At one point in his interview at Winterfest, Washington Nationals’ third base coach Bobby Henley started doing the Juan Soto in-between pitches shuffle step, kicking the carpet in Nationals Park’s Taft Room like he was Soto in the batter’s box eyeing up the pitcher, staring at the mound and waiting for something to crush.
Henley is an excitable dude. He’s hard to contain. Questions are answered as thoroughly as possible, with twists and turns, humor and sincerity.
Like when he was asked about Soto, the now-20-year-old outfielder, Henley, who works with all the outfielders in addition to coaching third, was tasked with mentoring and molding after Soto was called up as a 19-year-old last May.
Henley was asked what he and the runner-up for the NL Rookie of the Year need to work on as Soto improves defensively.
Take a deep breath...
“Last year, coming from the minor leagues, [Soto] has a routine that he’s doing with Gary Thurman,” Henley said, referring to the organization’s outfield and baserunning coordinator.
“Gary’s great. And coming up through the minor leagues, he flew through, he’s such a young kid, he flew through, but he had a pretty good base to him, but with that — the greatest thing about a routine for a minor leaguer coming to the big leagues is that it doesn’t change. You don’t change a kid’s routine. The stadium is going to change, you go from playing in front of 8,000 to 40,000, and then the cities are bigger, the hotels are completely different, you’re on two or three buses at a time instead of just the one with everybody piled on, everything is changing, but the routine does not change. One thing I wanted to make sure with Juan when we talked together was, ‘Let’s keep him in his routine,’ but make sure we go out early before all the BP and there’s a lot more — everything starts becoming BP and stretching and all this, let’s come out early in the day at 2:00 when we have the field, look at the left field line, how the wall plays, the grass, talking about the team, you know, we talk about the roster and how we’re going to play as far as we’re going to play three steps off of pull, or six steps off of pull, or two strikes we’re going to cheat in about three steps and making sure he understood where straight-up would be at this particular field and in-game type things before the game started that I wanted to give him that he could utilize within that game and within that series as opposed to saying here’s the proper way to catch a ground ball or fly, he’s got that.
“And so any time that we would have a new series, we would go over the team, we would go over the field, we would go early and hit fungos straight at him and hit balls off the wall so he could see how they would carom off the wall, to prepare him for that series, for the team we’re playing as far as their personnel, as well as the stadium, and then once he starts playing and you get an opportunity to watch what his strengths and weaknesses are, where he’s at, even though you hear it from Gary, but you get to watch it and let him play, then you go, ‘Okay, let’s make sure we put enough emphasis on his first step. Let’s make sure we’ve got him one or two steps back with the wall,’ and make sure he’s comfortable with that, and easing him into situations, because I think as games go and as determined as he is to be the best baseball player that he can possibly be, offensively, defensively, baserunning, he takes such pride in being — he wants to be a great baseball player, not just a hitter.
“He wants to be a great baserunner. If he makes a mistake, — we had one in Atlanta, I remember we had one in Atlanta where he was at second — I think it may have been, I think it may have been nobody out, and there was a pop-up — when he first came up, maybe a week or so — when he first came up, and it was to right-center, and [Ender] Inciarte can really cover ground — Enciarte goes and he catches that ball, and Juan was off the base where he couldn’t get back in enough time to tag. It upset him. Bad. And of course we ended up hitting a sac fly later ... but he knew, ‘Man, I should have went back to that bag in a nobody out situation,’ of course, we talked about it because we had a day off, I think it was a Sunday, and we had a day off the next day, and then we’re back in D.C. Didn’t talk to him on the plane about it, we went out there and we did our normal thing in our pregame early in the day, and so he comes to me and he says, ‘Hey, Bob, in that situation — ...’
“And you know what I did was I told him, I said, ‘It’s completely my fault, Juan. That situation the other day is my fault.’ And I said, in that situation, ‘Here’s what I want to do, we’re going to have hand signals in a nobody out situation that I remind you where to be,’ because I need to get better with Juan and knowing where he’s at, and of course in those situations now we’ve got hand signals as far as hey what you’re doing and reminders for him because he was a kid still, playing with the best players on the planet, that in certain situations I’m going to be there with you at second base with hand signals making sure that we’re checking that we’re in the right spots. And I think trying to make sure that he didn’t come down on himself like boy he really let the team down, because he’s playing so unbelievable that I’m like, ‘Juan don’t worry about that. It happens. It happens if you’re a veteran it happens,’ so that’s on me there. I need to better. We all need to be better, we’re in it together here. ‘Don’t make more of it than there is,’ because it was bothering him.
“That’s who he is. He wants to be great. And if he makes a mistake, it really is rare for him to do it again immediately after. He takes information, he makes an adjustment, and moves on, but I think the biggest thing is probably games played. Him going out there staying with his routine, continuing to work on his first step, continuing to work around the wall, continuing to make this throws with accuracy, and throwing to the right base. A lot of the stuff is going to come with games played and experience.
“And he’s such a young, amazing talent out there, and as much as he wants to be the best player in the world, the intangibles, the work ethic that he has, he puts in the work as far as looking at video and whatnot, trying to be better and watching pitchers, but he’s even a better kid, it seems like a better person than he is a player, and that’s hard to be.
“But I could talk about him all day long, he is amazing.”
