We saw this happen last year.
Everyone was panicking because Juan Soto’s overall offensive numbers weren’t up to his superstar standards about one-third of the way through the season. Then around mid-June, he started heating up at the plate and went into the All-Star break as one of the game’s hottest hitters.
People debated whether or not he should participate in the Home Run Derby, an event known for ruining hitters’ swings, after finally rediscovering his rhythm at the plate. But Soto did it anyway, hitting 46 home runs before being eliminated in the semifinals by eventual champion Pete Alonso.
“This is the time of year where I think he does start heating up,” Davey Martinez said of Soto. “I don't know why that is, because he always has his streaks in the beginning when he hits the ball really well. But he's swinging the bat really well right now.”
We’re now seeing almost the same story play out in 2022, which again brings up the question: Should Soto participate in the Home Run Derby?
Let’s compare numbers.
On June 12, 2021 (51 games into the season), Soto was slashing .267/.404/.442 with an .846 OPS. He had 13 extra-base hits, including eight homers, with 27 RBIs and 40 walks to 33 strikeouts.
In the 28 games leading into last year’s All-Star break, he slashed .310/.412/.450 with an .862 OPS, elevating his first-half totals to .283/.407/.445 and an .852 OPS.
After the Home Run Derby, Soto took off at the plate. He hit .348/.525/.639 with a 1.164 OPS in 72 games over the second half of the season. He knocked 18 home runs with 43 RBIs and walked 87 times while striking out just 41 times.
Soto finished the season with a .313 average, .999 OPS and major league-best .465 on-base percentage and 145 walks. He won his second straight Silver Slugger Award and finished runner-up in the National League MVP race behind Bryce Harper.
Now for this year. We know Soto’s numbers weren’t great over the first couple of months of the season. Through the first 70 games, he uncharacteristically slashed .214/.365/.432 with a .796 OPS. He did hit 14 home runs and 12 doubles, but with only 31 RBIs and 57 walks to 46 strikeouts.
But over his last 15 games, Soto has been on a heater. He’s hit .409/.567/.705 for a 1.271 OPS, including going 9-for-18 with two homers, four RBIs and five walks over a five-game hitting streak this past weekend.
“It just feels great to see the success and how I've been making adjustments swinging the bat,” Soto said. “The pitches I'm seeing now everywhere I've been trying to make contact with. I've been getting my couple of hits and it feels great.”
He has also found his hitting success while continuing to take his bases at a 2-to-1 walk-to-strikeout rate.
“It feels great,” Soto said of drawing his walks. “I mean, sometimes it's a little uncomfortable. Sometimes you want to hit in big situations and then they start to walk you. But at the end of the day, it feels good because you know you put in something to help the team as much as you can.”
How do we know when Soto is back to his hitting ways? When he starts going to the opposite field.
“I like the fact that he's staying on the ball,” said Martinez. “His home runs are going to center field, left-center field, left field. So when he's doing that, I know that he's really staying on the ball, he's not opening up.”
Soto hit two home runs over the weekend in Atlanta. Where did they go? Center field and left field.
“That means I'm in a good position and I'm seeing the ball pretty well,” he said. “And whenever I start hitting the ball that way is when everything starts going for me.”
Per MLB.com, Soto is now tied for second in the major leagues with the most opposite-field home runs since the start of the 2018 season with 40. (Aaron Judge has the most with 47.)
“That means a lot. It shows you that's my favorite part of the field to hit the ball,” he said. “I've always, since day one, told everybody I love to hit the ball that way, see how the ball fades away and everything. It just is one of the most beautiful things, that I think, in baseball.”
Soto is an elite hitter. Everyone knows it. Even when he struggles, it’s not a cause for concern.
“I've always said this, I'll say it again: I never worry about him. He's gonna hit,” Martinez said. “And I love watching him hit. I love when he does hit. So he's gonna go out there and do the best he can to continue to do what he does.”
“You hear about his struggles and it's like, man, his struggles are anybody else's best year of their career,” Lane Thomas said of his teammate.
Last year’s Derby got a boost from the high elevation at Coors Field, which won’t be there to help Soto’s swing and confidence at Dodger Stadium. Nonetheless, we know he is comfortable in Chavez Ravine, where he’s hit two regular season home runs and another big one in Game 5 of the 2019 National League Division Series.
Now that he is officially an All-Star for the second year in a row, should he do the Derby again? The numbers suggest that last year it might have actually helped him stay hot into the second half of the season.
“It kind of worked for him last year,” Martinez said with a laugh. “But when people ask me, I always say that's their call. I mean, if he feels up to it or if he thinks his body needs a break. But that's totally up to him.”
Which is the final point here. We can debate all we want about whether or not he should do it. But at the end of the day, the decision is up to Soto himself.
“I've been thinking,” Soto said of the Derby. “I'm still thinking to see what I'm going to do. We're gonna see in the next couple of days what I'm going to do.”