Washington Nationals’ manager Davey Martinez didn’t seem too concerned about now-20-year-old outfielder Juan Soto suffering through any sort of sophomore slump in 2019 after Soto’s breakthrough rookie campaign last summer.
Martinez talked at Winterfest in December about what he saw from Soto in the 116 games the left fielder played in 2018, over which he put up a .292/.406/.517 line with 25 doubles, 22 home runs, and 146 wRC+ in 494 plate appearances of a 3.7 fWAR campaign.
“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 was in Japan for the MLB Japan All-Star Series, and his hitting coach, Kevin Long, was watching closely as well.
Long was asked how he thought Soto would adjust now that opposing teams have a better knowledge of the way to attack him.
“First of all I was just talking about — breaking balls are at an all-time high in baseball,” Long said. “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.”
In an MLB Network Radio interview this past week, Long talked in more detail about Soto’s approach and discussed his expectations for the outfielder in 2019.
“I tell you what, I have high expectations for this kid only being 19, 20 years old,” Long said.
“I’ve been around long enough to know that when you control the strike zone and you swing at good pitches, for the most part you’re going to do well, and that’s what he does. Not only that, the mechanics of the swing, when I break it down, are almost flawless. He’s got limited movement. He’s into his legs, the kinetic link that everybody talks about, he’s got that. And then you talk about kind of his approach and what he’s trying to do, and it all kind of fits for success, so I don’t want to put numbers on it, but whatever you saw, I expect it to be very similar to that.”
Soto’s success was even more of a surprise considering that he only got the call to the big leagues when Howie Kendrick was injured and Victor Robles, the top prospect in the Nats’ organization coming into 2018, was unavailable after he suffered a hyperextended elbow four games into the season at Triple-A.
“He kind of caught us by surprise,” Long continued. “When we called him up we didn’t know what we were going to get, and I’ll be damned if he wasn’t one of the best hitters I’ve ever seen. Strike zone discipline, power to all fields, maturity, just the whole gamut, he had it.”
“We got Soto last year,” Martinez explained when he was asked this winter about Soto’s surprising run in the Nationals’ lineup.
“I sat with [GM Mike Rizzo] in the [manager’s] office, thinking we’ll play him against righties, give him days off, play him two or three times a week. I put him in the first game and never took him out. I had to beg him to take one day off. And he drove me nuts that one day, so I put him back in and never took him out again.”
Long said Soto definitely caught him by surprise too, but mostly because he hadn’t gotten a chance to see the outfielder last Spring.
“Most of the times when he came over we had a split squad, and unfortunately I didn’t get to see him, but I got to hear about him,” Long said. “So everybody was talking, ‘Juan Soto,’ ‘Juan Soto,’ I’m like, ‘Am I ever going to see this dude?’ And they’re like, ‘Well, he’s starting off at Low-A so you might not see him for a while,’ and lo and behold he played a week in Double-A and then we called him up.
“So, I had heard the noise, but I hadn’t seen the noise.”