Juan Soto’s hitting struggles — explained

Photo of Juan Soto via TalkNats

Former Nationals star Juan Soto has been catching fire lately, as he’s hit .444 with a 25% walk rate in his past five games. But, why has he been hitting at a batting average near .200 for pretty much the entirety of 2023, and why is Soto not putting up Soto-like numbers?

For what it’s worth, though, Soto would certainly be the best hitter currently on the Nationals. His 123 wRC+ would top anyone with Washington by a longshot, and Soto would have by far the best isolated power on the Nats — the worst ISO team in the league. That’s despite only authoring a slashline of .222/.382/.417 while his batting average dipped below .200 for the majority of the season.

Let’s start with the basics: strikeouts.

Now, as we’ve discussed before, striking out a lot or a little isn’t going to determine one’s success at the plate. However, strikeout rates that are different from one’s norm can be very telling in success.

Soto is currently striking out at a rate of 24.3%, compared to the clip of just 14.5% in the previous season, basically a 10% difference in punchout rate. In his first two seasons in the majors he struck out a rate of exactly 20.0%, while that lowered and stayed between 14-15% through 2020, 2021, and 2022.

To add to that, Soto dropped from the 83rd percentile in whiff rate to the 40th percentile in whiff rate from 2022 to 2023, meaning he’s swinging and missing a lot more.

However, Soto continues to be the most disciplined hitter in baseball. With that slight change in 2020, Soto boosted his walk rate from 16.2% in his first two seasons to 21.2% across the past four. His 20.6% walk rate and his 15.2% chase rate place him in the 98th and 99th percentile, respectively. His career-high strikeout rate is certainly playing a factor in his slow start though.

And, before we take a look into the main part of the struggles, there’s one thing to note. Soto is still hitting the ball substantially hard, putting himself into the top 4% of the league in hard hit rate and 85th percentile in barrel rate — that’s on top of being in the 73rd percentile of xSLG and the 84th percentile of xwOBA. All of these are slight drops and abnormally low percentiles for Soto’s standards, but his 123 wRC+ means he’s still producing at rates well above league average despite his .222 batting average.

Now, let’s take a look at the main reason: timing.

Below shows the year-to-year increase in pull rate and his sudden inability to hit the ball the other way. Note that this includes all batted balls, not just hits.

The table above shows Soto’s near 20% increase in pull rate from ’21-’23, and his roughly 10% decrease in opposite field rate

Soto has a clear issue in being too pull-happy this season, and he’s not hitting the ball the other way at all — and when he does, it’s mainly weak contact. He only has one hit to the opposite field this season, as his spray chart shows, and look at the absurd number of groundouts to short.

Soto’s 2023 spray chart.

Now, the main reason why pulling the ball too much can be such a problem is mainly rolling over — instead of driving the ball the other way with outside pitches, he rolls over a ton with soft groundouts to the right side.

In addition, in one of the more simple reasons for his struggles, Soto may be hitting the ball hard, but he’s not hitting the ball hard in the air. He’s dropped his line drive rate by over 10% this season.

Soto’s Line Drive Rate
2021 18.6%
2022 16.2%
2023 6.7%

And, let’s compare his spray chart of this season to a spray chart of his last season, where he scattered hits all over the field fairly evenly. Soto had slight drops in the 2022 season after being the best hitter in baseball in 2021, but still remained among the elite.

Soto also had over a 5% drop in hitting the ball up the middle in 2022, and began to pull the ball roughly 7% more in 2022 compared to the previous season.

That’s now skrocketed to what’s now over a 10% increase in 2023, which has him pulling the ball basically every other plate appearance currently. To sum it up, he’s pulling the ball roughly 20% more than he was in his video-game like 2021 season.

So, that seems to be the reason why Soto is doing drills like this. Clearly, the Padres are well aware of the reasons behind his struggles at the plate.

Follow me on Twitter @QuinnRileyTN for more coverage and analysis like this.

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