- The Washington Times - Monday, July 19, 2021

Even Juan Soto can’t fully explain the surge of home runs he’s hit in his first few at-bats since the All-Star break — but the Washington Nationals slugger said competing in the Home Run Derby helped.

In the first half of the season, Soto’s hard-hit balls were pummeled into the dirt, and his power numbers were muted as a result.

So Soto entered the Home Run Derby last week looking to tweak his swing. He’s not sure what changed, he says — his mechanics are the same as before. But since the event, he feels better at the plate. Early results are backing that up: He had three home runs during Washington’s three-game series against the San Diego Padres.

“I don’t know why it’s happening; I’m doing the same thing,” Soto said. “It’s just, the ball’s going up instead of down.”

That’s where Soto wants his hits to go. Many batters often shy away from participating in the Home Run Derby, fearful of injury or disadvantageous swing adjustments that could throw off a season. 

The derby has long been rumored to negatively impact a player’s second-half performances, be it through fatigue or swing alterations. When then-Cubs outfielder Kyle Schwarber competed against Bryce Harper in 2018, he entered with a .533 slugging percentage in the month preceding the event. Over the next month, Schwarber’s numbers plummeted to a .363 slugging percentage.

Harper, though, came off that derby win and performed better. He had been slugging .400 between June 16 and July 16, but that rose to a .696 slugging percentage over the next 30 days.

During the derby, Soto heard plenty of advice from his Nationals teammates and other players watching. When they noticed him getting tired, they said he should search for lower pitches in the zone, creating a looping swing to send balls out to right field.

But Soto wasn’t focused on the event as much as the progress of his swing, even though he managed to crush 46 total homers.

“I really feel in the derby, like, ‘This swing feels right, and the ball is going the right way,’” Soto said. “Sometimes the guys were like, ‘Oh, you’re getting tired, let’s change this, throw it here, here.’ I said, ‘No, no, I don’t care if I’m getting tired, I want to keep feeling the same feeling.’”

Soto was worried about a derby jinx — he wanted to work on his ground-ball problem. He’s had a career-high 55% of his batted balls hit the dirt rather than soar into the sky.

The 22-year-old hitter says something clicked.  

“You can tell,” Soto said. “I mean, I just feel so much better now. I was thinking about it and it really helped me a little bit, just getting that feeling of how to put the ball in the air and everything. I tried everything in the first half, and the ball still go into the ground. … I think the derby helped me out big time.”

Thanks to all those ground balls, Soto ended the first half of the season with a .445 slugging percentage — below his career .542 slugging percentage.

Still, he was making hard contact, even if the launch angle was off. His 54.7% hard-hit rate is the highest of his career, as is the 92.9 average exit velocity. Both of those marks are in the top 6% of the majors, according to Baseball Savant.

Soto had the fewest home runs, 11, going into the contest of any of the contestants. 

But he knocked out Angels star Shohei Ohtani in the first round with a strong display of hitting to all parts of the field — one of his strengths. That focus helped Soto find his power stroke without sacrificing what he does best, as many power hitters fear during the Home Run Derby.

“He knows what kind of hitter he is, and he just didn’t want to change anything. All he wanted was to get ready earlier and stay on time,” manager Dave Martinez said. “I do believe him going to the All-Star Game and doing the Home Run Derby did help him understand really what he needs to do. … When he came back, my conversation with him was, ‘Your approach when you hit should be the same way as the Home Run Derby. You don’t need to pull a home run. You can hit a ball out anywhere.’”

Soto showed that opposite-field power with his go-ahead, two-run home run Sunday against the Padres. He also blasted two pull-side homers Friday night, displaying his all-field power. The recent power surge is something the Nationals desperately need. With the July 30 trade deadline looming, Washington has series against the Miami Marlins, Baltimore Orioles and Philadelphia Phillies.

Those games could decide whether the Nationals are buyers and sellers at the deadline. And Soto — with his hits beginning to find sky rather than dirt with more frequency — could be the key factor in a push back up the standings.

“We all kind of joked, we thought the Home Run Derby was going to get him going, and hopefully that’s right,” right-hander Max Scherzer said. “If we get him hot, that just changes everything. When he’s hot, he can absolutely carry us.”



• Andy Kostka can be reached at akostka@washingtontimes.com.

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