Davey Martinez guided Juan Soto through the then-19-year-old outfielder’s rookie campaign last summer, which ended up being one of the best seasons by a teenager in MLB history. It was the manager’s first year on the bench in Washington, D.C., and Soto’s first exposure at a level higher than Double-A.
Martinez was asked earlier this Spring how he would manage expectations for Soto to keep the pressure of reproducing the results he did last season (.292/.406/.517 line, 25 doubles, 22 home runs, 79 walks, 99 Ks, and 146 wRC+ in a 3.7 fWAR campaign) to a minimum in the second big league season of his career.
“To me it’s just keeping him grounded, one, and get him to understand — the biggest thing for me is not to try to do more,” Martinez said, “and just go out there and like I said, he’s really good at taking his walks, and just playing the game. I want him to continue to have fun and just play the game. I told him, I said, don’t put any numbers in your head, just go out there and have fun like you did last year and just play the game.”
The second-year skipper talked about how he thought Soto might adjust to adjustments as well, noting that the now-20-year-old outfielder’s advanced approach at the plate would go a long way in helping him avoid any sort of sophomore slump.
“Like I said, the biggest thing for him, is the fact that, one, he knows the strike zone, and he just has to take his walks,” Martinez explained. “He understands that, and we’re going to preach that. I talked to [Hitting Coach Kevin Long] about it, we want him to be aggressive, obviously, but yet, be aggressive in the strike zone like he’s capable of doing. We just don’t want him to think that he has to hit X amount of home runs, drive in X amount of runs, just do what you do and we’ll be fine.”
The focus this Spring, Martinez said, would be more on Soto’s defensive game, since he did not play a whole lot of left field before he was called up and was learning on the job after he joined the Nationals.
“I think we’re actually going to hone in more on his defensive skills, and this way he’s got something else to think about and not really think about all the hitting the portion of the game,” Martinez said. “And work on his baserunning. I told him, I said, the importance of doing everything right in this game is going to help you, and he understands that.
“And like I said last year, the guy worked diligently in the outfield, and he wants to get better, so he knows that coming in.”
“I think he understands the strike zone, really, really well,” Martinez added at another point in his early Spring conversation with reporters last week. “The fact that he’ll take a ball and hit it to left field and hit up the middle, not always conscious about pulling a ball, it’s good, and for a young kid like him to understand that, I mean, sky is the limit for a young hitter like that.”
Nationals’ GM Mike Rizzo, who made the decision to call Soto up when an injury to Howie Kendrick created a need last May, talked in an interview with 106.7 the FAN in D.C.’s Grant Paulsen and Danny Rouhier last week about doing everything they can to help the young outfielder in his second big league campaign.
“I just think that you have to surround him with good players where he doesn’t have to bear too much of a load,” Rizzo said, “and I think we’ve done that with him.”
Rizzo, asked for comps for Soto, touched on some of the other teenagers he brought up to the majors over the course of his career in the front office.
“As far as comparisons, we had this conversation when [Bryce Harper] was coming through, and I had it when Justin Upton was coming through at such young ages,” Rizzo said.
“I want Juan Soto to be the best Juan Soto he can be and compare him to nobody, and I want people to be comparing players to Juan Soto. That’s our goal, it’s his goal.
“He’s extremely driven. He’s one of those special players that is good, but wants to be great, and when he becomes great he’s going to want to be the best, and when he’s the best he’s going to want to be a Hall of Famer. He’s got that gene in him. He’s never satisfied.”
Soto wasn’t satisfied with a record-setting rookie campaign either, opting to join a touring team of major leaguers that traveled to Japan this Fall, and the reports Rizzo got from the trip were all positive.
“We got reports, when he played in Japan, rave reviews on — of course between the lines is great, but rave reviews on the rest of his game and the way he conducts himself, and from pretty special guys,” including Miami Marlins’ manager Don Mattingly.
“When Donnie Baseball calls you and tells you that this is a special person that’s pretty fun to hear.”