Juan Soto is chasing more pitches for Nationals so far this season

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In Juan Soto’s first at-bat of the Washington Nationals’ 8-3 victory over the New York Mets on Wednesday night at Nationals Park, he did something uncharacteristic. He swung at a 97-mph fastball from Tylor Megill that was out of the strike zone while he was ahead in the count. He stared up at the sky and pumped his right fist in frustration after giving a pitch away.

“I swung at a ball,” Soto said. “There’s nothing I can do if I swung at a ball. I just tried to calm down and try to look in the middle of the strike zone and do damage. ”

On the next pitch, he jumped back into character when he launched a 411-foot blast into the right field seats for his first home run of the season with a man on base.

Soto finished 1 for 4 and so far hasn’t put up his typical, eye-popping numbers, though the sample size is just 32 games. He’s tied for fifth on the team with 10 RBI and is hitting only .256, though batting average isn’t the best indicator of success at the plate.

“At the end of the day, any way I’m helping the team,” Soto said. “For me, it’s kind of tough, because you want to help the team as much as you can. But it’s part of being a [No. 2] hitter. I just keep battling, keep doing my thing. ”

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He’s still above average in a number of advanced statistics, including on-base-plus-slugging percentage plus (his 158 is well above the MLB average of 100) and weighted runs created plus (148), which measures runs created while accounting for ballpark and era. But his pitch selection could be a reason his numbers haven’t been as high as expected.

“I think he is expanding [the strike zone] a lot more than he typically does, ”Manager Dave Martinez said. “I think it comes from a little bit of – he wants to drive in the runs when they’re out there. But he just needs to be him, and we always talk about it. I always talk to him about how he’s a really good hitter when he takes his walks. ”

Soto has certainly taken his walks this season; he leads the majors with 25. But he also has chased more than in past years as pitchers haven’t given him as many strikes to swing at.

Only 36.3 percent of the pitches he has seen in 2022 have been in the zone, the lowest percentage of his career. Last season, that figure was 41.6 percent, and for his career it’s 40.3 percent.

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Since he’s seeing fewer strikes, Soto might be inclined to chase more pitches. Last year, he had an impressive 15.1 percent chase percentage, but that number has jumped to 22.6 percent this year. That isn’t bad by any means; it’s still good enough to rank 16th in the majors. But it’s Soto’s highest since 2019. His career chase percentage is 20.4 percent – about 10 percentage points lower than the MLB average.

He said after Wednesday’s game that he’s used to not getting a ton of pitches to hit but also feels pitchers have been attacking the zone more than in years past.

“It’s been different,” he said. “For me, they really have been pounding the strikes against me. I’m trying to hit the ball, and sometimes it’s going to be my way [and] sometimes it’s going to be their way. ”

Soto has been connecting on fewer strikes this year – his 83.7 contact percentage on pitches in the zone is the lowest of his career. (His career average is 87 percent.)

But it’s still early for him and the rest of the team as the Nationals try to find their rhythm. Martinez said the competitive nature of this group has made players, including Soto, press too much at the plate and try to play outside of themselves. Martinez said he’s “100 percent” certain Soto’s chase rate will drop as the season goes on. Designated hitter Nelson Cruz said better results will come as long as Soto keeps being himself.

“At the end of the day, it’s against him most of the time,” Cruz said. “You just have to stay positive, keep your head up and just be himself.”

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