Talking to reporters late in September, Juan Soto, 22, was asked what he’d take away from a 2021 campaign which ended with the Washington Nationals’ outfielder ranked 2nd in the NL in average (.313), 1st in on-base percentage (.465); 7th in slugging percentage (.534), 2nd in wRC+ (163), 1st in BB% (22.2%), and tied for 2nd in fWAR (6.6).
“For me, I’m just going to remember this season because I learned a lot of things,” Soto told reporters.
“We learned about the game, we learned about the business, we learned about everything.”
He pointed a week earlier to his patient approach at the plate as an area of improvement he was particularly proud of, with his 145 total walks in 2021, “... the most in any season since Barry Bonds walked 232 times in 2004,” as the Nationals noted in their final pregame notes of the season before the finale with the Boston Red Sox last Sunday.
19 years old. Second career at-bat. First career home run.— MLB (@MLB) May 21, 2018
Unbelievable, Juan Soto! pic.twitter.com/eqSbfiCuyz
Soto said he was able to, “just to keep myself tight and don’t lose it because of all the walks and everything, just try to keep myself locked in and never think they’re going to walk you every time. So just stay there, stay positive, and stay ready to swing any time in every at-bat, that’s one of the things I learned most.
“Because last year, I learned how to [not] try chase the pitches outside of the zone,” he said, with his 15.1% O-swing% in 2021 (percentage of pitches a batter swings at outside the strike zone), the NL’s lowest.
“This year it’s just trying to stay in my zone, try to stay locked in, and ready to swing every time, and not give up easy strikes.”
The fact that he is in the NL MVP discussion (on a last-place team), is a testament to Soto’s success this season, and he said he was especially pleased with the way he was able to do what he did after a relatively slow start to his fourth big league campaign.
“It feels really good,” Soto said, “... after that slow start and then just come from the bottom and come all the way up, it feels great.”
How did he remain motivated with the Nats out of the division and Wild Card races early this summer, and after the club traded away a number of the players Soto grew up with, and won a World Series with, over the first years of his big league career?
Max Scherzer went over to high five Juan Soto and Kevin Long after the walk-off home run pic.twitter.com/HvV0s4FLzE— Blake Finney (@FinneyBlake) October 7, 2021
“For me, it’s about coming to the field every day and giving the most out of you that you can, [put] the best effort forward,” Soto explained, “... and what keeps you motivated is obviously I love to win. I’m here to win and do everything I can to help the team win. And whatever it takes, no matter where we’re at, I want to win every game, stay in every game possible, even if we’re left on the field, that we give it our best, that’s motivation enough.”
He was also motivated to improve on the defensive end, and Soto credited his teammate, Gerardo Parra, and his coach, Bob Henley, with helping him to get better out in right field.
“Working with them and the insight they’ve given me, you know, with my lower half, my legs,” he said, “my throwing, my accuracy, all of that, just I’ve been working, working hard with them and listening to them, and now it’s great to see the fruits of my labor as it’s come along so well, and I just have to keep doing it, and keep grinding.”
Davey Martinez had nothing but good things to say about Soto’s work overall this season.
“We all know Soto has been amazing since he’s been here, since we’ve had him,” Martinez said. “This year was, as you know, he went through a period where a lot of his teammates left and were gone, guys that he built relationships with and bonded, for a while there he had a tough time, and then he realized that he’s got another group of young kids that he can help. He’s been a teacher, he’s been a mentor, guys always ask him questions, he’s been amazing, and all of a sudden it translated to him getting back to who he is and playing the game the way it’s supposed to be played.”
And as good as Soto is at just 22 (he’ll turn 23 later this month), he’s determined to keep on getting better.
“He’s been incredible, he really has, in all aspects of the game,” Martinez said.
“And he wants to get better. He always talks about his defense, and his throwing, and his baserunning, and improving on, and hitting balls that he knows he should hit out, not missing them. I mean, this guy is on top of everything. So I can’t wait till I see him again next year, and see how much he improves, because he’s constantly working on something. He’s going to get a lot stronger, physically.
“He’s gotten a lot stronger this year, it’s something that he really worked on, keeping himself in great shape all year long, working out, every day. He’s got unbelievable strength in his legs, which he wanted to get better at, so I can’t wait to see how he comes to Spring Training. Hopefully he doesn’t come too big, but I know he’s going to find areas to improve.”
What stood out for GM Mike Rizzo from Soto’s age 22 season?
“Just the way that he’s been so even-keeled throughout the whole process,” Rizzo said when he spoke before the season finale. “You start off as a young rookie player and everything is in front of you, and you dominate a league to the point where teams are afraid to pitch to you and then we kind of reboot right in front of him and not a peep of discontent, and I think you’ve seen a different, even better gear if that’s even possible the second half of the season than he had in the first half of the season, and I think that says everything you need to know about him.”
Soto finished the so-called second-half with a .348/.525/.639 line, 11 of his 20 doubles on the season, 18 of 29 home runs, 87 of 145 walks, and 41 of 93 total Ks on the year over his final 72 games and 322 plate appearances.