Juan Soto enters play Thursday as an All-Star outfielder sporting a .401 on-base percentage while playing the best defense of his young career. The 22-year-old phenom has also accepted an invitation to participate in the Home Run Derby, matching up with two-way star Shohei Ohtani in a first-round showdown that has the potential to go down as one of the most exciting in Derby history.
However, Soto’s season to date could also be characterized as a bit of a disappointment. The Nationals’ outfielder began the season as a favorite to win NL MVP and his candidacy for the award has taken a hit due to a lack of power. Soto’s .452 slugging percentage is 65 points lower than his career low of .517, set when he was a rookie in 2018. He has only 11 home runs, nine doubles and a triple, leaving him well outside even the top 100 among extra-base hit leaders.
The biggest problem for Soto has been elevating the ball. He’s hitting the ball harder than he ever has but is doing so straight into the ground more often than not. Soto’s 54.2% groundball rate is the highest of his career and more than five percent higher than his lifetime rate of 48.9%. He’s also grounded into 13 doubles plays this year, tying him with José Abreu for the most in the majors.
Yet despite the lack of apparent power, Soto still received an invitation to the Derby. After all, he did lead all of baseball with a .695 slugging percentage in 47 games last season. Still, Soto has been working with hitting coach Kevin Long to reverse that groundball trend and the results have started to show. He’s homered in back-to-back games and heads into Thursday night’s game against the San Diego Padres with five RBIs in the series.
“I just feel great,” Soto said on a Zoom call Wednesday night. “We’ve been working a lot, working hard. Today, we see good results from the swing, not just about the homer but my swing was looking better and we’ve been going through the ball really well. So it just made me happy and not about the homer, just all the work I’ve been doing. I can see it on the video.”
Many players in the past have declined to participate in the Derby because they believe it messes with their swing. For a player like Soto, it’s worth wondering whether taking an evening to do nothing but swing for the fences could actually help him rediscover his power stroke. Nationals manager Davey Martinez isn’t so sure about that theory, but he does want to make sure Soto doesn’t get too attached to pulling the ball at Coors Field on Monday night.
“I watch him take batting practice every day and he hits the ball out in batting practice,” Martinez said. “You saw him get the ball out over the plate, stay back and get the ball up in the air and hit the ball out over the left-center field wall [on Tuesday]. So we need to see more of that from Juan: Just staying back, letting the ball travel and using the whole field.
“I don’t want him to get pull-conscious. That’s the biggest thing and we talked about that with him, ‘In this Home Run Derby, use the whole field.’ Because he can hit the ball out to left field, center field, right field. So don’t just think about going out there pulling the ball.”
Few players spread the ball around the field like Soto. He entered the 2021 season with 69 career home runs. Of those, 23 were hit to left field, 23 to center and 23 to right. It’s a trait that — along with his elite plate discipline — has defined him as a hitter so far in his MLB career.
Soto might not be in the MVP conversation right now, but most hitters would settle for an All-Star season and a place in the Home Run Derby as consolation. If he can make some noise in the event, it’s not out of the question he will carry over some of that power into the second half.
“It’s awesome,” Martinez said of Soto entering the Derby. “It’s an honor to actually get invited to do that and I wish him all the best. It’s a tough task. People don’t realize what those guys go through to hit those home runs like that and it’s tough. But I wish him well and I’m gonna be watching him.”