December 5, 2022

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Soto staying positive during tough stretch

4 min read
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MIAMI — If you’ve turned on a Nats game in the past few days, you’ve probably been surprised: Juan Soto has gone 2-for-14 in his past four starts.

Soto went 0-for-4 for the second consecutive game in Monday night’s 8-2 series-opening loss to the Marlins at loanDepot park. He also did not walk for the second game in a row.

To be fair, it’s only May, and Soto was facing two stellar pitchers: Houston’s Justin Verlander on Sunday and Miami’s Sandy Alcantara on Monday. It was also Soto’s first time facing Verlander, who made his return to baseball this season after missing nearly two years recovering from Tommy John surgery.

The good news is that neither pitcher struck out Soto. The even better news: Swinging at more strikes is part of Soto’s plan.

Earlier this season, Soto was open about how he has changed his approach at the plate. Known for his patience, Soto started swinging at strikes. He wanted to be more confident and ensure that he was seeing the ball well and not swinging at pitches outside of the zone.

“I’ve been going back and forth with my timing and all that kind of stuff, but at the end of the day I’m seeing the pitches,” Soto said. “I’m seeing the pitches in the strike zone, and that’s why it got me like today. … [I] face a guy that didn’t throw me that many strikes and I keep swinging at it, and it wasn’t a good idea for me.”

It’s true: Soto hasn’t done well historically against pitchers like Alcantara, whose main whiff and putaway pitches are sliders (26.6% whiff rate, 16.3% putaway rate) and changeups (39.6% whiff rate, 38% putaway rate). Against pitchers with similar stuff to Alcantara, specifically Sixto Sánchez in 2020 and Dylan Floro in 2021 (according to BaseballSavant), Soto is just 1-for-8 with one strikeout and two walks (both intentional).

So it’s not because he’s striking out — Monday’s outing was further proof of that. All four of Soto’s at-bats resulted in batted outs: A popout on a four-seamer, two groundouts on sinkers (two-seam fastballs) and a flyout on a slider.

“[Alcantara’s] changeup was good,” manager Dave Martinez said. “He located his changeup really well. He gets ahead of hitters, he throws strikes, and he’s a good pitcher. He’s throwing strikes, you know, you can sit there, you can wait — it’s tough to hit one. It’s really tough to hit with two strikes. So you know, when guys throw strikes like that, you got to be aggressive.”

“He was having good pitches,” Soto said. “He was making his pitches in the right place, but sometimes he was missing the strike zone and we keep swinging at him. We just got to stay more calm and try to make swings to the good pitches. I think he’s got very good stuff, but he was a little off the strike zone today and we just helped him out.”

Could Soto be trying to do too much? Maybe. But that’s OK. He’s only in his fifth year in the Majors, and as accomplished as Soto is, it’s easy to forget that he’s only 23. He has plenty of time left to show off his prodigious power. Right now, Soto, like the entire Nationals organization, is focused on building. While the Nats are rebuilding their franchise, Soto is focused on further developing the skills that made him a superstar in the first place.

“It’s not that he’s not hitting so well right now,” Martinez said. “I think Juan just needs to relax a little bit, try not to do too much. And that’s the biggest thing, you know, I’ve seen him hit those balls the other way. He’s pulling a lot of balls. He’s coming off some pitches, he thinks — he just needs to relax and stay up the middle of the field.”

Soto’s chase rate entering Monday, 20.3%, ranks in the 90th percentile (18th) among qualifiers, while his walk rate (98th percentile), expected slugging (96th percentile) and barrel rate (91st percentile) are also among the league’s elite.

And Soto, like the rest of the Nats, remains positive. Martinez is confident in the team he’s managing. The club is in it for the long haul, as is Soto.

“It’s tough to lose every time,” Soto said. “But like I said, we’ve just got to forget about it, come back the next day. It’s not all about one game or one series. We got to fight the whole year. We’re gonna have [losses], but the good days are going to come.”

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