Juan Soto finished up Washington’s 10-game homestand 6 for 32 (.188/.366/.281), taking the 23-year-old Nationals’ outfielder from a .289/.460/.553 line on April 17th to .243/.418/.429 at the end of the day on Thursday. Soto’s manager, Davey Martinez, talked at length before the series finale with Miami’s Marlins in the nation’s capital, about what he’d seen from the Nats’ No. 2 hitter in the first month of Soto’s fifth big league season, and he said he’s planning on keeping him where he is in the two-spot for now.
“We’ve gotten information about him hitting second,” Martinez explained, “.. and he’s come up already two-three times more than he would have, and also too, he’s been up there with runners on base, so we like him in that two-hole, but right now that’s where we want to keep him.”
Soto’s been hard at work behind the scenes, as always, trying to get going after he’s started (relatively) slowly for the second straight season, and Martinez said he actually looked back at how things were going early in 2021, before a ridiculous (.348/.525/.639) second-half in which he turned a lot of pitches around and got his numbers up where everyone’s come to expect them to be.
Soto is continuing to grind out at-bats, and his manager is sure it will pay off eventually as it did in 2021.
“He has an impeccable routine, hitting routine, and it’s every day, he doesn’t take a day off,” he explained.
“He talks a lot to [hitting coach] Darnell [Coles] and [assistant hitting coach Pat Roessler], he knows where he’s at, he knows what he wants to do. His swing — when you take a ball middle in against a lefty and hit it off the wall, it’s there.”
The “lefty” in question was Marlins’ left-hander Richard Bleier, who threw Soto a 1-2 slider inside he lined out to left-center for his 4th two-base hit of 2022, a 107.1 MPH exit velocity double that traveled 391 ft to the outfield wall.
“I mean, to me that was a good swing,” Martinez said, “... and any given day who knows, it could have been close to being a homer, but the swing is coming. The one thing I reiterate with him every day is for him to take his walks and not try to do too much, stay in the middle of the field, and when he does that he’s really good, but we talked a little bit about — I don’t like going back to last year, but we talked about last year, where his struggles were the same.
“He was hitting a lot of ground balls earlier in the season, and he felt like it was just a timing thing, pulling off a little bit, you know, but it won’t take him long. He’s seeing pitches, he’s seeing the ball good, we always talk about that with him, and he says, ‘No, I’m seeing the ball really good, I’m just missing pitches I should be hitting,’ and part of that is he says he’s pulling off a little bit too soon. But just trying to get him to stay on the ball and hit the ball the other way a little bit and when he starts doing that, you’ll start seeing Juan become the Juan that we see all the time where he’s hitting 2-3 balls hard a day.”
One thing which hasn’t changed is Soto’s knowledge of the strike zone, and his patience at the plate. He’s already walked 20 times in 21 games and 99 plate appearance this season, with more walks than Ks (14) again, after he was the only player in the majors with more walks than strikeouts in 2021.
His 20th walk of the season (and second of the game) came in the bottom of the eighth of the finale with the Marlins on Thursday, with the score 3-2 in Miami’s favor, and a runner in scoring position at second. Soto walked, and Josh Bell struck out to end the threat in the at-bat that followed.
Martinez said after the club’s eighth-straight loss it was one situation where he might like to see Soto be more aggressive at the plate.
“Yeah, and this is something that we talked to him about,” the manager said. “He might only get one pitch at at-bat, or two. 2-0, and I know Bleier is tough on lefties, but we want [Soto] to be the guy to drive in those runs, or at least take a swing, but ... he stayed in the at-bat, and he worked a walk, but we want him to be a little bit more aggressive when there’s guys on base, especially guys in scoring position.”
What does Martinez make of Soto’s early-season struggles again this year? He said there’s one thing for sure, Soto won’t let it get to him, and will continue to put in the work and do what he needs to in order to turn things around again.
“He’ll block that stuff out,” Martinez said. “For him, and for me, and the conversations we have it’s about controlling the controllables, you know, he needs to go out there and one, be a good teammate, go out there and do the things he does, we always talk about him being a leader. He leads by example, and he’s good at that, so I told him just go out there and just play the game and have fun.”
And when he needs to, Martinez reminds Soto of something the outfielder said to his then-new manager early in their time together in D.C.
“I always reiterate, and go back to what he told me the first time I saw him, about the game, and he always says, ‘I love baseball.’ And I tell him all the time, ‘Hey, you love baseball, so go out there and have fun doing it,’ I mean, that’s just who he is.”
In his first trip to the plate in the series opener with the San Francisco Giants last night in Oracle Park, Soto crushed a 95 MPH 0-2 sinker from lefty Alex Wood, and hit a 409-ft HR out to center field for his 4th of the season and a 1-0 lead early on the road. He lined a 1-1 changeup from lefty Jarlín García off the top of the brick outfield wall in right field for his second hit of the game, and his first non-solo-home-run-RBI of the season.