Juan Soto played 36 of 42 games in the field in left field last season, but the final six were in right field, with Washington Nationals’ skipper Davey Martinez explaining in September that he wanted to get a look at the recently-turned 22-year-old outfielder out there in a spot that Soto played the majority of his minor league games in on his way up.
“We wanted to throw him out there,” Martinez explained. “I talked about it with him for quite a while.
“The short stint that he was in the minor leagues coming up that’s where he played, right field, he feels comfortable over there. So we thought we’d give it a shot, play over there.”
“It feels good,” Soto said after his second game back in right field, which was his second game out there since he was in the minors in 2018.
“A long time ago I played right field. It’s been really nice to be out there again and try to feel like my first year, rookie ball. It feels really good right now.”
Martinez was asked if he planned on playing Soto in right going forward, and if the decision to put him out there over the final week of the season was a test run for a future where Soto would move to a new corner outfield spot after playing left in the majors in his first three years in Washington’s lineup.
“We’ll see what happens in the future,” Martinez said. “For right now, honestly, it’s part of really keeping him engaged. We talked about it. He was all excited about it. He went out there yesterday in the second game and played and he was having a lot of fun.
“So I told him before the game, I said, ‘Right fielders hit for power, you know.’ And he goes, ‘Okay, I got you,’ and he ended up hitting a three-run homer, which was kind of nice.”
“He told me about right field power and he just told me now, I didn’t know that,” Soto joked, “but now it just feels good playing right field and I’ve been feeling good at the plate too, so you just combine that.”
Soto homered in each of his first two games as a power-hitting right fielder, connecting for what ended up being his final two of 13 home runs on the season in MLB’s 60-game COVID campaign.
Martinez was asked if the experimentation, which he said was at least in part about making things fun for Soto, was also to some extent about seeing him out there before they had to make roster decisions for 2021 this winter.
Are they looking to add a power bat in left field?
“It could be a possibility,” Martinez teased. “Use your imagination.”
Soto said he wasn’t too concerned about adjustments he needed to make in right field as opposed to left.
“I just try to read the ball well and that’s it,” he said. “Try to read the ball well back there and try to make good decisions.”
His manager, a left-handed hitting and throwing outfielder who played all three spots in his own 16-year career in the majors, talked more about the sort of adjustments Soto might be dealing with, especially in terms of throwing from right as a left-hander.
“I think for me as a left-handed thrower in right field,” he said, “... you’re basically always coming in towards the field, as playing left field it almost seems like a lot of plays you’re going away from where you need to throw the ball.
“So, the other thing is going towards the lines playing right field, for a left-handed right fielder, it’s easier to catch the ball in front of you this way than it is to catch the ball in right field going this way. At any given time when you’re running for a ball like this you seem to take your eye off the ball. We talked a lot about that with Juan and that was one big thing with him going towards the line that he said he would lose the ball at a certain area.
“Just because, one, you’re looking where you’re at, you’re looking for the wall, and then also too, you’re trying to throw the ball before you catch it. So I told him the number one priority is always to catch the ball, don’t take your eye off the ball.
“Once you catch it, then you set your feet and you make the play. Yesterday he threw a ball that he had to go and he did a spin move from the outfield and threw it in to second base, and he looked so natural throwing it, and he threw it one hop, right to Trea [Turner], and I thought that was pretty good, because that’s kind of a tough play when you don’t do it often, but he made it look fairly easy.”
“So, I know, like I said, I know he feels comfortable over there,” Martinez added.
“He’s worked really hard to play left field, and has done a great job over there, but this is something like I said, to give him a little bit of a breath of fresh air, and let him go back to doing what he loves to do and play right field and see what transpires.”
Having versatility and options in his outfield is important as well.
“I love it. It helps during the end-game decision making if you have guys that can move all over the field,” he said.
“I tell all my outfielders, learn how to play all three, because when you get to the big leagues or even when you’re in the minor leagues, and they need somebody to play a position, and you’re doing well, they can put you anywhere in the outfield and feel comfortable. And they’ve all taken that to heart, and they come up here and we get them all — Bobby [Henley] works with all of them. They take fly balls in left field, center field, and right field. Soto even takes fly balls in center field, because I tell him in a pinch you never know what’s going to happen.”
When you’re in the free agent and trade markets you never know what’s going to happen either, so versatility is a big plus, and having options opens up more possibilities as Mike Rizzo and Co. in the Nationals’ front office search for an outfield bat that fits on the roster this winter.