Last year was filled with trade rumors and extension talks for Nationals superstar Juan Soto. At his second career All-Star Game, all the talk centered around where he'd finish the season. The year ended with Soto, now of the Padres, playing in the NLCS for the second time in four years. Along the way, he had a down season at the plate.
Yeah, it was a down year. Maybe even bad when we consider the baseline of Juan Freakin' Soto.
With the right presentation, we can make two truthful statements that come off as contradictory. Sports can be funny that way. Watch:
- Soto had an off year in 2022.
- Soto was excellent in 2022.
That's the consequence of Soto setting the bar at such a lofty perch at such a young age. If we were able to separate what we knew about Juan Soto coming into the 2022 season, what we saw would have greatly impressed us.
Think about it. Soto was sixth in the majors in on-base percentage. He slugged .452 when the league average slugging percentage was .395. He led the majors in walks with 135 and he only struck out 96 times in 664 plate appearances, making him one of the 20 toughest hitters in the league to punch out. He hit 27 home runs. He was an All-Star and won a Silver Slugger.
By WAR, Soto's 5.6 mark is considered All-Star caliber. By wRC+, he was 45 percent better than the average hitter. By OPS+, he was 49 percent better than the average hitter at getting on base and hitting for power.
All that and he was only 23 years old. Only 25 players age-23 or younger saw as many as 300 plate appearances in the majors last season and Soto racked up more than double that.
For the sake of argument, let's just say Soto was a rookie and we didn't know anything about him at the MLB level. He just posted a .400-plus on-base percentage and 149 OPS+ with 27 bombs. He walked 39 more times than he struck out in a full season. This combination of power and on-base chops in a youngster who already reads the strike zone as well as he does would inspire an obscene level of confidence in his ability to become a superstar moving forward.
Soto was already a superstar, though. He finished ninth in MVP voting in 2019 while holding down the middle of the order for a World Series champion. Between 2020 and 2021, he hit .322/.471/.572, good for a whopping 185 OPS+.
That type of foundation is why, in 2023 spring training when the subject was Juan Soto, the questions were less about how great he was in 2022 and more in the ballpark of, "what was wrong last year?" and "can you get back to what you were before?"
Not that any of those questions offended him. Soto knows he was a bit off last season. He openly discussed it. He did so in Padres camp the day he returned from the World Baseball Classic and CBS Sports was there.
"Mechanically, I was off last year," Soto said, even looping in the 2022 spring training. "The whole year, I couldn't find my mechanics."
Some people might wonder if contract extension talks and eventually trade rumors might've messed with him in terms of a distraction, but Soto was insistent it was just his mechanics at the plate.
Sometimes a hitter will discuss feeling comfortable or uncomfortable in the box. Sometimes he can't even put his finger on why. Sometimes it's just a feel thing, whether he feels wrong or totally locked in or somewhere in between. It's probably just as much mental as physical -- and maybe that's where the distraction came in, even if he didn't realize it -- but there's certainly something to it when it comes to an athletic task as difficult as hitting a baseball.
Whatever it was, Soto was different. His batting average was .242 after putting up .292, .282, .351 and .313, respectively, in his first four years. Some might wonder about the shift limits helping Soto, and that might well get him some batting average points back, but the problems -- again, on a relative scale when it comes to Soto -- lay elsewhere.
If we dig into his batted-ball data, we'll see Soto hit the ball a lot less hard last season than 2020-21 (hard-hit percentage went from 51.6% to 52.7% to 47.4% last year, with his overall exit velocity average dipping two whole miles per hour). He hit the lowest percentage of line drives in his career with his fly ball rate jumping over eight percent from 2021 to 2022 -- many of those infield flies (his 10.8 percent was the highest of his career by a mile).
Simply, he was hitting the ball less hard last season than ever while popping it up far too often. I'm willing to wager that nearly all of the problems there stemmed from Soto just not feeling comfortable in the box.
Here in 2023, he feels more like it's 2020 or 2021.
"I feel great. I feel my timing is right at this point and I just gotta keep grinding," he said. "I feel more like 2020 or 2021. I'm seeing the ball, hitting the ball in all the old kind of ways."
The old ways, including 2020 and 2021? Uh oh, pitchers ...
In 2020, Soto hit .351/.490/.695. It was only 47 games in the shortened season, sure, but it was an absurd year.
In 2021, he was such a monster that he finished second in NL MVP voting even though the Nationals lost 97 games.
Spring stats are generally to be taken with a grain of salt, but for those interested, Soto has hit like his "old" self too: 8 for 14 with three doubles and a home run. The World Baseball Classic isn't the same as regular season baseball, but it's a lot more intense than spring training and arguably most regular-season games. Soto was 6 for 15 with three doubles and two homers. It's a small sample and different competition, but combining those numbers, just for fun, reads .482/.529/1.000 with six doubles and three home runs in 34 plate appearances. That's some small-sample terror, but it is substantial terror.
Of course, there's another layer to it. Last year was a relative reprieve for opposing pitchers when it came to facing Soto. If this year represents a return to form, it is a nightmare scenario -- especially when viewed against the backdrop of a Padres lineup that still has Manny Machado, gets Fernando Tatis, Jr. back soon enough and has added Xander Bogaerts.
Put everything together. We've already seen Soto look like the best hitter in the league. He feels comfortable in the box again. There were some things about his game last season that were statistical outliers and he's likely to fix them. He has a stacked lineup around him. And he's still only 24 years old!
It's a logical answer for me in looking at those MVP odds, where Soto is +450 (4.5 to 1), via Caesars Sportsbook.
The pick for the 2023 National League MVP is Juan Soto of the San Diego Padres. Get in on the action while you can.