment you say but the stats don't show a big failing late & close or in high leverage.

His BA with just a man on 2nd or 2nd/3rd is abysmal. There may be a very specific thing happening where he is trying VERY hard not to be walked in these situations and that's messing up things but we'd have to take a look at these ABs specifically.

Harper said...

PF - Who knows what lies in the hearts of men

Mike Brown said...

Excellent, thought-provoking analysis, as always.

And now, just to drive you a bit nuts, is that "feeling" that I have about Soto. I think what bugs me the most about Soto right now is the sense that he is so NOT clutch.

Just one snapshot of this as my wife and I watched last night's game. He came up with bases loaded (forget which inning, 5th maybe?). They threw up the graphic showing his BA for the season to date (.215 it was), but then also the graphic of him being 1 for 6 in plate appearances with bases loaded.

My wife and I both shouted almost at the same time: "SEE?! That's what we're talking about! He's ANTI-clutch this season. .215 for the year, yet .166 with bases loaded!"

I know. "Small sample size, blah, blah, blah..."

But still.

Cautiously Pessimistic said...

I really think Soto's just in his own head a bit and is pressing. He's swinging for the fences more than he needs to and getting agitated about the fact that he's not getting great pitches to hit. He needs to accept that this season is lost, the team's not going to win very many games, and he should focus on what he does well: hit mistakes. If they aren't going to give him any pitches to hit, then take the walk.

I think this is perfectly encapsulated in what @mike said, he's been so bad with RISP. He gets an opportunity and consistently squanders it because he's trying too hard. Bryce dealt with this a bit back in 2018 and Soto just needs to accept the hand he's been dealt. He can't control where the pitchers throw the ball.

Anonymous said...

PotomacFan: Sure, he hits everyone well, but like almost every lefty hitter in baseball history, he hits righties much better. Career 126+ wRC vs. lefties (pretty good! it's like Anthony Rendon, except instead of being a good defender and baserunner, he is a bad defender and baserunner), career 164 wRC+ against righties (Stan Musial!). So facing more lefties is definitely part of his problem.

Chas R said...

Good stuff as always Harper. As I've remarked before, I do hope they trade Soto because I just don't see the Nats being good any time soon without more foundational pieces that a Soto trade could bring.

Anonymous said...

Good article. Be very interested in Harper’s take on this from J Choi @ Fangraphs —
Differences that leap out are: 1) seeing (assuming?) BABIP must be bad luck & 2) seeing more change in how pitched, 3) impact of the ball…