- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 2, 2021

When Juan Soto thinks back on his Tuesday performance — a 3-for-4 day that has been more outlier than standard for the reigning Silver Slugger — his thoughts first jump to the two-run single he lasered to left field in the fourth inning.

That hasn’t been as common an occurrence for Soto so far this season compared to 2020. Entering Wednesday, Soto’s expected metrics are right where they should be. According to Statcast, his .316 expected batting average is in the top 2% of the majors. Soto’s expected weighted on-base average is .417, within the top 3% in baseball.

But the discrepancy between expectation and reality has been noticeable for Soto, who isn’t meeting the lofty standards he set in 2020 — and those were lofty, indeed. Last year, the outfielder hit .351 with an MLB-best 1.185 on-base-plus-plugging percentage. So far in 2021, he’s hitting .284 entering Wednesday with an .825 OPS, with more ground balls than usual.

Soto hopes, though, that he’s getting back to normal. The results won’t come at once, although the Nationals wouldn’t mind if they did. But his opposite-field single gave Soto heart that he’s near a breakout, when his hard-hit ground balls will find holes and he starts lifting the ball more frequently.

“It set everything up for the next at-bats,” Soto said. “It got me on time. It showed me where I can hit the ball, how far I can let it travel, and how good I can hit it anywhere on the plate.”

Getting Soto back closer to his 2020 form would help propel a Nationals offense to a level it hasn’t found this year. After an 11-run surge Tuesday, Washington still averaged just 3.90 runs per game, good for No. 22 in the majors. The team’s .252 batting average is the fifth-best mark in baseball, but the Nationals’ .390 slugging percentage is firmly middle of the road.

And for Soto, the 2021 season has had its frustrating moments as well. When he skied a pop up high above home plate on May 23, he didn’t immediately run to first base. He watched as the Orioles let the ball drop, and he slammed his helmet when he was thrown out at first — costing Washington a run with two outs.

He felt more frustration during last weekend’s series with the Brewers, going hitless over those three games. Soto entered the series against the Braves without a home run since May 19. But when he cranked a two-run blast over the left-center field fence, he gave a fist pump as he rounded first, and he cracked a wide smile at home plate.

That home run doesn’t guarantee Soto will find his rhythm, but it displayed some of what Soto has attempted to correct recently.

“I’ve been trying to lift the ball a little more, make harder contact than usual,” Soto said. “In the last few days, it’s been more of a focus of trying to get my bat head out in front and get some lift behind the ball and basically carry it a little bit more.”

Across 125 batted balls this season, Soto has hit 64 of them on the ground, per FanGraphs. His ground ball rate of 53.8% is higher than what he produced in 2020 (51.6%) and 2019 (41.6%), and his flyball rate has dipped from 37.2% in 2019 to 28.6% in 2020 and 24.4% in 2021.

Soto’s average launch angle entering Wednesday’s game is 3.5 degrees, slightly below the 4.3 degrees average he had last year but far off from the 12.5 degrees he averaged in 2019.

“Just a matter of time, I think, for him,” Ryan Zimmerman said. “He’s been hitting a lot of balls hard, just on the ground, or line drives right at people. So it’s not like he’s been having terrible at-bats or struggling mightily. … Sort of the same way this offense has been, not trying to get it all back in one night. Let the game come to him, take what the pitchers are going to give him.”

Soto spent 15 days on the injured list earlier this season with a strained shoulder, but since he returned May 4, he’s drawn 20 walks. Yet across those 111 plate appearances between then and June 1, Soto hit just five extra-base knocks.

Last season, when he played in 47 games and finished fifth in MVP voting, he clubbed 13 homers and 14 doubles. In 41 games this year, Soto’s numbers are far off from those highs, with five long balls and four two-baggers. He’s driven in 17 fewer runs, too.

But Soto hopes his recent plate appearances exhibit a return to his best, driving baseballs around — and out — of the ballpark.

“I’m starting to see a lot of the fruit of my labor with working with the staff, coaching staff,” Soto said. “The work’s paying off, so that’s good to see.”

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

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