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How Juan Soto plans to turn grounders into better production

Juan Soto spent this past weekend pounding balls into the ground. He wants that to change, and fast. (Norm Hall/Getty Images)

PHOENIX — Slump isn’t the right word. Juan Soto is still in the top percentiles for expected batting average, expected slugging percentage, strikeout rate, walk rate, chase rate and a handful of other advanced statistics. His underlying numbers are what you would expect for one of the best hitters on the planet.

But in the past week or so, Soto has confronted a rare problem: He can’t get the ball off the ground.

Again, maybe calling it a problem is too harsh. The results are from a very limited sample. It’s likely, given his knack for fast adjustments, Soto will nail down a fix soon. Here, though, are how his plate appearances ended across a full series at the Arizona Diamondbacks this past weekend: walk, groundout to third, strikeout, flyout to left, grounder up the middle, single on the ground, groundout to second, groundout up the middle (for a double play), walk, single on the ground, single on the ground, groundout to short, walk, groundout up the middle (for another double play), groundout to first.

That’s a lot of pounding the ball into the grass. And while Soto did mix in a few lined foul balls, this is part of a season-long trend. Through 72 batted balls entering Monday, his average launch angle was 1.7 degrees. It was 4.3 in 2020, when he won the National League batting title, and 12.5 the year before that. It is clear he needs a tweak.

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“We’ve been working on it,” Soto said Saturday, referring to himself and hitting coach Kevin Long. “We’re trying to put the ball in the air. We’re just trying to put the [bat] head out, put the barrel out to the ball and then see how far it can land.”

Soto wants to make contact just a tick earlier than he has been. That will help him elevate hard contact for line drives and, ideally, more home runs. He has just three this season, and the first two came the same night.

He is dealing with a timing issue that began after he returned from the injured list, where he spent 15 days with a strained left shoulder. Since he was activated May 4, the 22-year-old has 46 plate appearances and one extra-base hit (a homer to left-center at Yankee Stadium). When his timing is right — and for most of his young career, it has been — Soto lets the ball travel deep into the strike zone before making contact. His hands are so quick that, despite delaying his swing longer than most hitters, he can get his barrel behind the ball and shoot line drives and homers to the opposite field. It’s one of his greatest gifts at the plate, the most prominent being a supernatural feel for the strike zone.

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Yet he hasn’t found his true rhythm the past two weeks, leading him, Long and Manager Dave Martinez to deduce he has to swing a tad earlier. It could mean until his regular timing returns he pulls more hits than usual. The Nationals will take that if it puts more balls in the air. After a 3-0 win over the Diamondbacks on Sunday, their offense ranked 25th out of 30 teams at 3.94 runs per game.

“For me, it’s just being a bit earlier and hitting the ball, the contact point, just a little bit more out front,” Martinez said Sunday morning. “I don’t want him to get too out front, because he is seeing a lot of change-ups, a lot of breaking balls as well. So he’s definitely got to stay back.”

This is a matter of nanoseconds. Soto could start a weeks-long tear in his next at-bat. Any talk of a slump, or this deviation from his typical hitting profile, would feel silly. But Martinez sees a secondary concern in his current approach.

The manager explained this weekend Soto is letting a lot of early-count fastballs go by. He is an extremely selective hitter, often waiting for the perfect pitch. His first-pitch strike percentage is 55.3, according to FanGraphs, up from 49.5 in 2020. Soto has never been bothered by hitting with two strikes. He is also seeing a near-identical breakdown of fastballs and off-speed pitches. Yet Martinez believes that with some added aggression Soto could beat pitchers who are set on getting ahead, perhaps with more than scorched groundballs.

On Saturday, he hit a grounder 106.8 mph. On Sunday, he ripped another 108.5 mph, the hardest contact of the game. It is easy to imagine those balls being further separated from the earth. Soto’s past is filled with examples.