Why Soto might be on verge of postseason breakout
SAN DIEGO -- The Padres have advanced deeper into the postseason than all but two teams in franchise history. They have done so with nary a home run from Juan Soto.
That’s quite a contrast from Soto’s first foray into the spotlight of October baseball. As the 2019 postseason straddled his 21st birthday, Soto drilled five homers and slugged .554 in leading the underdog Nationals to a World Series championship.
Fast forward three years, and Soto is in a postseason of another kind. He’s no longer the precocious kid surrounded by a veteran lineup. He’s a centerpiece of the Padres’ championship strategy, brought in to ease the burden on Manny Machado and produce when the pressure is at its greatest.
When the Padres landed in Philadelphia on Thursday, nine games into their 2022 postseason and deadlocked with the Phillies 1-1 in the NLCS, Soto carried a slash line of .222/.282/.278 with four RBIs and two extra-base hits (both doubles).
Is the weight of expectations taking a toll? Is Soto feeling the pressure to deliver after the Padres packaged six prized prospects for him at the Trade Deadline 2 1/2 months ago?
To the contrary, say those who know him best.
“I think he’s the type of person who thrives in these moments, who wants these moments, who wants the attention on him,” said Padres pitcher Joe Musgrove. “He’s produced and earned that right. He’s a guy who wants that moment more than a guy who shies away from it. …
“You get a consistent personality, consistent energy from him. Whether he’s doing well or poor, I think, he knows what he brings to the table.”
Added first baseman Josh Bell, who played alongside Soto in Washington before joining him in the August trade to San Diego: “I’ve watched his routine every day, and it doesn’t change. If he’s 5-for-5 or 0-for-5, it’s the same mentality. … The preparation’s there. Baseball’s tough sometimes. As long as he keeps those eyes and doesn’t chase out of the zone, he’s a Hall of Famer up there. It’s fun to watch.”
Certainly, we’ve seen more of the Soto Shuffle than his home run trot in the 2022 playoffs. Soto’s strikeout rate is down from his 2019 blitz through October -- 20% now vs. 28% then.
The advanced metrics make the case that Soto’s slash line doesn’t fully tell his tale this postseason. He has a 62.1% hard-hit rate (95 mph or harder). That ranks fifth among all MLB players with at least 10 batted balls in play this postseason, just behind the current postseason darling, Yordan Alvarez (64.3%) and five spots ahead of Machado (56.5%).
Further evidence: Of 42 hitters with at least 20 plate appearances this postseason, Soto is third with a .324 expected batting average (based on quality of contact) but tied for 20th in actual batting at .222. That 102-point gap is the second biggest among that group.
“It feels great,” Soto said of his swing. “I just go little by little and try to help my team as much as I can. Just hope it’s in the right spot.”
Soto found the right spot once Wednesday in the Padres’ 8-5 victory in Game 2 against the Phillies in San Diego. He hit the ball harder than 100 mph three times. His hardest-hit ball -- the hardest by any batter in the game, 113.6 mph -- produced a groundout into the shift. But Soto was in the middle of the Padres’ five-run rally in the fifth inning, bringing home the tying run on a double to the right-field corner off Aaron Nola at 105.7 mph.
That was Soto’s seventh career postseason hit that either tied a game or put his team ahead.
“You just try your best, just try to do damage any way you can,” Soto said. “It can be one at-bat, it can be the next at-bat. You just never know what it will be.”
If the results start to match the metrics any time soon, that damage will come at Citizens Bank Park, where Games 3-5 will be played Friday-Sunday. Soto has 12 homers there, more than any other road venue and the most of any Phillies opponent since he reached the big leagues in 2018.
“I know the crowd’s pretty loud, pretty wild. So I’m expecting all that,” Soto said.
Ah, expectations. It’s certain Phillies fans will live up to Soto’s expectations as they see their first NLCS home games since 2010. They also might see Soto live up to his.
“Diving plays, crashing into fences, crushing balls, drawing walks -- huge, huge, clutch at-bats,” Bell said. “I don’t know if he hasn’t shown everything yet. But I would say to the fans to expect more out of him.”