The Perfect Timing of Juan Soto’s Resurgence

We are now midway through June, and believe or not, we are fast-approaching the halfway point of the 2019 campaign. The Washington Nationals, who have indisputably been one of the most disappointing teams in all of baseball, find themselves six games below the .500 mark (32-38) and 8.5 games out of first place. As has been the case in recent years, the starting rotation continues to be the focal point of this team. Max Scherzer (99.1 IP, 2.81 ERA, and 3.8 fWAR), Stephen Strasburg (91 IP, 3.36 ERA, and 2.9 fWAR), and notable free agent acquisition Patrick Corbin (85.1 IP, 4.11 ERA, and 1.5 fWAR) have formed a strong trio at the front of the rotation, not to mention Anibal Sanchez appears to have found his groove after a rough patch to open the season (1.04 ERA in his last three starts) and Eric Fedde has proven himself to be a viable fifth starter (3.68 ERA in 36.2 IP [5 GS]). Meanwhile, the Nationals’ offense has been fair and ranks in the middle of the pack in most categories…

  • wRC+ (weighted runs created plus): 94 (tied for the 16th highest in baseball)
  • AVG: .251 (16th)
  • OBP: .324 (14th)
  • SLG: .425 (16th)

Together, Washington’s nonexistent bullpen and inept defense are what is holding the Nationals back. In terms of Defensive Runs Saved (DRS), the Nats rank in the bottom five with a -34 DRS. They’ve also committed 47 errors this season (the 9th most in the majors; league average: 41). As awful as their defense has been, the bullpen has been ten times worse. The Nationals’ pen has the highest ERA in the majors (6.22; league median: 4.38). That egregious 6.22 ERA would tentatively go down as the highest earned run average ever recorded by a bullpen in the last 50 years. They’ve also blown 13 saves (tied for the 3rd most in the majors).

On March 19th, FanGraphs gave the Nationals a 79.1 percent chance of qualifying for the postseason and a 53.2 percent probability of winning their division. Today, those odds unsurprisingly look a whole lot slimmer and grimmer. Their odds of making the playoffs have dropped to 33.1 percent and their chances of winning the division have fallen drastically (12.9 percent).

Since starting the season 19-31, the Nationals have won 13 of their last 20 games (a big improvement). One major reason being Juan Soto’s resurgence…

3/28/19 – 5/16/19

  • PA: 145
  • AVG: .228
  • OBP: .345
  • SLG: .415
  • BB%: 14.5
  • K%: 28.3
  • HR: 6
  • 2B + 3B: 5 (5+0)

5/17/19 – 6/15/19

  • PA: 112
  • AVG: .357
  • OBP: .429
  • SLG: .582
  • BB%: 11.6
  • K%: 14.3
  • HR: 4
  • 2B + 3B: 9 (8+1)

Juan Soto struggled mightily early on because he was rarely making contact with pitches outside of the strike zone (61.4 O-Contact% [FanGraphs] from 3/28 – 5/16). 61.4 is below average (right around the 33 percentile), but for a hitter like Soto, who does not have extreme home run power, it’s even more of an issue, especially when one considers the fact that pitchers are very careful with Soto. Among the 159 qualified hitters this season, only nine of them see fewer pitches inside the strike zone than Soto does (38.2 Zone%). In the last month or so (dating back to May 17th), Soto has made tremendous progress and is making contact with pitches outside the strike zone over 70 percent of the time, which is even better than his O-Contact% from his incredible rookie season in 2018 (68.1), which saw Soto hit .292/.406/.517, along with 22 home runs and 70 RBIs in 116 games played.

[Soto] was missing the ones off the plate — key swings which produced fall balls or maybe even an opposite-field hit in the past. Those swings and misses came from an adjustment Soto made to the league’s adjustment. They threw him off-speed pitches 55.5 percent of the time. Pitches he needs to stay back on. He did. Too much.

Trying to find a way to handle all the bends and lack of pace, Soto was resting back on his left leg. His hips slipped toward the home plate umpire. His power was stumped by the lack of balance. His ability to reach those outside off-speed pitches — to spoil, punch or flick — evaporated because he could not get there. Eventually, .228 showed up, Soto looked for answers and Long put a strap around Soto’s waist then tethered him to the back of the cage.

If Soto went too far back when he loaded his swing, the harness would pull him further, knocking him off-balance. He began to settle into a centered position, “50-50 in my legs,” he said, instead of his backward lean.

 Todd Dybas of NBC Sports

Let’s take a look at how his approach/swing has changed over time…

April 23rd (Photos: Baseball Savant)

Observations:

  • Soto is kinda flat-footed/off-balanced
  • By the time Soto’s front foot (right foot) touches the ground, Soto hasn’t even started his swing
    • As you might have guessed, Soto was very late on the pitch (which happened to be a fastball)
  • This relates back to what Todd Dybas was saying in regards to the fact that Soto was trying so hard to stay back because he was being thrown breaking pitches more often than not (Soto has been thrown fastballs 45.6% of the time according to FanGraphs — 8th lowest frequency in the majors).

vs

May 31st

Observations

  • Soto appears to be standing in a more upright stance
  • He has his front foot raised way before Mahle releases the pitch
  • Same leg kick for the most part
  • Soto’s timing is absolutely spot on (he is starting his swing much earlier), and right as Soto’s front foot hits the ground, he is about to make contact with the baseball

If Juan Soto can sustain this high level of performance, the Nationals could potentially make some noise in the NL Wild Card race (they are seven games back). But at this point, what Washington’s future holds will likely come down to whether or not the bullpen and defense can figure out how to stop the bleeding.

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