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Explaining Juan Soto’s slump since trade to San Diego Padres

The running joke around Nationals Park since the trade deadline, at least among those still able to stomach a laugh there these days, is that the Washington Nationals are better off with Joey Meneses anchoring their lineup than they were with Juan Soto.

Meneses entered Wednesday hitting .324 with nine homers and a .904 on-base-plus slugging since the deal cleared the way for his major league debut. Soto hit .202 with three homers and a .694 OPS in his first 35 games as a San Diego Padre.

That the idea of Meneses being better for any lineup than Soto qualified as a joke was no knock on Meneses, whose rookie explosion at 30 is one of the season’s most magical feel-good stories. No, it qualifies as a joke because people around the Nationals know better than anyone just how rare Soto’s talent seems to be, just how valuable he will be to any lineup in the future — after all, they had never offered anyone $400 million to play for the Nationals before.

Yet until a few days ago, Soto was hitting so poorly, so un-Soto-like, that questions about what the Padres got in exchange for the biggest prospect haul anyone can remember seemed almost reasonable. He battled a back injury in late August that forced him out of the lineup. He drove in a run just once every five games. He looked a little more fidgety in the box, a little less certain about the Soto shuffle, a little more — frankly, uncomfortable.

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But unfortunately for anyone who hoped the Padres would have a compromised version of Soto in their wild-card series matchup next month, he is looking much more comfortable now. Since Friday, Soto is 7-for-15 with a home run, six runs batted in, and two doubles. The Padres are 4-0 in that span.

What turned things around for Soto will likely be clearest in hindsight, and a four-game revival does not a full recovery make. But the fact that he struggled should be no surprise for a player who showed himself prone to trying a little too hard to do a little too much when the star power around him in D.C. waned.

Perhaps anyone who just turned down the biggest guaranteed contract in baseball history only to be traded to a team desperate for October greatness in exchange for a massive prospect haul would be, particularly if his new team lost its other young savior to a performance-enhancing drug suspension shortly after his arrival.

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For example, Soto has always been at his best when he is scattering batted balls around the field, when the line drives to left center seem to come with ease. In his career, Soto has pulled about 41 percent of balls he has put in play. In August, that number jumped to 53 percent. In September, it has been 50 percent. Soto pulled one of his two base hits against the St. Louis Cardinals on Tuesday night. He also rolled over a groundball to the right side.

But his first hit of a 2-for-3 evening in which he walked and drove in a run, seemingly a classic Soto showing, was a groundball through the wide-open left side on a pitch a few inches off the plate. It wasn’t the kind of deep line drive to left center that makes Soto special. But he was able to wait nonetheless.

“Whenever I start hitting the ball to the other way, it’s starting to go well,” Soto told the San Diego Union-Tribune on Sunday after his first three-hit game as a Padre. “Tonight, I didn’t hit it to the other way, but (doing so more recently) tells you that I’m feeling better, that I’m being patient, I’m seeing the ball better.”

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“Patience” has been an interesting word for Soto since the trade, in part because Soto has not been chasing more pitches out of the zone than normal. In fact, he has been swinging less often — at pitches in the zone and out — than his career averages suggest he normally does. Since he debuted in 2018, Soto has swung at 37.5 percent of pitches he sees in his career and chased 16.5 percent of pitches that come his way out of the zone. Both rates dropped by a few percentage points in August and September, leaving his walk rates slightly higher in his two months with the Padres than his career averages.

But for Soto, who is at his best when he allows the ball to travel further toward home plate than others can allow before casting the barrel to it in time to hit line drives the other way, patience is often as much a question of timing as it is pitch selection.

And tweaks to his timing could help him restore a more familiar contact profile: Soto has never exactly been a poster child for the launch angle revolution. His career average of 8.3 degrees is about a third of Mike Trout’s average this season and is well below the league average of 12.1. Twice in the last four seasons, including this one, Soto has maintained an average launch angle above that 8.3 degree mark. His OPS in those two seasons is below .950. In the two seasons in which his launch angle was below his career average, Soto’s OPS was .999 or higher. His launch angle in August was 12.1 degrees. His launch angle in September, as of Wednesday morning, was 13.6 degrees.

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Unsurprisingly then, Soto has hit groundballs at a lower rate than his career norms over the last two months. He has hit more flyballs. He has hit significantly more pop-ups. Just 4.6 percent of the balls Soto has put in play since he debuted qualified as pop-ups. In September, nearly 12 percent of his contact has resulted in a pop-up.

While groundballs find holes and flyballs can carry, pop-ups rarely forgive the one who hits them. Tuesday night, Soto didn’t hit the majestic line drives to left center that suggest he is at his best. But he hit three groundballs, two of which found space as hits. In those last four games, he hasn’t popped out once.

Four games are too small a sample to declare Soto fully resurrected. And indeed, multiple teams that could face him in October have had advanced scouts following the Padres in recent weeks. They will know what was going wrong when he was struggling. They will know exactly how much he has corrected by the time the Padres get there, to a wild-card series that would match them against the defending champion Atlanta Braves if the season ended Wednesday morning.

And all jokes aside, no opponent would rather face the Padres with Soto than without him, no matter how much he has struggled since landing in San Diego. If he is anything like the Soto the Padres traded for, anything like the Soto who did things in his early 20s that no one has done before, he has the power to alter a three-game series — or any series, really — more than just about any other offensive threat in baseball, non-Meneses division.

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