Davey Martinez talked, after Juan Soto went 1 for 4 with a ground-rule double to left-center and a walk in the first game of Saturday’s doubleheader with the Colorado Rockies in D.C., about positive signs from his 23-year-old slugger, who was off to a slow-ish start at the plate for the second consecutive season.
“He’s staying on the ball a lot better,” Martinez said, “... he’s starting to drive the ball up the middle the other way and that’s good to see, now it’s just a matter of, one, the balls he hits hard, he starts getting rewarded for them, and two, to continue to do that, don’t change anything, just stay the course, stay in the middle of the field, and the hits, the homers, all the stuff, the RBIs will come.”
In the first two months in 2021, Soto put up a .270/.395/.387 line with four doubles and four home runs in 40 games and 167 plate appearances.
An 0 for 3 with a walk game in the nightcap of the doubleheader with the Rockies left Soto with a .228/.374/.421 line, nine doubles, and eight home runs in 48 games and 211 PAs this season.
Soto led the majors with 39 walks (vs 31 Ks) and he’d recorded walks in five straight, tied for the longest streak in his career.
Martinez was asked before the 49th game of the season for the Nationals, and Soto, if he’d considered giving his right fielder a rest at some point, as he’s “struggled”, but he said it is something they’ve discussed, and Soto wants to play.
“One, we have a lot of information that we do as far as with our trainers and conditioning coaches and all that stuff, and we keep track of everything,” Martinez said. “He’s still in a good spot physically. Mentally, I’ve talked to him, I’ve asked him if a day off will help him. He always says, ‘We’re going to get a day off here next week, so I’m good.’ For him, he said when he takes days off it does him no good because he doesn’t get a chance to really rest. He’s constantly thinking about stuff, so he’d rather just play.”
One thing the manager did add, however, which is probably as close to public criticism as he’s going to get with any of his players, was a comment about how Soto is reacting when he disagrees with umpires’ strike zones this season.
“One thing that I’ve noticed is that I don’t want him to become an umpire, I want him to just become a hitter,” Martinez explained. “And I think he’s fallen into a pattern where he’s trying to become an umpire, and questioning a lot of different calls. That’s not who he is.
“He’s a guy that sees the ball and hits them.
“I’ve seen him hit balls out that were 2-3-4 balls off and hit them hard. I want him to be ready to hit every pitch, and that’s something that — I know we talked, we had a meeting this morning about all our hitters, and that’s something I want [Hitting Coach] Darnell [Coles] and [Asst. Hitting Coach Pat Roessler] to talk to him about today, is just go — don’t be an umpire, just see the ball and hit it. Get your swings off. He’s hitting in too many two-strike counts. And like I’ve said before, this league, when you get to two strikes, it’s tough to hit.
“So we want him to be a little more aggressive, especially with runners in scoring position. If you think you can get a pitch, swing at it.
“More times than none, with him, he’s going to hit it hard somewhere, and I’d rather see that than him take it.”
With all the walks he has piled up in the last two seasons, leading the league last year and so far in 2022, is there a bit of complacency, or looking for a walk and not being ready for every pitch?
“I don’t necessarily know if he’s looking for a walk,” Martinez told reporters.
“I just know that he’s looking for a specific pitch, you know, in the zone where he thinks, and sometimes when you’re that good of a hitter, you’re not going to get that pitch like right there, but you need to be ready for it. But like I said, I’ve seen him hit so many balls that were on the corners, or a little bit off, and smoke them, so we want him to get back to that. I don’t want him to always think about walking, and I talked to him about that, and he said, no, he goes up there ready to hit, because if he does just want to walk, I got a nice spot for him at leadoff.
“So, as you guys know, I’ve done that before. And you know that ... he’s our best hitter, so we need him to hit. I need him to drive in runs, this team needs him to drive in runs, so, and like I said, it’s going to come, and I know it’s going to come. When it does come, it’s going to come in bunches, when he starts hitting the ball out of the ballpark, it’s going to come in bunches.”
“I looked back, and at this point time last year he was hitting .240-.250*, and then all of a sudden he took off.”
* = As noted above, Soto was actually hitting .270 at the end of May last season, but the home run power wasn’t there, with a lot of ground balls in the first half, and nine doubles and 11 HRs total in 79 games and 332 PAs through the middle of the July, but after the All-Star Break, and as Soto himself said, his participation in the HR Derby, things turned around, and he went on to hit 11 doubles and 18 HRs in 72 games and 322 PAs in the second-half.
“I’m thinking about having a home run derby one day in batting practice for him, let him play home run derby, and see if that helps. But we’re going to try something.”
In his first at-bat of the game in Sunday’s series finale with the Rockies, Soto hit a 2-0 cutter from left-hander Kyle Freeland out to left-center for an opposite field, two-run blast, his 9th this season.