In three games and 15 plate appearances since returning from the All-Star break and his run in the HR Derby, Juan Soto is 7 for 13 with a double, three home runs, two walks, and a total of three strikeouts.
That comes after Washington’s 22-year-old outfielder hit three homers in his previous 31 games and 128 PAs.
There were plenty of jokes, and some serious suggestions about how the HR Derby could, in the end, be a good thing for the Nationals’ slugger, but after a good showing in the glorified batting practice event, Soto, for one, thinks that it definitely helped him find elevation again after he hit a lot of ground balls in the first half of the 2021 campaign.
“You can tell, I just feel so much better now,” Soto said after hitting a game-tying, opposite field, two-run home run in the eighth inning of Sunday’s game, before the Nationals walked off on an Alcides Escobar hit in the ninth. “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 just got to find a way to put the ball in the air, and see how it can go ... and I think the Derby helped me out, big time.”
What, if anything changed during the Derby that helped him find what he was looking for?
“I mean, I’m just still feeling great,” Soto explained.
“I’m still feeling great like as the first half, I’m seeing the ball well, I’m swinging the bat great, it’s just different, it’s just instead of going on the ground, it’s going in the air, and that’s the only difference I see.”
His manager is among those who think Soto’s participation in the Derby had a positive effect.
“[Soto is] staying on the ball well, he’s not trying to do too much,” Martinez said after the club’s win on Sunday snapped a six-game losing streak.
“He got a couple hits the other way and then the big home run the other way, but he’s staying back and he’s using the whole field, and when he does that, that’s who Juan is, that’s what he does.”
“I do believe that him going to the All-Star Game, and him doing the HR Derby did help him understand really what he needs to do,” Martinez added. “Because if you watched him in the HR Derby, he didn’t try to pull a whole lot of balls, he hit a lot of balls to center field, he hit some to left-center, and that’s who he is, so when he came back here, my conversation with him is, ‘Your approach when you hit should be the same way as the HR Derby.
“You don’t have to try to pull a home run. You can hit the ball out anywhere, in any park, so just stay in the middle of the field like you do, and the home runs will come, and, like I said, he’s come back swinging the bat really well.”
Soto said he was so concentrated on his swing that he even forgot at times that he was in a HR Derby as he worked to get back to elevating balls while swinging away in Colorado.
“Mostly in the Derby I was thinking about my swing,” he said. “I really forget a little bit about the Derby, and I just concentrate on my swing and how good it was feeling.”
Max Scherzer too, after giving up two home runs in Sunday’s win, talked about Soto getting his swing back in Coors Field, where Scherzer watched the HR Derby from the field and was cheering his teammate on.
“We all kind of joked we thought the HR Derby was going to get him going” Scherzer said, “... and hopefully that’s right ... but early signs look like it’s been paying off pretty well for him to get in that HR Derby and put the ball in the air. If we get him hot, that just changes everything. When he’s hot, he can absolutely carry us. And he changes the game in so many different ways, whether you pitch to him or not, so when he goes, that makes our offense really go. I just know when you’re pitching against a threat like that, you just know that coming in that you have to be very careful with a hot hitter. And so Juan seems like he’s getting hot and hopefully he’s able to keep that going. That’s what we need at this point in time in the ballgame.”
Scherzer also stressed that while it was fun to watch Soto launch 500+ foot bombs in the mile-high air in Denver, they don’t need tape-measure shots in game action.
“That was Colorado,” Scherzer said, “... the thin air, the ball definitely travels differently up there. We don’t need him to hit 520, we just need him to hit it a couple rows deep. It’s not about how far it’s about how many.”
Soto has actually been swinging it well for a while, even if the home runs haven’t been there as they were in previous seasons, but after posting a .270/.395/.387 line with a total of four doubles and four home runs in 167 PAs in April and May, he’s put up a .318/.433/.574 line, six doubles, and 10 home runs in his last 180 PAs. Will he keep swinging it tonight?