Juan Soto, 21, got off to a late start in 2020, after coming into contact with someone who’d tested positive for COVID-19 on the way back to the U.S. from the Dominican Republic, and testing positive himself before Opening Day, though he remained asymptomatic through a quarantine period.
When he was cleared to play, after spending time with a bat in his hand in front of the TV trying to work on his timing while quarantined according to his manager, he came out of swinging.
In his first 24 games and 104 plate appearances in the month of August, Soto went 33 for 90 (.367/.452/.800) with six doubles, eleven home runs, 13 walks, and 13 Ks in that stretch.
He capped the first month off with a 2 for 4, two-home run game against the Philadelphia Phillies, (10, 11) but heading into another matchup with Washington’s divisional rival on Tuesday, the Nationals’ slugger had 68 PAs in 16 games in September without a home run.
“I think at this point now, if you watch his at bats, I always say, Juan is really good when he hits the ball gap-to-gap,” Nats’ manager Davey Martinez said, before the first of two in D.C. on Tuesday.
“I always talk about — when things are not going well for him, he pulls of the ball, and he’s trying too hard. I think that’s what he’s going through right now.
“When he hits home runs he doesn’t really try, he just goes up there and hits the ball hard.”
Martinez, as he’s wont to, offered the same advice he has for all his hitters in discussing how he thought Soto could find his power stroke again, and that’s to stay in the middle, and then let the home runs happen when they do.
“I want him to just go up there relaxed and stay in the middle of the field,” Martinez said.
“When he’s going really good, he can hit the ball out anywhere. He needs to start staying on the ball, hit the ball to left-center field, and those will come.
“I don’t want to put any of those things in his head ... so hopefully he’s not listening to this, but I just want him to go out there and put the ball in play.
“He’s one of the best young hitters in the game, we all know that, and hopefully he’ll hit a couple more home runs before this thing is over with.”
While he hadn’t hit any balls out, after averaging a home run per 13 plate appearances in the month of August, Soto had gone 15 for 48 (.313/.515/.438) with six doubles and 20 walks (11 IBBs) vs 11 Ks in 68 PAs in September, good for a .952 OPS, so you know, perspective. He is still pretty good.
“He’s really good,” Martinez said. “But when he tries to hit the home runs, he starts pulling off the ball. For me it’s about just stay in the middle of the field.
“He’ll hit the ball the other way better than anybody, and his two-strike approach is probably the best I’ve ever seen. He’ll get his hits.
“What we’re talking about is why he hasn’t hit home runs. For me it’s just about I think he’s trying a little bit too hard right now, and just needs to stay in the middle of the field.”
With all the walks (and his 11 IBBs lead the majors), opposing teams are clearly thinking he’s still a threat, and they don’t want to let Soto beat them, but, Martinez was asked, have the walks led to Soto getting antsy and swinging at pitches he’d normally spit on if it’s even close to being a strike?
“We always talk about him accepting his walks which he’s done really good at,” Martinez said.
“Sometimes, when you do get a pitch to hit, when he gets a pitch to hit, he knows it’s in the strike zone right now, he wants to take his swings and hit it hard, just for me it’s just go up there and do what you know you’re capable of doing, and relax and just hit the ball hard in the middle of the field and he’ll be fine. He’s getting his hits.
“He’s hitting the ball hard. I know he drove the ball, line drive yesterday to left field. Those home runs will come. We know that.”
Soto went 0 for 1 with two walks (one intentional) in the first game of the doubleheader with the Phillies on Tuesday, then K’d swinging the first time up in Game 2, before hitting a first-pitch fastball from lefty JoJo Romero out to left field for an opposite field three-run shot that was his first home run of the month of September and 12th overall in 2020.