All of sunny San Diego rejoiced on Aug. 2 when the Washington Nationals sent their 23-year-old superstar Juan Soto to the Padres. A month and a half later, Padres fans are showing their receipts to the Nats, asking for take-backsies.
Since joining the Padres, Soto is slashing .202/.375/.319. Of all qualified hitters in that span, that .319 slugging percentage ranks the 15th-lowest across all of MLB. Crazily enough, one of the 14 players below Soto is teammate Josh Bell (.307), who came to San Diego as part of the same deal as well. However, Padres fans would be clamoring for a .319 slugging percentage from Soto right now, because in his last 15 games (prior to Friday night), Soto is slugging .063, with just three hits (all singles) across 63 plate appearances. Yes, I know Soto had two hits (including his first extra-base hit in over half a month) and three RBI last night. I hope that marks the end of this stretch, but one game isn’t enough for me to consider his slump over.
That .063 is the third-lowest all season in a 15-game span among players with at least 50 plate appearances. Only Tampa Bay’s Taylor Walls (.041 slugging percentage in 52 plate appearances) and Arizona’s Seth Beer (.041 in 54 plate appearances) have worse 15-game stretches this season.
How did Soto go from one of the most feared sluggers in MLB, a Home Run Derby champ, and an NL MVP favorite, to one of the worst parts of the Padres’ lineup? Is this just a fluke, a bad streak that we should expect Soto to break out of, or is there something more at play?
According to FanGraphs, Soto isn’t having a good season by his standards. I think that’s obvious. What’s less obvious is how unlucky he’s been. Despite hitting .234 on the season, Soto is actually very close to his career average this year in both barrel percentage (12.1 percent in 2022) and hard-hit percentage (47 percent in 2022). Sure, they’re both steps down from what he was able to do in 2020 (17.5 barrel percentage; 51.6 hard-hit percentage) and 2021 (13.3 barrel percentage; 52.4 hard-hit percentage), but based on how he’s performing this season, you’d think they’d be much lower. Yes, they’re a dip from what we’re used to seeing, but based on those numbers you’d expect Soto’s batting average to be somewhere in the .260s or .270s, as FanGraphs projects — not mid-.230s. His expected slugging percentage based on those numbers is .408, just one point lower than his figure from 2019 where he finished ninth in MVP voting, compared to his actual mark of .373.
Well, that’s all fine and dandy, but what about during that 15-game stretch? What’s caused Soto to play so horribly? And really, there’s only one factor that seems to be a huge difference in 2022. Is he swinging more at bad pitches? No. In fact, he’s swinging at fewer pitches outside the strike zone during these last 15 games prior to last night (16.3 outside zone swing percentage) than he had been the rest of the season (20.1 percent). That mark of 16.3 is also lower than his season percentages in 2020 (21 percent), 2019 (23.4 percent), and 2018 (21.9 percent).
The biggest change in performance for Soto has been soft-hit percentage. In 2022, Soto has the seventh-highest soft-hit percentage among qualified hitters at 21.2 percent. So, while Soto is still hitting the ball well at a slightly lower clip than in previous seasons, he’s hitting it much worse in far more circumstances. It’s 5.3 percent higher than 2021, 6.1 percent higher than 2020, and 8.7 percent higher than 2019.
The thing I can’t understand is why though. Soto hasn’t changed much about his approach. There’s no recorded change in mechanics or tendencies. Soto has statistically been worse against sliders than on any other pitch in his career. Are pitchers throwing him more sliders? Yes, 22.4 percent of pitches thrown Soto’s way have been sliders since Aug. 29. In 2021, it was just 18.1 percent. Still, that 4.3 percent discrepancy isn’t enough to explain why he’s making so little good contact. Maybe that small jump in percentage is enough to make Soto second guess himself at the plate. When he’s looking for a fastball but instead gets a hammer that drops to his back foot, that’ll lead to more weak ground balls, sure — but at as horrendously a rate as his .063 slugging percentage would indicate? That seems far-fetched, but if I had to point out a reason for Soto’s struggles, the increased slider percentage would be it.
All in all, Soto’s struggles can’t be determined by just one number. Every statistic that looks considerably lower than his career average begs the question, “Why?” But it can never be answered. It’s just an endless rabbit hole that promises an ending, but just keeps going until you’ve wasted every brain cell trying to make excuses for someone who should be one of the greatest hitters in baseball. That said, I can’t help but think Soto will return to normalcy eventually. Maybe he just needs an offseason to adjust to the West Coast. Maybe he needs to return to the high-leverage situations of the postseason to bring out that fire in him. Whatever it is, the Padres better figure it out fast, otherwise, what was supposed to be the best deal of the season, could wind up being the worst deal in franchise history.