Juan Soto didn’t travel with the team for the Grapefruit League opener in Jupiter, FL over the weekend, but he was supposed to make his 2021 debut in Monday’s home opener in West Palm Beach.
He tried to get some swings in in a live BP session on Sunday, however, and fouled a ball off his right foot, so he didn’t play in the second game of the spring either.
Soto, 22, should, however, be good to go in Wednesday’s matchup with the Miami Marlins in WPB.
“He worked out today, he’ll play tomorrow,” Washington Nationals’ skipper Davey Martinez told reporters when he spoke on a Zoom call on Tuesday afternoon. “He’s fine. He’s good.
“He took a pretty nasty foul ball off his foot,” the manager explained.
“So I just wanted to give him a day to get back on his feet. He did some outfield work, hit on the field, hit in the cage. Ran a little bit, so he did well.”
Soto is heading into his fourth season in the majors, having produced a combined .295/.415/.557 line, 71 doubles, and 69 home runs in his 313 games and 1,349 plate appearances thus far in his career, over which he’s been worth 11.0 fWAR.
He finished the 60-game 2020 campaign with the highest batting average in the National League (.351; second-highest in the majors), MLB’s highest 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 and the 196 plate appearances he had after starting late following a positive test for COVID-19 on the morning of the season opener.
Soto was 21 until this past October. Nationals’ hitting coach Kevin Long was asked during a Zoom call with reporters on Tuesday afternoon what the fact the now-22-year-old outfielder put up big numbers like he did last season tells about what the club has in the young star.
“It tells us that of all the players in Major League Baseball, that he is elite,” Long said.
“He is one of the top players, not only of this generation, but you can go back generations and generations to find this type of guy. They’re hard to find.”
What sets Soto apart, Long said, after three seasons of working with the preternaturally gifted hitter, is his stubborn approach to plate discipline.
“I think it’s his stubbornness in the zone, he just will not expand the zone,” Long explained.
Soto had the league’s 10th lowest O-Swing% (“Swings at pitches outside the zone/pitches outside the zone,” per Fangraphs) at 21% in 2020, (one spot behind Anthony Rendon on the season; 20.8%, and not too far behind Cavan Biggio’s MLB-low 16.3% O-Swing%).
He also saw the seventh-lowest percentage of pitches in the zone (37.2% Zone% - Pitches in the strike zone / Total pitches); and Soto saw the second-lowest number of first-pitch strikes (49.5% F-strike% - First pitch strikes/PA).
“A lot like Barry Bonds was,” Long said of Soto’s stubbornness. “Barry Bonds took all those walks. There were times Barry didn’t see a strike for 25 straight pitches and all of a sudden you’d throw him one strike and he’d wallop it. Is he on the Barry Bonds’ level yet?
“No, I understand that, but he’s got that kind of stubbornness when it comes to the strike zone. And at that age, I’m thinking back on the players that I’ve had who are stubborn like that.
“Brandon Nimmo, Brett Gardner, Juan Soto. That might be it. Where they just — they refuse to swing outside the strike zone. He’s got that.
“It looks like Joey Votto, someone I haven’t had, might be one of those guys. But they’re rare.”
And combine that strike zone awareness with his near-flawless swing mechanics?
“Now, you throw in his swing mechanics, and his ability to hit,” Long said, “... and the things that he does from my standpoint — which is I break down swings and I look at swings all day long — you can also throw him into the elite category there. He does a lot of things right.
“He repeats his swing maybe better than anybody I’ve ever had, and that’s what makes him so special. Are there other things? Yeah, he’s smart. Yeah, he does the right things.
“He just, he kind of gets it. And he’s diligent in how he goes about his work, and he’s never content. He’s going to find a way to try to be the best version of Juan Soto he can be.
“Last year we saw a really good Juan Soto. With how much we’re going to gain on that, to tell you the truth, if he stays right there, we’re in really good shape.
“But knowing him he’s already coming up with some stuff, we’ll see where we go with this.”
Soto said earlier this spring he’s planning pretty much the same approach that he had at the plate in 2020, since it worked for him, even as pitchers tried to adjust to somehow or other retire the Nationals’ young star.
“They tried a couple times,” Soto said of the adjustments he noted. “I tried a new plan at the plate and it worked for me. So, I’m going to keep trying with that.
“I don’t see anything different, they just tried to throw the offspeed and everything. And I just tried to adjust off that, and it works for me, so I’m going to keep the same plan for next year.”
Speaking of adjustments, Long has some stories to share. We’ll just let 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 of Soto.
“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.
“And he did it. All of a sudden — and let’s backtrack a little bit — why we did that and why I said guys get good at breaking balls — for instance, Derek Jeter, he played a long, long time, and throughout the years he got really good at reacting to breaking balls. Because he’d seen so many. I said, ‘Well, you’re 20. There’s no way you can see the amount of breaking balls that Derek has seen. But we can gain on it. So I’m going to have you see 250 a day. I can do that for you.’
“We started doing it and sure enough, after about 3-4 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.
“And there’s other things, where he was struggling in the playoffs when we won it in ‘19, and he was having trouble backing up the baseball, so we did a late-night session working on him backing up the baseball, and he got it immediately. I thought we were going to be there a long time. It was literally 12 minutes, and he had it, and the next day his first at bat, he backed it up, lined one down the left field line and he goes, ‘I’m back.’ And I said, ‘Yeah, you’re back, buddy.’ But those are stories about Juan Soto that make him so special and so good, so use them however you want.”