If there was one overriding message Davey Martinez stressed throughout his first season on the bench as the Washington Nationals’ manager, it was about the importance of his hitters staying up the middle of the field.
“In big moments we’ve got to stay in the middle of the field,” Martinez told reporters in April.
“Nobody was trying to do too much,” he said after an early-season win over the Mets.
“They were all trying to stay in the middle of the field like we talked about, and they put good at bats together.”
“We typically hit the ball up the middle,” Martinez reiterated in May.
“When you’ve got runners on base, try to stay up the middle of the field, a lot of hits up the middle of the field, and just move the ball.”
“The days we have good at-bats we have hit the ball up the middle,” Martinez explained in a late June conversation with reporters.
When he spoke at the Winter Meetings, once his first year as the Nationals’ manager ended, he was asked if there were any drills that he’d have the team working on this Spring that will help with the approach he wants to see from his hitters.
“We saw a lot of it towards the end of last year, about guys spreading their legs out a little more, trying to put the ball in play and stay in the middle of the field,” Martinez said.
“It kind of worked. We’re going to do more of that stuff. Put guys in situations where there’s two-strike hitting, getting guys on third base, less than two outs, and continually work, and put in the forefront of their mind that this is what we’re going to do. A lot of times we get guys on third base; we can’t drive them in. We want to move the ball in those situations.”
Martinez said that last season he would he’d point to two of his hitters as examples of what he’d like to see in every hitters’ approach.
“I’ll tell you right now for me, we’ve got two guys right now, and we kind of used them as an example towards the end of the year,” he said when he was asked about players on the team who led by example.
“One was Anthony Rendon, who with two strikes used the middle of the field. And the other guy was a 19-year-old, was Soto. Soto would get to two strikes and spread his legs out, and all he wanted to do was make contact. He was just trying to put the ball in play. And we told some of our other players, just watch what they do. And they started doing it and started getting better at it.
“So these guys -- Juan is different, he really is. I’ve never seen a 19-year-old kid break down pitching and hitting and mechanics like he does. He’s a special kid. And Anthony is Anthony. I’ve always said this from the other side watching him play that he’s a really good player. Now that I’ve got to see him play every day, he’s one of the best players in baseball, he really is. Those two guys in the middle of our lineup and moving the ball around, and getting [Ryan Zimmerman] back, he’s a special hitter. When he’s healthy, last year his OPS was over 800. We’ve got to keep him healthy, he’s the kind of guy that uses the whole field.”
Assistant hitting coach Joe Dillon too talked about Soto when asked if it was surprising to have a 19-year-old (who’s 20 now) have the best two-strike approach at the plate.
“He’s a very unique individual, so no,” Dillon said. “He’s special. He’s got a chance to — 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, and he’s going to get better, he’s smart, and he’s super-talented. Looking back over —for me playing and coaching, probably Joe Mauer is the only other guy I’ve seen take at bats like [Soto] does, as far as plate discipline, and understanding what he’s doing and working his way through an at bat, and [Mauer] turned out to be pretty good.
“I saw Joe take his first professional at bat in Spring Training when he was 18, and very similar, made it look easy, which Juan has a tendency to do that.”
Dillon agreed with the Nationals’ skipper’s opinion that the other hitters can learn from just watching Soto.
“Yeah, I mean, everybody is always learning,” Dillon said.
“Juan makes a pretty visible adjustment physically in his stance, it’s all individually unique, but I think he rubbed off on maybe a guy like Trea [Turner]. You saw Trea towards the end of the year, he started kind of getting rid of the leg kick with two strikes, so maybe Juan rubbed off on him, and I think some of the guys watching him [said], ‘Man, this kid is having a lot of success doing this,’ and basically all he’s doing in simplifying, and that’s just something that Kevin [Long] and I talked to the guys about.”
Simplify, stay up the middle, watch Juan Soto’s two-strike approach. Got that Nats’ hitters?