The numbers Juan Soto put up in 2019 (.282/.401/.548, 32 doubles, 34 HRs, 142 wRC+, 4.8 fWAR in 150 games and 659 plate appearances), look a lot like the stats he posted as a first-year player in 2018 (.292/.406/.517, 25 2B, 22 HRs, 145 wRC+, 3.7 fWAR in 116 G and 494 PAs).
Soto, 21, avoided a sophomore slump last season, and adjusted to what opposing pitchers were trying to do to him in his second big league campaign.
He got off to a relatively slow start, and his second-half wasn’t as good as his first, but overall, the Washington Nationals’ left fielder, who also put up a .277/.373/.554 line with three doubles and five home runs in 17 games and 75 PAs in the postseason, was able to reproduce the numbers from his record-breaking rookie run in the Nats’ lineup.
Soto did have some help, as he explained when he spoke to reporters at WinterFest this past weekend in the nation’s capital.
“I’ve been learning,” he said when asked about not getting a lot of strikes to hit, and making necessary adjustments at the plate as the season went along.
“Howie Kendrick helped me a lot about it,” Soto said. “He always told me, ‘Hey, they don’t want to throw to you, just take, take, take until you see your pitch.’ And that helped me a lot, get deep in my counts and then they’re going to come right at me. I think that’s what helped me to get my pitch more, cause they’ve been really wild, and I swing at that and they just keep going, so it’s just stop, wait for my pitch, and get deep in the count.”
“I think he learned what the league was doing and he adjusted well,” Nationals’ Hitting Coach Kevin Long said last Saturday.
“Coming out of Spring Training, I think he’ll be better equipped and prepared than he was last year. Listen, he’s got a year underneath his belt where he found out what the league was going to try to do to him, and he adjusted well. He learned how to hit breaking balls, he learned how to sit on breaking balls, he learned what pitchers and pitching staffs were trying to do to him, and he made the adjustments accordingly, so the cool thing about Juan is he wants to continue to get better and better and better.”
Soto still struggled with sliders (.191 AVG in 2019, down from .221 in 2018), but against other offspeed pitches he improved dramatically, hitting .313 on changeups (up from a .212 AVG), and .314 on curveballs (up from .289), though his average on four-seam fastballs fell from a .395 AVG to .255. He also hit .376 on sinkers (up from .307), and .344 on cutters (up from .200).
Long was asked if he’s still surprised at what the 21-year-old outfielder is able to do at this age in the majors?
“I think just his maturity overall, the way he picks up stuff, the adjustments he makes,” Long said, “... you just don’t see people in general doing what he’s doing, and he’s at the ripe age of 20, 21 years old, so yeah, he surprises me quite a bit, but they’re always good surprises.”
New Assistant Hitting Coach Pat Roessler is just digging into the hitters he’ll be working with in D.C., after serving as a hitting coach for the Montreal Expos and New York Mets previously in his coaching career.
What he’s seen from Soto so far has impressed the veteran coach.
“I haven’t seen too much of Soto, but from what I’ve looked — I did a deep dive last week into some guys, and what I saw, I wrote, ‘Wow,’ about six times on my comments, so...”
Playing with veterans and working with veteran coaches, Soto told reporters, has definitely aided his development.
“I learned a lot next to those guys,” he explained, “... they’ve [been through] what I’m going through right now, so they just give me advice on how to go, how to prepare myself to get to that age and keep playing baseball. And I really appreciate everything. I feel really good playing against these guys, because they are men, and they’re not kids joking around, they come to play baseball, and they come to win, that’s what I like.”
What has he learned about himself during the last year as he’s continued to develop into a star in the majors in his early 20s?
“Sometimes calm down and really, really, nice opportunity, the tightest moments, just calm down and trust in myself,” Soto said.
There is, of course, still room for improvement in his game, and Soto said he knows he has to keep learning and adjusting as he goes along in his career.
“We come every day to learn something in baseball, so I just come to play, learn something new, have fun, and try to keep improving. We’ve got to keep going up, and up, and up, and try to help the team the most I can.”
Where, in particular, does he see room for improvement in his game?
“Defense,” he said. “I want to keep playing good defense, keep battling, and my swing, that’s what I’m focused on right now, improving my defense and then make everything together and be a good player.”
Does he have any concerns about the spotlight he’ll be playing under going forward after he was a rookie sensation in 2018, and is now a World Series champion, who played on as big a stage as there is in baseball last October?
“Not at all. Not at all. For me, in my heart and my head, both, I’m still the rookie from 2018,” Soto said.
“I’m going to keep playing baseball as a rookie, keep hustling, keep trying to win a spot in the big leagues.”