Three things to know regarding Juan Soto’s sluggish start to the 2023 season with the Padres

Soto is still hitting the ball, but more frequently than he — or the Padres — would like, he is finding fielders.

This weekend, Major League Baseball will play two games in Mexico City between the San Diego Padres and the San Francisco Giants to expand the league’s global reach. The Padres’ victory on Sunday will also be significant since it will be Juan Soto’s 81st game since joining San Diego in a historic deal with the Washington Nationals last deadline.

Prior to the transfer, Soto, 24, was headed for the Hall of Fame. He played in D.C. for portions of five seasons, slashing.291/.427/.538 (160 OPS+) with 119 home runs. Out west, things haven’t been as good. Soto had a strong final month of last season with the Padres (130 OPS+), but a sluggish start to this year has some wondering. Soto had only batted.183/.345/.344 (98 OPS+) with four home runs through his first 27 games as of Saturday. His Padres career line has now dropped to.218/.373/.375 (119 OPS+) with 10 home homers.

What specifically is going on with one of the top hitters in the sport? Through the use of three subheadings, we’ve attempted to explain Soto’s sluggish start below.

1. Still hitting ball hard

The ability to strike the ball with power is among the best things a batter can do. Not only does it not determine performance alone, but it is not the only talent that matters. Nevertheless, the best hitters frequently possess this vital quality.

Soto’s start to the year has been encouraging from that standpoint, despite what his headline statistics might imply. He does indeed exit Saturday at an average speed of 91.9 mph. That’s a full tick better than the previous year and roughly on par with the 92.1 mark he recorded in 2020, which OPS+ rated as his finest performance to date. In 2021, he traveled 93 mph on average.

The average exit velocity for Soto’s balls is also not being affected by a few very hard hits. This season, he has batted 55.7% of balls with exit velocity of 95 mph or more. Last season, he scored below 50% in that same category, and his highest score since the Pandemic Era began is 52.8% from 2021.

Naturally, Soto performs well across the league in both categories. He ranks 29th among qualified batters in average exit velocity, behind Yordan Alvarez, Vinnie Pasquantino, and Brandon Lowe. In contrast, he ranks 11th in hard-hit ball percentage, just ahead of Ronald Acua Jr. and Randy Arozarena. The individuals named above all have OPS+ this season that are higher than 130, unlike Soto, which is something you’ll note about all of them.

2. Batted-ball profile has changed for the worse

As was already established, striking the ball forcefully is only one aspect of the game. In a fully three-dimensional sense, the direction of the batted balls also counts. A hitter will typically have less success than a batter who hits the ball on a line-drive trajectory if they hit it hard and directly into the air (or the ground).

Soto has always been a fascinating case study in this regard because, despite having launch angles in the low single digits, he hits for power. Look at how Soto compares to Yandy Diaz, for instance, in a few key areas. (We’re using Dáz since he’s become the standard example when discussing how to use exit velocity to identify players with unrealized slugging potential.)

Soto 1,630 91.9 mph 7.1 73 .227
Díaz 1,347 91.2 mph 6.0 31 .135

Up until you look at the power-based numbers at the conclusion, there isn’t much of a difference there. How come? There are several potential explanations, such as the variation in launch angles. While average is a helpful metric, two players may achieve a comparable average by hitting the ball steadily within a narrower range while the other fluctuates between extremes.

Given that Soto does seem to be hitting the ball at the extreme ends more regularly this season, that is a helpful idea to consider in relation to him. View his year-by-year breakdowns of batted balls swung between 10 and 30 degrees, as well as his “barrel” rate, which measures the frequency with which a batter hits the ball hard at a favorable launch angle:

2019 31.7% 27.8%
2020 27.1% 21.1%
2021 25.5% 21.3%
2022 18.0% 18.0%

The 10 to 30 degree window has repeatedly been out of Soto’s batted-ball profile. He’s also not barreling up the ball as frequently. He is consequently striking the ball more frequently to the extreme ends of the spectrum. Both his 7.8% pop-up rate and his 57.8% groundball rate would be career highs. The latter, together with its plethora of automatic outs, helps to explain why his average dropped.

Each hitter has their own optimal profile for a batted ball. We are aware that during Soto’s career, he has consistently caused the most harm with swings between 5 and 35 degrees. When he hits the ball higher than 45 degrees, though, he has caused the least amount of damage. Keep the following in mind when you examine his three launch-angle bins with the most activity so far this year:

  • -5 to 5 degrees: 12 batted balls
  • -15 to -5 degrees: 10 batted balls
  • 45+ degrees: 9 batted balls

Sure enough, the inference we made earlier was accurate: While Soto is making loud contact, much of it is flying in directions that are unlikely to produce positive outcomes, such as directly into the ground or directly into the air.

How come that? Considering his point of contact and swing plane, there are a few theories that we can think of even if we aren’t swing specialists. So when we move on to our final subheading, keep that in mind.

3. Pulling more, whiffing more

As we’ve seen, Soto’s issue with making contact with undesirable areas could be related to his point of contact or swing plane. Therefore, it may not come as a surprise to learn that Soto is trending in a negative manner in some related areas, such as pull and whiff rates.

Soto’s draw rate was 28.8% when this season began. So far in 2023, he’s pulled more than 42% of his balls to right field. What’s more is that he’s coming up empty far more often than usual. His 73.3% contact rate this season would qualify as the first time he’s ever ended below 75%, and it would signal the first time since 2020 that he connected fewer than 80% of the time. (And keep in mind that during that season, his contact rate was 78.6%.)

Soto continues to maintain his discipline in distinguishing between strikes and balls, and he is currently swinging at a rate that would be the lowest of his career. He has a history of working deep counts, and his recent contact issues may contribute to his uncharacteristic strikeout rate. You can see why he’s struggling to start the season compared to his prior success when you take into account his aforementioned quality-of-contact difficulties.

What does this signify moving forward for Soto? We believe that based on his great eye and his feel for making loud contact, it is obvious that he is still a highly skilled batter. The rest of the profile hints at an underlying philosophical shift; perhaps he is considering how to defend the trade, or perhaps he wants to maximize his power output before entering free agency in the winter of 2024. Perhaps both, and these changes weren’t planned.

Regardless matter the source of his motivation, Soto should put more focus on analyzing his point of contact and swing plane and making the required improvements. That may be easier said than done, particularly for a player under a harsh spotlight, but it seems to be the secret to getting Soto back on his once-promising path.