In 48 games and 212 plate appearances since the Washington Nationals’ fire sale at the July 30th trade deadline, Juan Soto had posted a .362/.542/.617 line, nine doubles, nine homers, 59 walks, and just 24 strikeouts going into last night’s game, and he has done it playing on a team that had gone just 15-34 over that stretch.
So after all the trades, and at the start of a reboot for the organization, how has the 22-year-old slugger stayed motivated?
“For me, I just try to motivate myself every day,” Soto explained after going 3 for 3 with a double, home run, and two walks (one intentional) in Wednesday’s series finale in Miami.
“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’m 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.”
“He comes ready to play every day,” Soto’s manager, Davey Martinez, told reporters when asked about the right fielder recovering from a relatively slow start to get to where he’s at right now.
“And obviously he’s definitely having a great second half, but that doesn’t mean the first half he didn’t show up to play hard every day, but he’s — like I said, I love watching him, I love watching his at-bats, I love the way he plays the game. And he’s passionate about the game, he’s passionate about his teammates, he’s passionate about this team, and he just wants to compete, and you’re seeing what he can do, and sustain what he can do like this for many, many years.”
Soto said that some of the chatter he heard as he tried to get sorted and right with a bat in his hands provided additional motivation.
“I think that at the beginning it started off a little slow, with all the critics saying, ‘You know he’s got a slow start and this and that,’” Soto said, and to be clear, he finished the first half of his fourth major league season with a .283/.407/.445 line, nine doubles, 11 home runs, 58 walks, and 52 Ks in 79 games and 332 PAs. “I thought come along well, stay positive, kept working, and I thank God for the opportunity obviously to be able to not only stay healthy, but be able to perform on the field, and you know, I feel real good so far about what I’ve been able to do up until this point.”
With a .372/.538/.678 line, 11 doubles, 16 home runs, 72 walks, and 32 Ks over 62 games and 275 PAs in the second half going into Thursday’s game, Soto was ranked first in the NL in AVG (.321), OBP (.466), and walks (130), and second in OPS (1.010), fWAR (6.1), wOBA (.424), wRC+ (165), and runs scored (104) overall this season.
“It’s been feeling great,” Soto said, “since last month it’s been feeling really good.
“I’ve been seeing the ball really well. I’ve been taking my pitches, I’ve been swinging the bat really well, it feels good.”
What, if anything changed in the last month that had Soto at an absurd .451/.592/.746 with four doubles, five home runs, 25 walks, and just six strikeouts over 21 games and 98 PAs in the month of September after Wednesday’s game?
“I mean, we faced a couple of the teams that really don’t care about anything, who you are,” Soto said. “They’ve been attacking me and throwing pitches in the strike zone and trying to [get] me out, and I think that helped me out a little bit, just to not think they’re going to walk me every time.
“So just keeps me locked in every time I’m at the plate, just keep being aggressive, and I think that’s helped me out the last couple days.”
As good as he’s been, Martinez said before the series opener in Cincinnati, there’s always room for some improvement. But, uh, where in Soto’s game, exactly?
“If you look at him and you talk about him, he has a game plan every single day, you know,” the fourth-year skipper said. “For me, and talking to him and watching him, it’s not to try to do too much. And that’s something that sometimes he wants to get up there, and he wants to do a lot, and I told him, ‘Hey, you don’t have to do a whole lot. You just got to get yourself ready like you always do, and just try to stay in the middle of the field.’ That’s our big conversation before each game, he comes over and shakes my hand and give me a hug, and I say, ‘What have you got for me today?’ And he says, ‘I got four line drives up the middle.’ And I say, ‘Great approach, go get’em.’ And he’s out there, and like I said, he’s fun to watch, and he’s constantly getting better, he constantly wants to learn the strike zone, he really wants to learn what balls he hits hard. Or learn counts, like right now, he talks a lot about learning counts, and what pitchers are trying to do to him, and what to look for.
“This guy is unbelievable, for a young kid like him, he understands the hitting portion of the game very well, and he has a plan every time he goes up there to hit.”
So as well as Soto knows the zone, and as selective as he is in terms of not chasing pitches out of the zone (NL-low 15.4 O-Swing% = “Swings at pitches outside the zone/pitches outside the zone.”), he still tries to do too much at times?
“Yeah, he gets a ball where he really feels like he can hit, and he sees it really good, and he takes that big old swing, and you see his face light up, like — and to him it’s almost, ‘I don’t even know why I missed that ball,’” Martinez said.
“Well, when you come down to it, and I ask him, ‘Why do you think you missed that ball?’
“‘I tried to hit it 800 feet.’
“And I go, ‘Exactly.’ I say, ‘Don’t try to do too much.’”
After reaching base in all five plate appearances on Wednesday, Soto had reached base in six straight overall (with a double in his final PA in the 2nd of 3 in Miami), and the opener in Cincinnati, Soto extended the streak to 10-straight plate appearances, going 3 for 3 with a single, walk, and two home runs in the Nationals’ 3-2 win over the Reds.
Both of Soto’s home runs (Nos. 28 & 29 in 2021) were opposite field blasts, the first to left-center in the top of the sixth, on a 98 MPH 0-2 fastball from starter Luis Castillo, and then the second to the left field corner, on a 95 MPH 3-2 fastball from reliever Luis Cessa in the seventh.
“For me, for him to hit two balls like that, and stay on the ball, that’s pretty impressive,” his manager said after the win. “I mean, that was impressive.
“But he comes ready to play every day. He’s fun to watch. I told you guys the other day, I said, I definitely think he should be considered for MVP. The numbers he’s putting up are unbelievable.”
How does it feel to be the hottest hitter in the world right now?
“I am? I don’t know, man, it just feels great,” Soto said. “I’m seeing the ball really well, I’ve been just grinding, and the best feeling is just all the work I was doing in the beginning of the season, everything I’ve been doing over there, now is coming through and that’s the best feeling you can have.”
And the two opposite field home runs, what do they tell Soto about his swing?
“I don’t know,” he said. “The first one I hit it pretty well. It feels really good. The second one I was surprised that it went out. Cause I was thinking it might be foul or off the wall. But yeah, it’s been impressive. I just tried to touch the ball, and when I get to those 98s down and hit it that way, it’s just amazing. I think my swing is right on time, right on point.”