Beware, pitchers: Soto's 'timing is right on point'

March 18th, 2023

PEORIA, Ariz. -- Bob Melvin has been around the game for four decades, been a big league manager for two. He knows the little cues to look for in a hitter, the ones that tell you when a player is truly locked in at the plate. You know, like ...

"When you're taking a left-hander just left of the batting eye, 40 rows up, it means obviously swing's on time," Melvin said with a wide grin.

And that's more or less what did Wednesday night at the World Baseball Classic, demolishing a Jovani Moran fastball 448 feet at loanDepot Park in the Dominican Republic’s loss to Puerto Rico.

Soto returned to the Padres clubhouse Friday afternoon, following a cross-country flight in the aftermath of Team D.R.’s disappointing pool-play exit. However it ended, Soto had himself quite a tournament, hitting .400 with a pair of home runs and a 1.500 OPS.

Put those numbers on top of his .727 average in the Cactus League, and it certainly looks like the beginnings of a monster season for Soto.

"Definitely, I feel great," Soto said. "I feel like my timing is right on point. You've just got to keep grinding."

It'd be unfair to say that Soto is looking to "bounce back" from his 2022 campaign, considering the raw numbers he posted last year. He was worth 5.6 WAR and reached base at a .401 clip. Still, by his (incredibly lofty) standards it really was something of a down year.

By mid-March, those “struggles” already feel like ancient history.

Soto is pulverizing baseballs left and right. He's shuffling in the box, working counts with swagger and swinging with intent to do damage -- the version of Soto that racked up top-5 MVP finishes in 2020 and '21.

"It's way different, the way I'm seeing the ball now," Soto said. "Right now, I'm feeling like 2020 Spring Training, and it's a great feeling, just amazing how I'm seeing the ball."

National League, beware.

Soto, of course, dealt with quite a bit of turmoil in 2022. First, he endured an uncertain contract situation in Washington, having reportedly turned down a mammoth extension. Then came the trade rumors and an eventual deal sending him to the Padres.

Upon his arrival in San Diego, Soto never quite reached the heights of 2019-21 in Washington -- though he showed flashes in the playoffs, tallying critical hits in all three postseason series.

Many in the organization have touted the benefits of a settled offseason for Soto, allowing him to feel at home in his new home clubhouse with his teammates. Soto, meanwhile, says it's less about comfort, and more about a few tweaks he needed to make in the box.

"Mechanically, I was off last year, the whole year," Soto said. "I tried to find my mechanics, but I think I really found it again."

Soto is still receiving treatment on the ailing left calf that bothered him early this spring. But it clearly didn’t affect him at the Classic, and he noted, “It feels great right now.”

In three of the Dominican Republic’s four games, Soto batted leadoff -- though Melvin noted it’s unlikely he would do so for the Padres. That responsibility would presumably fall to either Fernando Tatis Jr. or Xander Bogaerts, with Manny Machado sitting behind Soto in the lineup.

That’s another aspect of Soto’s 2023 outlook worth delving into. He’s going to have plenty of protection in the San Diego lineup. Want to pitch around Soto? He’s already proven he’ll take his walks. And there’s nothing wrong with simply reaching base for the middle of a Padres lineup that ranks among the most fearsome in baseball.

On Saturday, Soto is scheduled to return to that lineup, joined by fellow Dominican Republic teammates Machado and Nelson Cruz. It’s sooner than he’d have liked to be back in Arizona. But on Friday, Soto spoke only about how grateful he was for the experience of playing at his first World Baseball Classic -- the first of many, he hopes.

“It’s a great feeling to see all those flags and all those Dominican people cheering for me, the whole country expecting the team to win,” Soto said. “It was just an incredible experience. … Looking forward to keep doing it.”