It was supposed to be a joke, the notion that the Home Run Derby might actually fix Juan Soto’s swing after a first half that saw the Nationals slugger pound baseballs into the ground and fail to elevate them into the air.
But Soto himself suggested he thought the idea had some merit. And when he promptly eliminated fan favorite Shohei Ohtani in the first round of the exhibition last week at Coors Field, it started to gain some momentum.
And now, following a blistering weekend at the plate for Soto, who went 7-for-13 with a double and three homers off Padres pitching, he’s flat-out giving all the credit to the derby.
“You can tell. I just feel so much better now,” he said in a Zoom session with reporters following Sunday’s 8-7 walk-off win at Nationals Park. “I was thinking about it, and it really helped me a little bit get that feeling of how to put the ball in the air and everything. I tried everything I could in the first half, and the ball still was going to the ground. ... I think the derby helped me out big time.”
Whether there is actual causation at play here, there’s no denying Soto has looked different since returning from the All-Star break. It’s not just that he homered three times. It’s how those swings looked.
Friday night’s pair of homers were launched to right-center field, the first time Soto had pulled a home run in the air like that since he hit a scoreboard at Wrigley Field on May 19. Sunday’s homer, which briefly gave the Nationals the lead in the bottom of the eighth, was a classic Soto opposite-field shot.
Both provided encouraging evidence of an improved swing and timing at the plate.
“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,” manager Davey Martinez said. “Because if you watched him in the Home Run Derby, he didn’t try to pull a whole lot of balls. He hit a lot of balls to center field. He hit some to left-center. And that’s who he is.”
That concerted effort to drive the ball the other way stood out to Martinez, who believes it helped Soto get his timing in order. By starting his swing a split-second earlier than he had been, he could get out in front of the ball and hit it into the air instead of the ground.
“He’s being very aggressive in the strike zone and he’s staying on the ball,” the manager said. “He’s taking his hits ... to left field. And he’s getting balls up and he’s hammering them over there. When he’s doing that, he’s really, really good.”
Soto still has a long way to go to fully right his ship. He went into the All-Star break with a .445 slugging percentage that was nearly 100 points below his career average. One red-hot weekend later, he’s got that number up to .484, his OPS up to .899.
“It’s just kind of impressive, though, because I didn’t realize how quickly it was going to help me out,” he said. “To see those homers in this series, it was great for me.”
And great for the Nationals, who desperately need their biggest stars to lead the way as they attempt to climb out of a 43-49 hole with Kyle Schwarber, Yan Gomes, Stephen Strasburg, Joe Ross and others currently on the injured list.
“If we get him hot, that just changes everything,” right-hander Max Scherzer said. “When he’s hot, he can absolutely carry us. He changes the game in so many different ways, whether you pitch to him or not. When he goes, that makes our offense really go.”