When an entire fanbase focuses primarily on a single player on a team, every little detail, every slight dip or peak comes under an immense amount of scrutiny.
That’s where the Washington Nationals are at with Juan Soto right now. The entire franchise seemingly revolves around the fortunes of the 23-year-old, one of the best players in baseball, and one of a dwindling number of reasons that fans tune in to watch their team.
So when the young star’s numbers start to dip a little bit, people notice.
In the team’s first 49 games this year, Soto is slashing just .236/.381/.448, a pretty far cry from his .313/.465/.534 line in 2021 when he finished second in voting for National League MVP.
A slow start isn’t unheard of for Soto though. Last season, the outfielder was in another slump, at least by his absurdly high standards, sporting a .283/.407/.445 slash line heading into the All-Star Break, with just 11 home runs and 42 RBIs to his name.
Now, while that .283/.407/.445 line still looks plenty better than the .236/.381/.448 line he currently has this season, by one metric at least, he’s having a relatively comparable season.
Do you go to FanGraphs, at all? There’s a stat that’s used frequently on there called wRC+.
wRC+ is based on the Runs Created metric — which attempts to quantify a player’s offensive contribution and turn it into a run contribution — turns it into a rate statistic, then weights it to league-average and accounts for Park Factor, and then normalizes it on a scale where 100 is league-average.
So, a player with a wRC+ of 150 is creating 50% more runs than a league-average batter, if everything were a completely level playing field.
This makes it a good way to compare a player’s total offensive contribution during a period of time and compare them to their peers who maybe have their stats inflated by a favorable home ballpark, or across different seasons where offense may have been up or down.
Back to Soto now. During that first half slump in 2021, Soto’s wRC+ was 128 before heading to Colorado to sock some dingers and represent the NL in the All-Star Game.
So far this year, Soto is beating that mark with a 136 wRC+ despite the clear in his traditional numbers. According to that metric, compared to the rest of the league, Soto isn’t yet in as deep of a hole as he was last season and he went on to finish second in the MVP voting.
That’s still some way short of the 163 wRC+ that he finished 2021 with, but perhaps not as far as you thought, so there are still a couple more things that are keeping him from that type of form.
The first is that offense around the league is significantly down compared to previous seasons — which you can see by Soto’s lackluster slash line still doing well in wRC+ when it’s normalized to the rest of the league and still comes out as well above-average.
The league-wide .694 OPS so far this season would be the lowest in Major League Baseball this millennium if that holds for the rest of the season.
Many point to the baseball and the fact it appears to have been deadened somewhat, as Chelsea Janes of The Washington Post looked into in-depth recently. Many players around the league are seeing crushed balls that would’ve been home runs in previous seasons are just die at the warning track.
One way to measure this is using Statcast’s expected statistics, which looks at results from batted balls with a similar exit velocity and launch angle, then calculates the average outcome of each of those balls in play, hit, out, extra-base hit, home run, for instance.
This year, MLB as a whole is batting just .239 while the league’s expected batting average is up at .254, while MLB’s expected slugging percentage is .437 compared to the actual .384 slugging percentage.
That doesn’t sound like a big difference, however, dating back to 2015 when Statcast began tracking that data, the league’s batting average and slugging percentage has never been lower than the league expected batting average and expected slugging percentage. Never.
It backs up what many hitters are thinking heading back to the dugout.
A decent percentage of balls they are hitting that have been base hits the last few years no longer are.
While not one of the worst affected players, Soto’s slash line has definitely felt the effects.
According to Baseball Savant, entering Sunday’s series finale against the Colorado Rockies, Soto had an expected slash line of .287/.420/.590, and his xwOBA ranked ninth in the majors among qualified hitters. That looks a lot more like a Soto-esque stat line.
By all accounts, with the way Soto is hitting the ball, he should be one of the better hitters in the league.
The other thing that’s holding back Soto to some extent is himself, or at least his approach.
What was so remarkable about Soto’s second-half surge last season was his patience at the plate, even with barely any offensive help around him in the lineup.
Opposing pitchers weren’t giving him much to hit last year because of the lack of other potent bats in the Nats’ order. Soto was more than happy to take what he was given, even if that meant trotting leisurely down to first base after four balls, and take advantage when the pitcher made a mistake and gave him a nice juicy pitch to crush.
Perhaps the pressure of being the guy, more specifically the only guy, on the team got to him to start this season, as he’s been pressing more and trying to force the issue at the plate.
Per Baseball Savant, Soto has swung at 18.8% of pitches outside the strike zone, way above his 12.2% rate last season and 15.7% rate in 2020 when he was the best offensive player in MLB.
Compared to his usually stellar plate discipline, Soto has merely been human and chased pitches out of the zone, particularly in high leverage spots. He wants to make it happen, he wants to deliver the hammer blow to his opposition, but that’s not what has made him great.
Put all of the above together, and it paints a complicated picture of a young superstar who, on the face of things, appears to be struggling this season, even though there’s much more to it.
Perhaps this weekend saw the start of the phenom’s return to form at the plate.
On Sunday, during his first at-bat of the game, Soto was able to spit on two balls outside the zone before launching a hanging slider over the wall for a two-run home run, then pounced on a middle-middle fastball in a 2-2 count for a double in the seventh inning.
If all else fails, hopefully, the Nationals find a way to send Soto to the Home Run Derby in Los Angeles this summer and let him belt baseballs over the fence again. It worked last year...