As he did a year ago, Soto will represent the Nationals at the All-Star Game on July 19 in Los Angeles. The derby is the day before. The right fielder had a weird first half, often struggling with runners in scoring position. But he earned All-Star and Derby nominations with 17 homers and an .870 on-base plus slugging percentage. That OPS is less a product of his power (0.473 hitting percentage) than 73 steps leading the majors (0.398 on-base percentage). And if history repeats itself, the derby could boost Soto’s numbers.
He hit 46 homers in the derby at Denver’s Coors Field in 2021. He even beat Los Angeles Angels two-way star Shohei Ohtani before Alonso knocked him out in the semifinals. Yet, prior to this event, Soto had only 11 homers and 13 double plays. His slugging percentage was 28 points lower than it is now. And just like the start of this season, this first half followed a frustrating pattern: missed opportunity, a flash of his usual dominance, a soft ground ball down the right side, repetition.
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Then Soto joked that the derby could help his swing. Then he did, according to him and batting coach Kevin Long, who drilled Soto in the days leading up to the competition. They increased Soto’s launch angle slightly. In the batting cage, Long instructed him to aim for where the backnet met the top. Typically, Soto would have shot straight at the screen, after a years-long promise to pound line readers like a robot. But the change in swing path worked.
After the All-Star break, Soto recorded 18 home runs and a .348 batting average, .525 on-base percentage and .639 hitting percentage. When asked in late September if the derby was the cause – or if he and Long were following a bit for fun – Soto replied: “I really believe it made a difference.”
This time around, also similar to last year, Soto is ahead of the break. In his last 15 games, his slant line is 0.409/0.567/0.705. He homered in consecutive games at Atlanta this weekend. If the derby leads to another peak in production, he and the Nationals will take it. Meanwhile, with Long now the Philadelphia Phillies batting coach, Soto must decide who will pitch to him.