His week began with a freak injury after he slipped in the dugout and banged his knee on the corner of the Nationals bench, sidelining him two days. When he returned, he went 0-for-14 and saw his batting average dip to an unfathomable .216. Along the way, his manager criticized him for not hustling out a double-play grounder.
So when Juan Soto took a mighty swing at the first pitch he saw from Zach Eflin in the bottom of the second Sunday afternoon and proceeded to watch the ball fly 420 feet into the second deck in right field at Nationals Park for a three-run homer, what exactly did it feel like?
“It’s like a flush,” the slugger said. “It’s like you flush your mind, your body, everything. You just feel amazing. Your work is coming through, and you just feel amazing when you see the ball flying like that.”
It was as cathartic a moment as Soto has had on a baseball field in a while. It may or may not have signaled a turning point in his disappointing season – he still wound up 1-for-5 in the Nats’ 8-3 victory over the Phillies – but it certainly energized the 23-year-old and his teammates, who have desperately needed that kind of production from their young leader.
“We need Juan to be Juan,” said Maikel Franco, who also homered during the game. “I know it’s going to come. Everybody gets excited. After that, everybody (got) excited, and they wanted to just continue to play hard and have great at-bats and do well for the team.”
There are a myriad of reasons for the Nationals’ struggles this season, which reached a new low point during the eight-game losing streak that finally ended Sunday, but Soto’s struggles have to be near the top of the list.
During his first four big league seasons, he hit .301 with a .432 on-base percentage, .550 slugging percentage and .981 OPS. Entering Sunday, his batting average (.218), slugging percentage (.440) and OPS (.807) were dramatically lower than his career marks. And though his .367 on-base percentage remains elite, it still pales in comparison to his lofty career standard.
Aside from a few brief hot stretches, Soto just hasn’t looked like himself this year.
“You don’t really see him ever in a slump, and you look up there and his OPS is over .800,” manager Davey Martinez said. “He is walking every game. But it’s the two-strike approach, all that stuff. We’ve got to keep continuing to tell him to stay on the ball, try to hit the ball the other way, especially with guys on base.”
Soto’s most notable struggles have come with guys on base. He entered Sunday’s game a paltry 6-for-48 with runners in scoring position. His three-run blast helped a bit, but he also failed to deliver in two other comparable situations during the game, leaving him with a .135 batting average that remarkably ranks 153rd out of 158 qualified big league hitters.
No matter the situation, Soto simply isn’t hitting the ball with as much authority as everyone has grown accustomed to over the years. During the subpar first half to his 2021 season, he was routinely hitting the ball hard, just into the ground. That’s not the case this season: Soto’s hard hit rate has gone down from 51.6 percent and 52.7 percent the last two seasons to 45.1 percent this season. His line drive rate has dropped from 23 percent and 22.5 percent to 16.6 percent.
And much of those problems have involved non-fastballs. Soto is still batting .311 and slugging .613 off fastballs, but those number plummet when he faces breaking balls (.073 average, .127 slugging) and off-speed pitches (.172 average, .352 slugging).
Sunday’s homer came on a first-pitch cutter, which counts as a fastball for Statcast purposes, so it wasn’t necessarily a sign Soto is breaking out of his bad habits trying to hit non-fastballs.
He seems less concerned with those kinds of details right now, though, than with the matter of his performance impacting his team’s performance. Sunday’s three-run homer was one of the most meaningful hits he’s had this season, because it put them in the driver’s seat en route to victory.
Now he needs to figure out how to do that on a more consistent basis.
“I know things aren’t going my team’s way and not going my way, but it’s more about the team than my thing,” Soto said. “I just try to bring as much energy as I can to the team, forget about all the personal numbers and just go out there and have fun.”