Going into the All-Star break this past July, Juan Soto had 11 home runs in 79 games and 332 plate appearances on the season, with just three in his previous 31 games at that point, in mid-July, but it picked up for the now-23-year-old slugger in Coors Field. Soto put on an impressive display in the HR Derby, and then came out swinging in the second-half, hitting three homers in his first three games and 15 PAs to start what would end up being a monster post-All-Star Game run which lifted him in the running for the 2021 NL MVP [ed. note - “Soto ended up finishing 2nd.”].
“You can tell, I just feel so much better now,” Soto said when asked about the impact of the HR Derby on his swing after a July 18th game against the San Diego Padres. “I was thinking about it and it really helped me a little bit just get me that feeling how to put the ball in the air and everything. Because I tried everything that I can in the first half, and the ball [would] still go into the ground, so I’ve just got to find a way to put the ball in the air, and see how it goes and I think the Derby helped me out, big time.”
Soto went on to hit 18 home runs total in 72 games and 322 PAs in the second-half, and he finished the year with a .348/.525/.639 run, over which he hits 11 doubles as well, driving in 53 runs, taking 87 walks, and scoring 57 runs after the All-Star break, with his .525 on-base percentage in that stretch the eighth best, “in Major League history for any player after the All-Star break,” as the Nationals noted in their Season in Review.
That he did what he did in the second-half of the season on a team that kicked off a reboot at the trade deadline by dealing away veterans on expiring contracts (and a year-plus of control of his World Series teammate Trea Turner), really stood out for Soto’s manager and Nationals’ GM Mike Rizzo.
“He’s been so even-keeled throughout the whole process,” Rizzo said in his season-ending talk with reporters over the final weekend of the 2021 campaign.
“You start off as a young rookie player and everything is in front of you, and you dominate a league to the point where teams are afraid to pitch to you and then we kind of reboot right in front of him and not a peep of discontent, and I think you’ve seen a different even better gear if that’s even possible the second half of the season than he had in the first half of the season, and I think that says everything you need to know about him.”
“We had conversations when everything changed for us this year and I told him this is his time to kind of step up in his own way and become that leader, and he is,” Martinez said in an MLB Network appearance in mid-October.
“He’s a very quiet leader. He leads by example. He comes ready to play every day and a lot of our young players they look up to him, they really do. So this guy is something special, he really is.
“He’s a leader in our clubhouse, he likes to have a good time, he doesn’t say a whole lot, but when he gets ready to be engaged in a game, he leads by example. And like I said, he’s a joy to have, I love the kid, like I said, we have great conversations every day and he’s only going to get better.”
Soto said late this past season motivating himself to keep grinding away even after the sell-off in D.C. was not an issue.
“For me, I just try to motivate myself every day,” Soto explained. “Every time I come to the field just try to start over. Don’t matter what just happened the last day or last night, I’ve just got to come over and grind as hard as I can and try to win games. At the end of the day, it’s fun to win. For me, I love to win, I hate to lose. So, every time I come to the field, I do it, and everything I do is just thinking to win. So, for me, that’s my motivation.”
Soto’s skipper, who’s played with, coached, and managed some extremely talented players in his career, said his right fielder is a truly special one.
“He’s one special, not only baseball player, but a human being, he really is,” Martinez said.
“He’s a joy to be around every day. I played with Barry Bonds, I’ve played with a lot of really good, great hitters, and he’s up there, he really is. The kid pays attention to detail, he’s got a game plan every at-bat, and he doesn’t take any at-bat or any pitch off. He’s on his game every time he steps up to the box, and he’s only going to get better.”
So … when do the Nationals announce Soto’s extension?