Juan Soto 2022:
Juan Soto rebounded from a relatively slow start the 2021 campaign and really turned it on in the second half of the season. By a “slow start”, of course, we’re talking a .283/.407/.445 line, nine doubles, 11 home runs, 58 walks, and 52 strikeouts over 79 games and 332 plate appearances in the first-half, before Soto sorted things out at the plate, and going into the series finale in Coors Field yesterday, the 22-year-old slugger had a .362/.535/.670 line, 11 doubles, 18 home runs, 81 walks, and 35 Ks in 68 games and 303 PAs in the second-half.
Davey Martinez, who’s been the manager in the nation’s capital since Soto debuted in the majors in 2018, has seen the outfielder grow from a very good to one of the best hitters in the game over that time, so we asked the manager on Wednesday afternoon where he thought that his charge had made the biggest strides in his game this season, and what he felt Soto is focused on improving.
“For me, the biggest thing is his ability to stay in at-bats,” Martinez said. “I mean, really, he’s gotten a lot better, you can see the walks are really high. You know, obviously sometimes a hitter can get frustrated because they do walk him a lot, and he can get out of the zone. He’s very disciplined, and that’s something that I love and I appreciate about him, is that he’s a very disciplined hitter up there, and he knows what pitches he wants to swing at, he knows the strike zone really well, and he accepts his walks, which makes him very unique and very special.”
And where does he think Soto’s focus is as his fourth season in the majors winds down?
“I think he knows he wants to get better in the outfield, and we always talk about he wants to win a Gold Glove,” Martinez said. “He wants to be a better baserunner, and he wants to be a situational base-stealer. You know, he always tells me, ‘I want to be able to steal 20-25 bases, but I need to get better on reading pitchers, better jumps, reading catchers,’ so that is something that he really wants to work on.”
And when he has his exit interview with Soto after the final game of the season on Sunday, is there any one area that the manager will tell the outfielder he wants him to focus on this winter?
“I want him to continue to grow in all aspects of the game. There’s not one particular thing. He understands, like I said, as a hitter, he’s one of the best, at an early age, and he wants to get better. I know a lot of times he gets pitches where he thinks he can drive it, and he fouls them back, he wants to be able to put those balls in play more consistently, and for me, I shake my head when he talks about that, because he’s been pretty consistent about hitting balls hard. A lot of times he talks about the hard ground balls, where he needs to get those balls in the air, and for him it’s about timing, so he wants to make sure that his timing is always on cue, so he’s ready to hit those balls.”
No Ks in Washington, D.C.:
Davey Martinez’s club started the day on Wednesday with the lowest K% (21.1%) in the NL, and the third-lowest K% in the majors, a point of pride for the manager who has made his disdain for strikeouts well-known to reporters and his players alike. But, a reporter noted, the Nationals also led the majors in double plays, with 155 overall (4 more GIDPs than the 2nd place NY Yankees).
So do the two go hand-in-hand, the fourth-year skipper was asked? If you prize contact over strikeouts, do you have to accept that some of the balls put in play will be double play balls?
“I think — I still think we can avoid that,” Martinez said.
“I know it comes to situations, especially two strikes, it’s the — for me it’s getting a ball that you know you can hit early in the count, to stay away from those double plays, and regardless of whether you hit it hard or not, that’s something else, but some of our at-bats, especially early in the count, is where we we got to get a ball that we want to drive. When we hit into a double play on a changeup down and away when the count is 1-0, that’s something that we need to get better at. But with two strikes, their job is just to move the baseball. Striking out doesn’t do anybody any good.
“it’s just the counts where we need to really get better, which balls we know — ‘Hey, I want to stay away from the double plays, I want to get a ball that I can drive in the gap,’ and knowing which balls those are.”
Espino’s Big Season:
“I came to Spring Training hoping to make the team, and I didn’t, but I was feeling good,” Paolo Espino told reporters after his 33rd appearance and 17th start of the year last week.
“I was hoping just at some point in the season, hopefully get that opportunity as I did last year. So, that was the main thing.”
Espino didn’t make the Opening Day roster, but he was up early this season, and he stuck around, pitching out of the bullpen at times before settling into the rotation, eventually becoming one of the more reliable arms for the Nationals.
“I was going to do everything I could to try to earn the opportunity, and now they gave it to me, and I’m trying to do the best I can to take advantage of it,” he said last week.
“He’s been awesome for us, he really has,” Espino’s manager said before the right-hander went two innings in the finale with the Rockies in Coors Field, only to have a 2-hour delay end what could be his final outing of the season.
“Especially — his role earlier was probably long man,” Martinez said. “And he got spot starts, and then he becomes a regular starter every five days and has done really well. He keeps us in games every time he goes out there, so it’s been a blessing for us to have him and he’s been an unbelievable teammate and a good person, especially now that we’re so young, kind of some of these other guys have looked up to him because he spent a lot of time in the minor leagues, he’s been pitching for a long time, so they kind of pick his brain as well.”
What did he and his staff see in Espino that led them to go with him when opportunities opened up in the rotation?
“His ability to actually keep hitters off-balance,” Martinez said. “We watched him throughout, and he’s done a great job with that, and also his competitiveness, keeping us in the ballgame. I mean, he gives us whatever he has that day, it’s all out for him, he gives us —whether it’s 90 pitches, 75 pitches, you know what you’re going to get from him every day, and I love that about him.”
Has he done enough this season to earn himself consideration for a spot in 2022’s rotation?
“This winter we’re going to assess everything,” the manager said, “but he’s definitely done really well for us this year, and we’ll see what happens moving forward.”
Espino said after the loss on Wednesday that he would be available and ready if needed in the final series of the season this weekend, but if this is it for him in ‘21, how would Espino assess his work this year?
“I think how much I put — how much work I put in this year,” Espino said. “It was a blessing.
“The opportunity of being here, being around so many guys, so much experience, I leaned a lot from some of the guys from early, the beginning, when I was here.
“How to prepare myself too, and I think I was able to mix in pitches, also the slider was working really good this year. And it’s been working, I’m not counting that I’m done.
“It’s been working really good, I’m going to keep working on it.
“I’m going to keep pitching, doing my scoutings reports, and doing all this stuff and preparing as best I can.”
And if they ask him to go again on Sunday?
“I haven’t talked to [Davey], but I feel good, I know my body is definitely going to recover good for Sunday, and if they want me to start and that’s a possibility, I’ll be ready for it. I’m going to prepare myself as if I’m going to go either to the pen or to start on Sunday.”