It's hard to argue that Juan Soto hasn't been one of the biggest disappointments of this Fantasy Baseball season so far. It's not that he's been bad -- far from it, in fact, as he still ranks 34th in the majors in wOBA heading into play Thursday. The issue is that the way he has been good -- a .402 OBP but with limited power -- just isn't that conducive to Fantasy production.
Soto ranks 134th overall in Rotisserie league scoring, 42nd among outfielders. He's been better in points, ranking 31st among outfielders, but given that he might have been the first overall pick and certainly went no later than sixth overall in nearly all leagues, there's no way to spin this season as anything but a disappointment. Nearly three months into the season, Soto is hitting .274/.402/.423 with just eight home runs in 61 games -- he hit .351/.490/.695 with 13 homers in just 47 games last season, when he was arguably the best hitter in baseball.
It was never going to be realistic for Soto to keep that kind of production up, because that would be one of the best seasons ever if he did it for a full 162. However, nobody could have seen this kind of regression coming. One Fantasy Baseball Today listener who emailed the show summed up the feelings of Fantasy players pretty well in an email he sent out way Wednesday:
For someone who looked like a first-round pick, and for all the talk about him stealing more bases, this guy is a complete bust. His power seems to be gone this season--possibly due to his injury--his batting average is mediocre and his work on the bases hasn't led to anything remarkable in terms of stolen bases.
Any chance of a deeper look at Soto? He has been somewhat discussed, but mostly in brief with a confidence that "he will be fine". He certainly has not, and it may be useful to see if there is a long-term issue with Soto or if his struggles are something that may resolve themselves. As Soto's trade value continues to decrease, the sooner an in-depth analysis of a round one bust can be made the sooner podcast listeners can make use of the information.
Frank Stampfl and I talked about Soto on Thursday's podcast after he went 0 for 4 in a game where the Nationals scored 13 and combined with the Phillies for 25 runs and 27 hits. Would it surprise you to learn our conclusion was a confident, "He'll be fine?"
In fact, in my latest trade values chart, Soto is still a top-five player for me in both Roto and points leagues. Far from his trade value plummeting, I'm still viewing Soto as one of the best players in the game.
Find that frustrating? If you have Soto on your team, I bet you do. If you're hoping to make a buy-low trade for Soto, it might be even more frustrating to see. But I view it as reassuring. Soto hasn't been himself this season, but he hasn't been far off from himself despite his numbers.
To understand why let's take a look under the hood at Soto's underlying numbers. With Soto, I think you always want to start with the plate discipline, because that's where he's always really stood out. Soto stepped onto the MLB field as a 19-year-old and walked 16% of the time while striking out just 20% of the time, and he's only gotten better in the years since. So far in 2021, he's walking 17.7% of the time with just a 14.6% strikeout rate.
And on a pitch level, things look good, too. He's swinging at fewer pitches outside of the strike zone than ever before while maintaining a swing rate on pitches inside of the zone right in line with last season's mark -- a 62.5% in-zone swing rate with a 15.7% chase rate. He's also got an 82.0% contact rate, right in line with last season's 81.9% mark, leading to a minuscule 6.4% swinging strike rate, also in line with last season's.
So far, so good when it comes to Soto's best skill. His .402 OBP should've been a good hint that all was well there, but it's good to know he's not suddenly swinging at the wrong pitches or anything.
So, what's gone wrong? Well, the issue is coming when he hits the ball. Soto ranks just 98th among 140 qualifies with a .361 wOBA on contact, below the likes of Raimel Tapia, J.P. Crawford, and Robbie Grossman. It's not a terrible mark, but it's a far cry from his .531 mark last season which ranked sixth.
Okay, so he's not hitting the ball as well. There's your answer. Right?
Not so fast. While Soto isn't hitting the ball as well as he did in 2020 when he had a .527 expected wOBA on contact, per BaseballSavant.com, it's worth remembering that that's an unfair standard to hold him to. When it comes to his quality of contact, however, there really aren't any red flags; his .454 xwOBA on contact in 2021 is right in line with his .464 mark from 2019 in a league context where wOBA is down overall.
In fact, when you look at the quality of contact indicators, Soto still looks like one of the best hitters in baseball:
AVG. Exit Velocity
Max Exit Velocity
Now, these expected stats aren't perfectly predictive. Some players do tend to underperform them, and Soto did in 2019 himself -- with a .408 xwOBA to a .394 wOBA. Still, that's a far cry from the .064 gap he currently has, the seventh-largest in baseball.
And there aren't really many reasons to think Soto would be the kind of hitter who should underperform these metrics. One way a player can underperform is simply by being slow -- if the infield can play further back knowing they can throw you out easily, you'll lose both singles and extra-base hits that way. However, Soto's sprint speed has increased from the 34th percentile to 54th so far this season. Soto isn't a burner, but it's not like we should expect him to be losing a significant number of hits because of it.
One of the other ways a player might struggle relative to these metrics is by being particularly susceptible to the shift. Soto is being shifted more than ever this season -- 56% of his plate appearances, compared to 29.7% last season -- but he's actually been better against the shift than without, with a .379 wOBA compared to a .335 mark without the shift on. Soto is still spreading the ball all over the field, and his pull rate on ground balls is still just 35.5%, which is actually lower than last year's. That doesn't seem to explain it.
So, what does? Well, while Soto has increased his average launch angle slightly, from 4.3 degrees to 5.6, he has been a bit less consistent with how he's hitting the ball -- his line drive rate is down from 28.6% in 2020 to 23.8% so far, and he's hitting nearly twice as many infield fly balls, up from 2.4% to 4.1%. Trading line drives for easier to defend grounders and fly balls isn't a great tradeoff, but we're not talking about such a significant difference to explain the difference in his production.
And it doesn't seem like Soto is the kind of player who should be especially impacted by the new baseball that is traveling less far. He hits the ball too hard to be suffering from a DJ LeMahieu-esque drought of wall scrapers -- he ranked 16th in the majors in average home run distance in 2020 and he's 30th so far.
It could just be a case of a dozen seemingly minor changes in his profile compounding to create a significant decrease in production, but that seems like a pretty unsatisfactory answer, given how good the underlying numbers still are.
Of course, you may find it unsatisfactory to have gotten 1,400 words into this piece only to learn that my conclusion is, "There's nothing wrong with Juan Soto," but that's where I'm at. All signs point to him still being one of the best hitters in baseball, and the results should follow from there. If you've got Soto on your team, the worst thing you could do right now is to sell him for even 90 cents on the dollar, because unless you're getting Ronald Acuña, Fernando Tatis or maybe Vladimir Guerrero Jr., you probably aren't getting a better player in return.
But, if someone in your league is willing to sell Soto for even a slight discount, you should take him off their hands. Soto is going to pull out of this soon, and you'll want him on your team when he does.