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Juan Soto set a record in last year’s Home Run Derby and is back for more

Juan Soto is on a hot streak as the all-star break nears. (Katherine Frey/The Washington Post)

After setting a Home Run Derby record with a 520-foot shot last summer, Juan Soto will participate in the event again, two people confirmed Monday night. The Washington Nationals star, 23, hit one of the most memorable homers of his career at Dodger Stadium, a game-tying blast against Clayton Kershaw in the eighth inning of Game 5 of the National League Division Series in 2019. He’ll need a lot more to compete with a field that will include two-time defending champion Pete Alonso of the New York Mets.

As he did a year ago, Soto will represent the Nationals in the All-Star Game on July 19 in Los Angeles. The derby is the night before. The right fielder has had an odd first half, often struggling with runners in scoring position. But he earned all-star and derby nods with 17 homers and an .870 on-base-plus-slugging percentage. That OPS is less a product of his power (.473 slugging percentage) than a majors-leading 73 walks (.398 on-base percentage). And if history repeats, the derby could help Soto’s numbers moving forward.

He smacked 46 homers during the derby at Denver’s Coors Field in 2021. He even beat Los Angeles Angels two-way star Shohei Ohtani before Alonso eliminated him in the semifinals. Yet heading into that event, Soto had just 11 homers and had grounded into 13 double plays. His slugging percentage was 28 points lower than it is at the moment. And much like the start to this season, that first half followed a frustrating pattern: missed opportunity, a flash of his usual dominance, a soft groundball to the right side, repeat.

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Then Soto joked that the derby might help his swing. Then it did, according to him and hitting coach Kevin Long, who drilled Soto in the days leading up to the competition. They raised Soto’s launch angle a tad. In the batting cage, Long had him aim for where the back net met the top of it. Typically, Soto would have shot straight for the screen, following a years-long promise to pound line drives like a robot. But the change in swing path worked.

After the all-star break, Soto logged 18 homers and a batting average of .348, an on-base percentage of .525 and a slugging percentage of .639. Asked in late September whether the derby was the cause — or if he and Long were keeping up a bit for the sake of it — Soto said, “I really do believe it made a difference.”

This time around, also similar to last year, Soto is rolling ahead of the break. In his past 15 games, his slash line is .409/.567/.705. He homered in back-to-back games in Atlanta over the weekend. If the derby leads to another spike in production, he and the Nationals will take it. Meanwhile, with Long now the hitting coach for the Philadelphia Phillies, Soto has to decide who will throw to him.

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