DENVER -- A record-setting 520-foot blast, a one-minute tiebreaker and a three-swing swing-off. Juan Soto’s first Home Run Derby did not disappoint.
The 22-year-old left fielder entered the competition as the No. 8 seed with 11 home runs in 2021, the underdog for the first time in his young career. He was paired against the No. 1-seeded, two-way, power-hitting pitcher Shohei Ohtani of the Angels, who also happened to be the Major League leader in homers at the break (33).
“For me, my strategy is going to be just have fun, try to hit the balls as hard as I can and hit it far,” Soto said Monday afternoon. “I think it’s just going to be a great moment and try to have fun with it.”
Soto didn’t get off to a rapid start, but he picked up steam as the first round progressed. During this time, Soto pummeled the longest Home Run Derby homer tracked by Statcast at 520 feet. (Earlier in the evening, Trevor Story rocked a shot 518 feet.) He averaged 448 feet and an exit velocity of 106 mph in the opening round.
Entering the 2021 contest, the longest Derby home run recorded by Statcast was 513 feet, by Aaron Judge at Marlins Park in 2017. Prior to Statcast (which has been measuring Derby home runs since 2016), the longest Derby blast is believed to be an estimated 524-foot shot by Sammy Sosa at Miller Park in 2002.
Ohtani also got off to a slow pace, sending grounders down the right-field line. But the American League All-Star starting pitcher gained traction and tied Soto’s 22 dingers.
A one-minute tiebreaker ensued, and neither batter wanted their evening to end there. Both rocked six homers to extend the matchup.
Round 1 was settled by a three-swing swing-off, where Soto blasted a trio of home runs with authority to advance to Round 2 to face National League East rival and eventual Derby champion Pete Alonso, who crushed 35 homers in the opening round.
In spite of his jaw-dropping homer-hitting success at Citi Field, Soto was topped by the Mets first baseman in Round 2. Soto crushed 15 homers, his longest traveling 481 feet and his hardest hit having a 112 mph exit velocity. Alonso advanced to the finals by reaching 16.
Soto finished with a total of 46 dingers, including 10 belted 475 feet and beyond. He tallied a total of 20,581 feet worth of homers, and he averaged a 105.0 mph exit velocity on the night.
Although he had won the World Series in his age-20 season, Soto had never competed in a Home Run Derby before on any level. His advice from teammate Kyle Schwarber, who finished second in the epic 2018 showdown against Bryce Harper at Nationals Park: keep your momentum and don’t call a timeout when you’re on a streak.
Soto picked Nationals hitting coach Kevin Long as his pitcher in a unique lefty-lefty pairing, noting that Long throws him the ball where he wants it during batting practice throughout the season. Teammate Trea Turner thought it was a great combination.
“It doesn’t matter as long as you’re used to the guy that’s throwing,” Turner said.
Players around baseball were looking forward to the matchup, including Padres shortstop Fernando Tatis Jr., who declared, “It’s going to be a great match.”
Phillies catcher J.T. Realmuto, with whom Soto chats during all of his at-bats against the Phillies, gave the nod to his fellow NL East competitor.
“[Soto] was my sneaky sleeper pick,” Realmuto said. “I said Ohtani’s probably a favorite, but I’ve got Juan. He’s fun to watch, so I’m excited to be watching him. … I’ve seen it so much. Playing against him for so long, having him hit so many homers against us, I’ve seen the power he has to all sides of the field. He’s just such a pure, elite hitter, so it’s hard to bet against him.”
Soto hopes the competition will help him establish momentum for the second half of the season, which he tried to pick up on the Nationals’ recent West Coast trip. He hit home runs in back-to-back games last Tuesday and Wednesday before heading into the break.
“It might mess with the swing of all the guys that are locked in, but I think it’s going to fix mine because I’m hitting too many ground balls,” Soto said last week. “I hope it fixes my swing trying to put the ball in the air. That’s what we’ve been trying the whole year, so I hope it fixes mine.”