Juan Soto’s Season Has Been A Huge Bummer
3:02 PM EDT on June 21, 2022
This was always going to be a brutal season for the Washington Nationals. The team has been aggressively "retooling" pretty much from the moment they won the 2019 World Series, dropping from fifth in team payroll that season all the way to 21st in 2022. More than a quarter of their 26-man payroll this season is going to 32-year-old Patrick Corbin, who by most measures is the worst starting pitcher in all of baseball. With Stephen Strasburg on the long, uncertain road back from thoracic outlet syndrome, with huge glaring holes all over the place, and with a lineup overstocked with sub-replacement-grade journeymen, a desperately important source of excitement for Nationals fans this season was the promise of more brilliance from Juan Soto. And as we approach the midpoint of the year, Soto is having a season from hell.
Who would like to guess Soto's batting average through 68 games of the 2022 baseball season? I see some hands ... you there, yes, what do you think Soto—one of the best hitters of this era, a man who has never slugged below .517 across four professional seasons—is hitting so far this season? .301, you guess, accounting for the fact that Soto has now hit well above .300 in consecutive seasons, has already won a batting title, and despite being just 23 years old has already become legendary for his plate discipline? Way wrong. You there, yes you, suddenly looking a lot less pleased to have volunteered to participate in this exercise, what is your guess? .275? Wow, terrible, not even close. You, yes, what would you guess that Soto—a player who as recently as April you would've believed might someday mount a serious challenge for a .400 batting average across a full season, something that has not been done since 1941—is batting this season? .225, you say, with a smugness that suggests you are attempting a Price Is Right–style underbid? Wrong, pathetic, get the hell out of my classroom.
Soto is currently batting .218 from his spot at the heart of the Nationals lineup. Many of the more granular stats paint a picture that is somehow even more alarming. Per Statcast, Soto is producing a career low in weighted on-base average, has the lowest average exit velocity of his career, and has lost an alarming five points off of his previous career low in sweet spot percentage. He is facing the lowest percentage of fastballs of his career, a trend that coincides unhelpfully with the fact that he is batting a gut-churning .169 against off-speed pitches, and an even more nightmarish .073 against breaking balls. He is using the opposite field less than ever, he is making weaker contact than ever, and his slugging percentage is more than 70 points lower than his previous career low, set in his rookie season, when he was 19 years old. Two of the four months of his career where he has batted below .250 have come in April and May of this season, and in June he is hitting .161. For good measure, Soto is also tied for worst among MLB outfielders in Outs Above Average, but because Washington's lone offseason pickup of note, Nelson Cruz, cannot survive at any defensive position, Soto cannot be moved to designated hitter. He is having a bullcrap season, and it is becoming more bullcrap by the week.
Unbelievably, Juan damned Soto has become something of a drag on Washington's run production. The Nationals are a respectable 11th in baseball in getting on base, and are an even more respectable sixth in team batting average. Even with this deeply unsexy lineup, the opportunities are there to drive in Big Runs and strike fear into opposing pitchers. But Soto, who is supposed to be the mightiest batsman wearing the curly W, is batting a horrifying .135 with runners in scoring position, which MASN's Mark Zuckerman notes is good for 153rd out of 158 qualified hitters across the league. Soto's mighty three-run dinger Sunday was just the seventh time this season he's collected a hit with a runner on second or third base.
This is not the first slump of Soto's career, but it is for sure the longest and most alarming. The line in the past has always had to do with Soto "pulling off," or trying to get around and yank everything, with power, into right field. Like most hitters, Soto is generally at his best when he's spraying the ball all over, something he's done with uncommon consistency in the big leagues. His career spray chart is a thing of beauty—you might reasonably assume the player who produced it was a switch hitter:
Nationals manager Davey Martinez says Soto is once again tending "to pull off," "opening up" in his swing, and "trying to do too much." The difference between this stretch and prior stretches of degraded swing mechanics is this stretch is now wrapping up its third consecutive month. Soto went through a pull-happy stretch in April and May of 2021, but on June 21 of that year was batting a perfectly healthy .276. That slump is to this slump what a drainage ditch is to the Mariana Trench. The proposed organizational-level solution to this brutal stretch is distressingly self-help-y: "We've got to keep continuing to tell him to stay on the ball, try to hit the ball the other way."
The vibes around Soto, for the first time in his entire career, are also not great. He recently banged his knee on a bench after slipping in the dugout, missed two games, and then upon returning to action got publicly called out by his manager at the nadir of an eight-game losing streak. His bruised knee is creaky, his swing is all jacked-up, his season is going to shit, his team sucks, and in a moment of weakness he failed to sprint up the line on a double-play grounder in the first game of a Friday doubleheader. Martinez, who inherited an organizational hang-up about hustling to first, complained afterward that Soto "needs to start running balls out," even if that creaky knee "could be bothering him a little bit." This is almost literally adding insult to injury.
Soto and the Nationals are hoping that his Sunday second-decker hails a long overdue turnaround to what has been an extremely rotten first half. "It’s like a flush,” Soto said after the game. “It’s like you flush your mind, your body, everything. You just feel amazing. Your work is coming through, and you just feel amazing when you see the ball flying like that." Soto is continuing to treat this slump as a thing that can be reasoned with, and eventually mastered. He's having long brainstorming sessions with veteran teammates, he's taking extra cuts before and after games, he's working on swing mechanics even while jogging out to his spot in right field. The work continues at quite literally all hours: "Even in my sleep," Soto said Sunday, "I’ve been doing that movement so I can repeat it and bring it to the game.”
Nothing in my life, with the possible exceptions of breathing and pooping, has ever been as easy for me as hitting has been for Juan Soto. I do not read the English language with as much nuance and precision as Soto reads opposing pitchers and incoming pitches. It seems inevitable that eventually his swing will correct and he will start smashing the ball all over and become the Soto we all know and love. Last season's minor swoon passed by the end of June, by mid-July he was raking again, and over the final 68 games of the regular season Soto slashed .329/.517/.563 with 70 hits and 84 walks against just 38 strikeouts. I don't ask for much from this shit-ass baseball operation—they intend to lose and lose they shall, whether or not I grind my teeth to dust—but this summer would sure be a lot more fun if Soto can get back to doing his thing. The sooner the better.