Juan Soto is back (and back in D.C.)

May 23rd, 2023

The last time played at Nationals Park, he was less than two weeks removed from being a member of the home dugout. After an Aug. 2, 2022, trade sent Soto from the Nationals to the Padres, San Diego played a three-game set in D.C. from Aug. 12-14.

By the end of that series, Soto had played more road games in a Padres uniform than he had home games. It was all still pretty new.

Now, he’s participated in a postseason run with the club and will play his 100th regular-season game with San Diego on Tuesday night at Nationals Park.

After a slower start to the 2023 season, with a .178/.339/.344 slash line in his first 26 games, Soto has looked much more like himself lately -- the player Nationals fans saw for the first four-plus years of his career.

Over his last 21 games, Soto is at .333/.468/.627. That on-base percentage is second in the Majors in that span, the slugging is seventh and batting average is 11th. His 198 wRC+ in that span ranks fourth, behind Yandy Díaz (231), Luis Robert (216) and Lourdes Gurriel Jr. (207).

That’s more like it. Here’s why Soto is back and why the turnaround is built to last.

What’s changed

Soto, who has always been as good at evaluating his hitting as he is at hitting itself, has spoken the last two years about wanting to elevate the ball. In 2021, he participated in the Home Run Derby to help his swing.

“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 leading up to that Derby. “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.”

In 2022, he returned, with the same goal in mind: “I mean, for me, it worked last year.” And he won the event.

This year, he’s started putting the ball in the air decisively, even before that fun swing-fixing session on a national stage. In his first 26 games, 34.4% of his batted balls were fly balls and line drives. Since then, it’s been 42.4%. Why does that contact matter? Well, Soto is hitting .522 and slugging 1.239 on fly balls and line drives. That’s contact worth making.

Put another way, Soto’s sweet-spot rate -- the percentage of batted balls in the 8-32 degree launch angle range -- was just 18% in those first 26 games. It’s 32.2% since. Sweet-spot batted balls are an even more precise look at ideal in-the-air contact, focusing on that specific range. Soto is hitting .767 and slugging 1.833 on sweet-spot batted balls in ‘23, so increasing how often he’s doing that is certainly helping.

What hasn’t changed – because it didn’t need to

The underlying component of Soto’s game, which is part of why his 2023 projections were so strong, is his notorious plate discipline. The other key part, which perhaps isn’t as frequently noted, is how consistently he hits the ball hard.

Throughout the slower start and since, Soto has been Soto, in terms of strike-zone awareness. No player in baseball has a lower swing rate than his 35.2%, with a minimum of 600 pitches seen. And among those to see at least 350 out-of-zone pitches, only LaMonte Wade Jr. (15.5%) has a lower chase rate than Soto’s 15.7%.

Soto’s swings are measured and picked wisely. And when he takes them, he generates hard contact. His 57.5% hard-hit rate is another mark like his chase and swing rates that has remained steady throughout the year. That’s second in MLB among players with at least 100 batted balls.

What’s next?

The swings were well-chosen, the contact was powerful -- the missing piece was getting the ball in the air and to the proper part of the field. Over the last three-plus weeks, Soto has looked a lot more like the hitter whose early career has drawn Hall of Fame comparisons.

As the Padres work to climb in the NL West standings, perhaps a visit to D.C. with a successful Soto in tow can be a chance to take inspiration from the 2019 Nats’ famed climb from 19-31 to World Series champions.