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Juan Soto’s early 2019 struggles appear firmly behind him

The runner-up for last season’s NL Rookie of the Year award has rounded into form and is replicating the success he had as a teenager.

MLB: Washington Nationals at Atlanta Braves Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

Just so we’re clear, I don’t believe in jinxes. Call me crazy, but I just can’t bring myself to believe that something I do can have an effect on the outcome of professional sports games.

So wherever you are, go ahead and find some wood to knock on — because I’m just going to say it: Juan Soto is on fire.

After putting up a .228/.345/.415 slash line over his first 33 games, Soto has exploded for a 13-game hitting streak that he’s carrying into the Washington Nationals’ weekend series with the Cincinnati Reds. The 20-year-old is hitting .449 with a 1.313 OPS over the course of the streak, which has raised his season numbers to some figures eerily similar to those of last year.

Juan Soto Year-by-Year Comparisons

Year Games AVG OBP SLG OPS BB% K% HR/FB Exit Velocity
Year Games AVG OBP SLG OPS BB% K% HR/FB Exit Velocity
2018 116 .292 .406 .517 .923 16.0% 20.0% 24.7% 89.4
2019 46 .291 .394 .523 .917 14.3% 25.1% 22.0% 90.3
Data Courtesy of FanGraphs and Baseball Savant

The strategy early on for opposing pitchers was to throw breaking balls low and away — and it worked. During those first 33 games, Soto hit just .125 on all pitches in that zone. He’s also slugging just .396 on breaking balls. It amounted to a slump fans hadn’t yet been accustomed to seeing out of Soto and caused some to worry about a sophomore slump.

But then Soto adjusted. He’s gone 3-for-10 on balls in that lower-left quadrant during his hitting streak and raised his line-drive rate from 20% to 27.5% while cutting down on ground balls. It’s a veteran adjustment not commonly seen in younger players, but Soto has always had a smart approach at the plate and his ability to bust out of this slump is only further evidence of that.

“I like the fact that he’s using the whole field and he’s taking his walks,” manager Davey Martinez said after the Nationals’ 14-4 win over the Atlanta Braves on Thursday. “First inning he took his walk again, which is nice. But when he does that, he’s good. he’s really good. The biggest thing with him is just staying up the middle, not trying to do too much, not trying to pull the ball.”

And as Soto goes, so have the Nationals. In his 162 career games, Soto has hit .361 in wins but just .226 in losses. Washington has won five of its last six games — the best stretch of play they’ve had all year — and Soto has either driven in or scored 15 of the team’s 47 runs. That’s good for 31.9% of the Nationals’ run production over that span.

If he can continue this torrid run at the plate, it’s not out of the question that Soto makes the All-Star Game in July. He already ranks sixth among NL outfielders in OPS and paces the Nationals in both RBIs (37) and walks (29). Although FanGraphs and Baseball-Reference each peg Soto at just 0.9 WAR — ranking 14th and 20th among NL outfielders, respectively — that number will rise quickly if he stays hot.

“Right now I just try to come in every day and work with Kevin Long and Joey [Dillon], they’ve been working really hard with me and I appreciate that,” Soto said after the team’s 5-0 win over the Miami Marlins on Saturday. “I’m going to keep working.”

However, Washington may need to keep winning for Soto to receive an All-Star spot, as it’s going to be difficult to justify adding several Nationals to the NL roster if the team continues to struggle. Anthony Rendon is already a slam-dunk candidate to make the team while an argument could be made for Washington to send three starting pitchers to Cleveland as well.

So if you really are superstitious, throw some salt over your shoulder or something. But regardless of whether or not you walked under a ladder or saw a black cat today, Soto is going to keep on hitting. It’s just a question of how high of a ceiling he can have.