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Juan Soto’s season for the ages

September 18, 2020 by Matt Goldman

Let’s get the easy part out of the way first; Juan Soto is great. If you forgot, a quick glance at his FanGraphs page will remind you of that. He made the uncommon jump to the majors after just 35 plate appearances in AA, completely skipping AAA, and immediately announced himself as being the real deal. For any prospect, there’s an inherent adjustment window built into their first month, if not their entire first year, to get acquainted with the higher level of competition. Typically speaking, if a heralded prospect struggles in their first taste of the majors, there’s not much to worry about. Even Mike Trout looked overmatched after being called up in 2011. In his first 40 games, he hit .220/.281/.390 with a wRC+ of 87, a far cry from the man we now know as one of the greatest players of all time.

But for Soto, he was elite immediately. In his first 40 games, he hit .340/.431/.580, with a wRC+ of 169. While he ultimately lost out on winning Rookie of the Year to another impressive phenom, Ronald Acuna Jr., there was no doubt that baseball had something special brewing in DC.

Since that year, all Soto has done is reinforce his greatness. In his sophomore season, Soto hit .282/.401/.548. While his batting average and on-base-percentage remained nearly identical to that of his 2018 campaign (.292 and .406, respectively), Soto managed to raise his slugging-percentage by 31 points, taking it from .517 in his rookie year to .548 in 2019. With two seasons under his belt, it was clear that Soto was already part of the inner circle of baseball’s elite, and in 2020, he’s further staked his claim as next in line to Trout’s throne. 

This year, Soto has improved his BA, OBP, SLG, wOBA, wRC+, BB%, K%, ISO, and a host of other plate discipline metrics that we’ll talk about below. And in terms of something more along the lines of the eye test, Soto has started hitting massive home runs that are truly stunning. 

Soto’s step forward in 2020 isn’t driven by a fluky BABIP, or something out of his control that just amounts to “good fortune”, but rather a conscious change in his approach at the plate. Throughout his young career, he’s never been “easy” to strikeout, with a K% of 20% prior to 2020, but this season, he’s reduced his strikeout rate by 29%, which currently sits at 14.2%. Soto’s done this by becoming much more selective at the plate, and chasing out of the zone less often. We can see this through another lense, specifically with his Z/O ratio (a hitter’s zone swing percentage divided by their chase rate), which has improved dramatically this season. From his rookie year to today, his Z/O ratios have been 3.34, 3.28, and 4.24, a value that ranks him as best in the league by a significant margin.

All of these pitches look tantalizingly close just before missing the zone, and Soto does well in each instance to recognize the trajectory early and lay off. These five clips obviously represent a small sample, so let’s check out his Swing% by zone to hammer the point home. 

Figure 1: (Left) 2019 Swing % by Zone, (Right) 2020 Swing % by Zone

The immediate takeaway from the breakdowns above is that Soto’s chase rates have dropped considerably. If that was all Soto had improved upon, there’s no doubt that his 2020 season would have represented an overall offensive improvement over his prior seasons, but there’s even more going on than just his ability to lay off pitches outside the zone. 

Looking at the actual strike zone, we can see that Soto has stopped swinging at quite a number of strikes. The graphic below shows how his swing rates have changed against strikes. 

Overall, Soto has begun to dial in on exactly where he can do the most damage, and stick to those areas of the strike zone. As mentioned above, this has led to some extraordinary statistical outcomes, most notably his wRC+ of 197, but also in a number of Statcast specific batting metrics. His Barrel% has increased from 12.3% in 2019, to 16.1% in 2020. His exit velocity, which was an already impressive 92 MPH, placing him in the 94th percentile last season, has risen to 93.2 MPH, good for the 96th percentile. Additionally, his Hard Hit% is 52.7%, putting him in the 95th percentile. No matter where you look, Soto is on the leaderboard of every offensive category a hitter could dream of. 

While it remains to be seen if Soto’s career will wind up in the pantheon of all-time greats, it’s inarguable that he’s having an incredible season driven by a better eye of the strike zone, and a purposeful change in his approach at the plate. At just 21 years old, we’re seeing an elite player continue to improve, which is a scary thought for the rest of the league to reckon with.