It was “only” a 60-game season, but still, Juan Soto did finish MLB’s 2020 campaign with the highest batting average in the National League (.351; which was the second-highest in the majors), the top OBP, (.490), highest SLG (.695), highest wOBA (.478), highest wRC+ (200), the fifth-most walks (41), and the highest BB% (20.9%) in the 47 games he played and the 196 plate appearances he made, after starting the year late following a positive test for COVID-19 on the morning of the season opener.
So where does he go from here? Which aspects of his game have room for improvement?
“How much room do we have to improve? It’s minute,” Nats’ Hitting Coach Kevin Long told reporters a few weeks into Spring Training 2021.
“There [are] not big gaps there, they’re small, but there are some things that we’re going to try to get better at. For the most part, if he can stay as consistent as he was last year, we’re in really good shape.”
“It’s going to be hard to outdo what he did for those 60 games,” Long said. “He probably played, I don’t know if he played in all 60, he probably played in 52, 53 of them. But it was probably as good a 50 games as you can have, so we can look back on that, and that’s ideally where he wants to be, but there will be some struggles throughout the year and some things that we need to make adjustments with, but I know that Juan is able to make adjustments and do things at the ripe age that he is better than anybody I’ve ever had.”
Long, of course, had an example ready to show how Soto is able to quickly adjust to what opposing teams are trying to do to him.
“He’s such a student of the game, and he wants to be the best, he doesn’t want to be good. He wants to really, really thrive, and he puts the time and the effort in,” Long said.
“For instance, there was two years ago his fastball percentage went from like 65% all the way down to 35%. And it was the lowest in Major League Baseball.
“He was 20 years old and seeing the least amount of fastballs in the whole league. He said, ‘I don’t get it.’ And I said, ‘Well I do.’
“‘You’re killing fastballs, so they have to try to figure out a way to get you out.’ So we put him on a curveball routine. And a slider routine.
“Where he had to see 250 off the machine every single day.”
“We started doing it and sure enough,” Long continued, “after about three or four days, in the game, he started reacting to breaking balls, and he’s like, ‘Oh, it looked like one off of the machine. Now, I understand.’ That’s what kind of student you’re talking about.”
“That was 2019,” Soto said when asked about Long’s anecdote. “I think we were working a lot. We make a lot of swings, we make a lot of adjustments, we did kind of a hundred swings every day. It helped me a lot. For me that just [reminds me] that I’ve got to keep working on the machine, gotta keep working on those breaking balls and everything. I know if I’m going to start hitting second, I know I’m going to start seeing more fastballs, but it don’t matter if I’m hitting second whenever they have a big situation I know they’re going to be trying to throw me the offspeed, so I’m going to keep working on it, and I think that helped me a lot.”
The difference between breaking balls on a machine and in game action?
“It looks harder than real life,” Soto said, “but I think that’s a good thing because sometimes when they throw you a slow breaking ball you’ve got to wait for it, and always be ready for fast breaking balls. But yeah, it definitely looks kind of the same, but it helped me a lot.”
What’s Soto working on this spring, as he tries to find ways to improve his game?
“He’s actually hitting a lot, he’s doing a lot of outfield work,” manager Davey Martinez said.
“As you know, he’s [moved to] right field, so he’s taking a lot of balls off the bat during batting practice over in right field.
“He’s just working on all aspects of the game. I watch him throughout his whole day. He has such an unbelievable routine. Starting from early in the morning in the gym, and then going out and doing some activation.
“He does a running program, agility program, so he does a lot of things to prepare himself, but he has a crazy routine when it comes to hitting where he does soft toss, tee work, the velo machine, the breaking ball machine, he does everything. I know one thing, that this kid will be prepared before he steps on that field, because he gets himself ready.”