In his rookie campaign in 2018, Juan Soto put together one of the all-time great seasons for a teenager in MLB history, finishing up with the most walks by a teenager (79), highest OPS (.392), the highest OPS+ (142), wOBA (.392), wRC+ (145), and on-base percentage (.406), the second-highest home run total (22, tied with Bryce Harper), third-highest average (.292) and slugging percentage (.517), and the fourth-highest RBI total (70).
So how will the Washington Nationals help the now-20-year-old outfielder avoid suffering a sophomore slump?
“First of all I was just talking about — breaking balls are at an all-time high in baseball,” Nats’ hitting coach Kevin Long told reporters this past weekend. “Fastballs aren’t being thrown. What we did learn from Juan Soto is what? He smashes fastballs. So I’m watching, and I see a game in Japan, ‘Oh, Juan Soto, there’s a breaking ball [BANG]!’ And then first thing he says, he goes, ‘Did you see that curveball I hit?’ I said, ‘Yeah, I saw it.’ He says, ‘I know what they’re going to try to do to me now, they’re going to try to throw me a lot of offspeed.’ So he’ll learn, he’s a quick learner. He gets it, but that’s one part of the game he knows we’re going to have to address, because they’re going to throw him a lot of offspeed stuff, and he’s going to be just fine. His mechanics are sound, and his approach is sound enough.”
Soto hit 14 of 25 doubles, 15 of his 22 home runs, and had a .386 AVG on fastballs in 2018, (with three more doubles and four home runs on sinkers), and hit three doubles and one of his home runs off a slider, but had just a .186 AVG on the breaking ball.
Though he’s aware of what opposing teams are likely to do to him, Soto said he doesn’t plan on changing that much up when he was asked what he’s taking away from 2018 and trying to improve on in 2019.
“I think, do my routine, and no change,” Soto told reporters, through a translator at the Nats’ Winterfest celebration. “If that worked, I got to keep going until I retire.”
Soto’s manager, Davey Martinez, talked about the fact that the outfielder won’t sneak up on anyone this season, but said he wasn’t worried about how his charge will adapt and adjust.
“He just — it’s so funny,” Martinez said, “because — perfect example: He goes to Japan, not knowing anything about it, and he’s hitting moonshots, so he just adapts, every day. I think he won’t change because his approach is simple. Stay in the middle of the field, and with two strikes just try to put the ball in play. He’s really good at it. I mean, I haven’t seen a 19-year-old player that can do that consistently, he does it every day.”
Soto wanted to play every day too, telling Martinez he didn’t need days off when asked, and, as mentioned above, he went to Japan too, continuing a long year of baseball that he finally wrapped up after that trip.
“Now, in the offseason, yeah, I get to rest now,” Soto said this past weekend. “In the season, no, now it’s my time to rest. I take a rest then I start working out again and getting ready for next year.”
What did he take away from his time in Japan?
“I saw a lot of new pitchers over there, different from here, how they move,” he explained.
“The pitches displayed, curveballs, are different from here.”
Will there be more pressure in his sophomore season, and is he comfortable with all the attention he received and will receive and the expectations that there will be going into 2019?
“Yeah, why not?” Soto asked rhetorically. “I like that. I like how they talk about me and it’s positive. I like all this stuff. I don’t think like that, I just keep being me and keep playing baseball.”
“He wants to be great,” Nationals’ third base coach Bobby Henley, who worked with Soto and the other outfielders last season, said on Sunday, while also at one point doing a spot-on impersonation of Soto digging in at the plate as he does after pitches.
“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.”
“He’s special,” Nats’ assistant hitting coach Joe Dillon added.
“Obviously he had a really good rookie campaign, and he’s got a chance to do some special things offensively as long as he stays healthy. He’s going to get better, he’s smart, and he’s super-talented.”
What will Soto do with a full season’s worth of at bats in 2019, as a 20-year-old? It’s going to be fun to watch and see...