Juan Soto grounded out in his first at bat on Saturday night, then grounded into a double play in at bat No. 2, before walking the third time up, then singling (on ground balls) in his final two plate appearances. That’s a lot of ground balls. It’s been something of a trend in Soto’s at bats since he returned from an IL stint for a left shoulder strain.
Soto’s 55.6% ground ball% on the season going into Sunday’s game was up, according to Fangraphs, from 41.6% in 2019, and 51.6% in 2020, and from his career average, 48.1%.
Soto’s manager, Davey Martinez, assured reporters before the second game of three with the D-backs in Chase Field on Saturday night, that everything is fine with the outfielder’s shoulder, in case anyone was wondering if that was behind all the ground balls/lack of liners/extra base hits/home runs, etc.
“He’s doing fine,” Martinez said. “We ask him every day, he’s getting work done every day, doing some strengthening stuff, and I communicate with him every day. He says he feels normal. He’s just got to go out there and get his reps and he’ll be fine.”
So what does the skipper make of Soto’s lack of elevation since returning to the lineup?
“He’s hitting the ball hard,” Martinez said after Saturday’s 11-4 loss. “The ball’s not going in the air, but he hit a ball today like 111 MPH.
“The balls up in the air will come. They’ll come. But he’s getting his swing off, he’s hitting the ball hard, I think it’s more or less just kind of getting the ball out in front a little bit more, and you’ll see the ball getting in the air.”
Soto’s take on all those balls on the ground?
“We’ve been working on it,” Soto said late on Saturday night.
“We try to put the ball in the air, and not just put the ball in the air, just try to put the head out, try to put the barrel out to the ball and then see how far it can land.
“We’ve been hitting the ball hard and trying my best, it’s just trying to put the head out and see how the ball is going to jump.”
What’s his manager seeing from Soto at the plate since he returned to the lineup earlier this month?
“He’s hit a lot with two strikes, which doesn’t seem to bother him, obviously, when he’s going well,” Martinez said.
“But we want to be a little more aggressive early on. Get balls in the strike zone and swing at them. Yesterday he took a few fastballs early in the game, but also hit the ball fairly hard too, I mean, didn’t get some of those balls in the air, but he lined out one time, I know he got a hit yesterday, but it will come. I know him. It will come. But we just want him to be a little bit more aggressive in the strike zone.”
Soto said after Saturday’s game that he feels like his swing is getting there after he missed ten games while on the IL.
“I feel like I’m pretty close,” Soto told reporters. “We were working on it — me and [Hitting Coach] Kevin Long, we talk about since yesterday I take my last two at bats and it feels a little different, a little better, and today every time I went to the plate it feels good up there.”
And what does Soto makes of his manager’s assessment that he’s taking early strikes and needs to maybe be more aggressive early in the count?
“I feel better. I’ve always been seeing the ball well at the plate, I just try to, like I said, just try to put the head out, try to be on time, and I think little by little we’re getting up there.”
When he talks about getting the “head out”, what does he mean, exactly? Martinez tried to explain on Sunday.
“For me it’s, one, it’s being on time,” the former big league outfielder said. “Getting back early, getting set up, seeing the pitch and hitting the ball a little bit more — your contact point should be out in front a little bit more.
“He lets the ball get so deep at times, and when he’s going really good he can hit the ball in the air from that deep, right now he just wants to get the barrel of the bat out in front a little more and his head behind the baseball. But like I said. He’s hitting the ball hard, he just can’t get it in the air right now, and that will come. He’s squaring up balls. Unfortunately for him, he wants to get the ball in the air, but he’s hitting balls hard, eventually he’ll get them in the air.”
Soto grounded out to short the first time up in Sunday’s series finale in Arizona, walked in his second trip to the plate, grounded into a double play after Trea Turner singled to start the top of the sixth, and then grounded out to first in the eighth.