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The Gospel of Juan Soto

Vincent Carchietta-USA TODAY Sports

Juan Soto is a tricky player for me to write about, because the numbers speak for themselves – no additional documentation needed. Trying to be nice while writing about a miracle guy is not baseball blogging, the Gospel of John.

Still, Soto is performing at such a rate (hitting .316/.421/.559 over the weekend – all stats are current with Sunday's games) that it begs to be tested. Soto has the best batting eye of his generation; therefore, for him, every year is a year of travel. But this season, in particular, is his last before he hits the open market in search of a record long-term contract.

It's been a complicated few years for us Sotos. How can this player demand more money than Shohei Ohtani's (postponed) deal? He never won MVP and finished in the top three once. He never recorded a 7-WAR season, never hit 40 home runs. He is a terrible outfielder, and over the past two seasons, he has hit .242 and .275 respectively. If he's an exceptionally valuable player, how come two teams ditch him before he's 25?

Soto suffers a little in the public estimation because his great talent is not seen. Soto has posted a .400 OBP in every season of his career; since his debut in 2018, no one else has done more than double-doubles in a full 162-game season. He is the active leader in walk rate at 3.3 percent and the active leader in career OBP by 27 points, both over Aaron Judge.

Soto remains one of the best hitters in the majors — of 171 professional hitters, he has the fifth-lowest swing rate and strikeout rate — but by his standards, he's been aggressive this season. Soto is currently hitting, albeit at a tenth of a percent, the lowest walk rate of his career. That's tied for his lowest strikeout rate ever. And when he came in contact with him, he did great harm; Soto currently has the highest wOBA and xwOBA of his career, outside of his 47-game 2020 season.

This past winter, it was fashionable to suggest that Soto would adapt his game to play in the Bronx. After all, this is a very powerful left-hander who just arrived from San Diego and its famous pitcher-friendly ballpark. Now, Soto will be playing his home games at Yankee Stadium, a 100-year-old structure built for left-handed power hitters.

Soto may not be as big as Judge or a home run hitter like Babe Ruth, but he can count to 314 — the distance, in feet, from home plate to the right field pole at Yankee Stadium. That's not too far.

I had my doubts; if Soto charges the ball, he can hit it. Soto is currently eighth in career HR/FB%, leading – among others – Bryce Harper, Pete Alonso, and Austin Riley. But traditionally he is very happy. We are in the third year of the international Vladimir Guerrero Jr. clash. unable to do anything but smash the ball into the dirt in front of home plate. Soto and Guerrero actually have similar groundball rates, and Soto's GB/FB ratio is a few hundred more.

Changing that part of his game would carry a lot of risk for Soto; Terrestrial as his batted ball profile may be, the 25-year-old is working on his seventh consecutive season with a wRC+ over 140. It is not determined that they are broken. Soto, in fact, is pulling the ball less than ever, and is running his lowest GB/FB rate since 2019.

But this season one blast isn't the result of Soto's hunt for Ruth's short deck. He hit eight home runs, which puts him on pace for 36 in a full season – one more than his previous career high. Only two of Solo's hitters have hit out to right field at Yankee Stadium, and both would have hit out at every pitch in the league. Soto's 41.7% strikeout rate ranks just 68th out of 171 professional hitters. And actually, Soto's pull rate on fly balls is very low since his first year, so has his fly ball rate on balls hit to the pull side.

What Soto does is hit the absolute bejeezus out of the ball, but at a much lower trajectory. Soto is in the bottom 10% of qualified hitters in fly ball rate on pull balls, but in the top 5% in drive rate. Here's what Soto does every year on balls hit to the pull side. The blue line is the line drive rate (more is better), and the red line is the soft contact percentage (less is better):

This is a definite area of ​​improvement for Soto, but he hits the ball incredibly hard everywhere. What was just plus-plus power is now among the best in baseball, in the non-Judge/Ohtani category:

Juan Soto Hits the Ball Harder

A year EV50 Level In this
2018 101.2 54 of 249
2019 102.1 38 of 250
2020 104.2 6 of 257
2021 104.6 11 of 232
2022 102.2 36 of 252
2023 104.5 9 of 258
2024 105.7 4th 270

SOURCE: Baseball Savant

Ultimately, Soto made better swing decisions. His Swing% is lower than it has been since 2021, which was his only MVP best. His fielding rate within the area is higher than it has been since before the pandemic. And when he swings at pitches in the strike zone, he makes more contact than ever and does more damage. Soto's xSLG on pitches in the strike zone is .702, his best mark since 2020 by nearly 100 points.

Conversely, Soto is making less contact than ever in pitches outside the zone, which may sound like a bad thing at first. But in reality, when a hitter swings outside the strike zone, getting hit isn't a very bad result. A hitter with limited strike zone judgment may try to add a pitch outside the zone; A hitter like Soto might just be tricked into pitching and end up in an unexpected spot and miss it completely. And if the batsman swings and misses, he famously gets two more chances. If he gets rolled at shortstop, he doesn't get a do-over.

We think of hitters as following a developmental curve. As they gain more information, they make better decisions. As they enter their mid to late 20s, they get stronger and hit the ball harder. And eventually, they get old and their hands or eyes go away, and the decline phase begins. An early hitter may sacrifice that aging curve; I remember waiting for Mike Trout to make another jump when he was about to turn 20, but he was never really better than he was in his rookie year.

And it would be good to expect that from Soto. This guy was the best position player on a competitive team when most of the major league All-Stars lost their shoes at the Chi Omega combine. Want to mature? Soto emerged from the womb with the insight you would expect from an ancient, calm deity. Even at the age of 20, Soto pretended that he had been taking this border slide for 500 million years. How can he be smart and powerful?

We're only six weeks into the season, but it looks like that's what happened. Soto has always done wonders. Now he does better miracles.

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