Juan Soto will have a big Monday night becoming the first Washington Nationals slugger to compete in a Home Run Derby since Bryce Harper won the contest back in 2018 in D.C.
Nationals manager Davey Martinez never had the power to participate in a Derby, but he is a seasoned veteran of the sport and had some advice for the 22-year-old heading into his first Derby.
“I want him to have fun with it. Like I said it’s an honor, but I told him, I said, “Hey, go out there and have fun and do what you do best,’” Martinez said in a press conference last week in San Diego. “You watch him in batting practice -- he hits the ball all over the field for homers. So I told him, ‘Don’t try to change a thing. You be you.’”
It is Soto's first time as an All-Star, which is surprising given he has been one of the best hitters in the NL since he jumped onto the scene three years ago. Soto has hit 83 dingers in his career in the majors and been named NL Batting Champion (2020), won a Silver Slugger (2020) and earned All-MLB First Team honors (2020) already in his young career. That's on top of his brilliant postseason leading Washington to the 2019 World Series title.
But this year’s Home Run Derby could be a chance for Soto to improve his swing even further, Martinez thinks.
“We need to see more of that from Juan: just standing back, letting the ball travel and using the whole field," Martinez said. "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 just use the whole field.”
Soto’s health takes precedence over all things at this stage of the season, though. The outfielder was placed on the 10-day IL three months ago with a strained left shoulder, but has been steady since then yet without his normal power. Soto has a career-low .445 slugging percentage with 11 home runs.
Washington is also facing a depleted lineup around Soto given the recent injuries to Kyle Schwarber (hamstring), Yan Gomes (oblique) and Alex Avila (calf). Martinez acknowledges that Soto’s health matters more than coming home with a Derby trophy.
“The biggest thing for me is [for Soto] to come back healthy…I’ve seen a bunch of these Home Run Derbies and the guys that can go far, it’s tough on them,” Martinez said. “I told [Soto], I said, ‘Use your timeouts wisely in these Derbies.’ I told him to be careful.”
Soto will certainly be one to keep an eye on during Monday night’s Home Run Derby. His journey to victory will be tough, though, especially given he has a first-round matchup with the Angels' Shohei Ohtani -- a generational talent who already has 33 homers. Martinez, like many in the D.C. area, will be rooting for Soto from afar.
“It’s a tough task. I mean, people don’t realize what those guys go through to hit those home runs like that and it’s tough,” Martinez said. “But I wish him well, and I’m gonna be watching him.”