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Juan Soto’s second-year adjustment means fewer fastballs

April 17, 2019

The Washington Nationals knew the rest of baseball would adapt.

Last year, outfielder Juan Soto had one of the best seasons from a teen hitter in baseball history. As a result, Max Scherzer said before the season that the “bullseye is going to be bigger on his back.” Pitchers, he said, would try to find his weaknesses. Others echoed the same.

Well, in nearly three weeks since Opening Day, Major League Baseball has adapted to Soto. And now, he’s trying to readjust.

Entering Tuesday’s game against the San Francisco Giants, Soto is seeing fewer fastballs in his second year. In fact, opposing pitchers have only thrown a fastball 43.8 percent of the time toward Soto the lowest in MLB among batters who have taken at least 200 pitches.

In 2018, Soto crushed fastballs. He saw them 52.9 percent of the time and hit .350 off them, according to MLB’s Sarah Lang. On all other pitches, he hit just .225.

This season, Soto has improved against off-speed and breaking pitches he’s hitting .242 against those but his overall numbers are down. He’s hitting just .250/.371/.442, down from the .292/.406/.517 he hit in 2018.

“He’s a very smart young hitter,” Nationals manager Dave Martinez said. “The biggest thing for him is not to chase. He knows the strike zone really well. And he’s just got to be a little more patient. ... The biggest thing for him is to take his walks.”

Martinez isn’t worried about Soto, who has two home runs this season. On Tuesday, the Nationals began a stretch in which they’ll have 26 games over the next 27 days. Martinez said the daily repetition will allow for Soto to start making his adjustments.

As for taking walks, Soto’s walk percentage is relatively the same. He was walked 16 percent of the time in 2018, and that number is at 16.1 percent this season.

So what’s the biggest difference in Soto’s game? His strikeout percentage. Soto is striking out 27.4 percent of the time up from his 20 percent a year ago. The league average, according to Baseball Reference, is 23.6 percent.

Further, of Soto’s 17 strikeouts, 11 of those have come off breaking and off-speed pitches. Soto, though, impressed last year because of his discipline at the plate. Asked when he realized that Soto’s success wasn’t going to be a fluke, Scherzer recalled an instance in which the Nationals’ coaching staff kept raving about Soto’s swing mechanics.

“They thought he had a repeatable swing and can continue to keep his bat in the zone for so long,” Scherzer said last month. “That’s what they try for every hitter to do and they were going on ... about how he was able to do that.”

Veteran first baseman Ryan Zimmerman said what Soto is going through now is a “normal progression for a good young player.”

Zimmerman noted that pitchers often see if hitters can hit a fastball first.

“If you can’t hit a fastball it’s obviously the easiest pitch to throw for a strike,” Zimmerman said. “Obviously, he showed he can hit the fastball. And now, he’ll make an adjustment and move forward with that.”