Having worked with Soto all year, and briefly with Victor Robles when the Nationals’ top outfield prospect came up in September, does Henley have any concerns about having two-thirds of the outfield comprised of 20, in Soto’s case, and 21-year-old outfielders, or does that excite the Nats’ coach, who has been part of the coaching staff since Matt Williams’ first year on the bench in 2014, sticking around through the Dusty Baker years, and staying to be a part of Dave Martinez’s staff.
“I think it’s exciting is probably the word I would put,” Henley said. “You watch those guys run around out there and play and run bases and they can play a little bit. I think it’s more exciting for me. I think the challenge would be making sure that you give them the information that they need to perform that night and in the series and a foundation for the course of the year that we abide by, but you still allow them the opportunity to play the game, to where you’re not giving them so much information that all of a sudden they’re locking up to play.
“Because they need to have freedom to play. And Juan Soto,” [and it was at this point that Henley started to reenact Soto’s shuffle steps towards the mound], “he’s got to have some freedoms to him, you know, so it’s kind of, ‘Hey, Juan,’ you need to do a little bit of that,’ Juan Soto needs to be right here kind of — that’s Juan. So freeing him up and making sure he’s in a good spot mentally to go have success, because he can flat out play, and he’s a hard worker and I think it’s going to be a fun year watching all these kids.”
Henley also said that he thought having the entire coaching staff return would help since a lot of the work of getting to know one another is now out of the way.
“I just think you have an opportunity — now you know each other, it’s kind of like brothers, now you get a chance to — you understand the game, but I think there’s things within the game that — the viewpoints and where guys stand and certain elements of the game how [Bench Coach] Chip [Hale] views something or how [First Base coach Tim Bogar] views something and aggressiveness in certain situations or things that we’ve got to be better here and this and that, and you kind of get to learn the strengths and weaknesses, everybody has strengths and weaknesses whether it’s players or coaches, just people, and I think you get to learn the strengths of everyone and they get to learn your strengths and you feed off of each other that way and share information and you check on each other, as far as their families, you get to know who their children are and their wives and then what’s going on whether it’s something great happening like Chip’s son getting married or something that may happen that wasn’t great, and you make sure you call them and check on them and see how they’re doing and lift them up.
“So I would say it’s more like a family now, because you’ve had a chance to be in the trenches together and spend time together and share ideas and through the good and the bad, it’s been a good thing bonding and it’s just been good. That’s probably the difference between starting now and last year is really not knowing how they view things or who they are as people. So that’s probably the biggest thing, so I think it’s a good thing.”
Martinez, asked what will be different the second time around, said that especially in Spring Training there will be a focus on fundamentals, and doing the little things right.
“We’re going to do the little things,” Martinez explained. “As you know, guys want to hit, hit, hit, hit, hit. There’s going to be days where they’re not going to bring the bats out. We’re just going to work on fundamentals. They don’t need to hit that much, we hit a lot, they hit a lot, and they’re going to hit a lot. But there’s going to be days where we just work on defense, going to be days that we work on baserunning, and just do the little things. Bunting. We need to get better at all that stuff. And the pitchers are going to be more involved in that too. Bunting, the hand on the bat, running the bases, because it can help. I talked to some of the pitchers about that, and they’re all jacked up about that, so it will definitely be fun, but we’re going to work on the little things.”
Henley’s ideas of what “little things” need to be addressed?
“I know baserunning is one we want to improve,” Henley said. “From like, the other day, [Hitting Coach] Kevin [Long] was talking — and of course anything that has to do with offense they’ll ask Kevin about the hitting you know, and he’ll start talking about the hitting, two-strike hitting and getting runners in from third and setting the table and driving them in and all that comes with it, but baserunning is part of offense too, something that might be considered a little thing like a ball in the dirt is not when you’re standing on third and you were just at second with one out, now a ground ball to short you score, a pop-up you score and you wouldn’t have if you were at second base. It kind of looks like it’s a little thing, but in a one-run game, if Max [Scherzer] or anyone is pitching, it’s a big deal.
“Or making sure as a pitching staff we get our bunts down, that’s another one for me. I’m always throwing to the guys and it’s not that they don’t want to get them down, it’s just not easy to do. It’s not easy. Winning is not easy. And they want to get their bunts down, we work on it a lot, but we want to be better at it to where we’re like automatic, we’re going to get that bunt down and we take a lot of pride in the Spring in doing that. We always work on that, we want to be better at it.
“As far as in outfield, we’re going to have some youth, we want to make sure we’re in the right position as far as how we’re defensing their team and throwing to the right base, keeping the double play in order instead of trying to get the lead runner when it’s a situation we don’t need to get the lead runner, just make sure we throw to the right base, it’s something that could get overlooked instead it’s somebody that really understands the game like you guys and us, you go, ‘Wow, it really would have been good to throw that ball to second base there.’ Whether that’s communicating more at the top step, going, ‘This ball is going to second,’ but having a lot of conversations about it so we’re all on the same page.”
“There’s so much preparation,” Henley added, “... there’s so much information that you get, making sure we’re continuing to take the information and giving it to the players to where they can receive it the best way possible.
“Things like that, baserunning, throwing to the right base, turning the double play, getting that first but not that second [out], it’s a big deal when you get both, but like my daddy said when I was growing up, ‘Got to get the meat before the gravy,’ well we need meat and gravy sometimes, when that ground ball’s hit we need the meat and we need the gravy, we need both, so — I think all my father’s references were around food, but things like that.”