Soto working to continue strides in LF

March 11th, 2019

JUPITER, Fla. -- The Nationals' move to promote Juan Soto to the Majors last May was bold for many reasons. But even more so considering they asked Soto to play left field, a position where he had very little experience.

Of the 122 games in which Soto appeared during his brief time in the Minors, he played in left field for just seven. Put it this way, after only 58 innings in his pro career in left field, Soto was being asked to take over and learn the position on the fly at the highest level at 19 years old, all while injecting some life into what was a depleted Nationals lineup.

So even if the advanced metrics did not grade Soto's defense favorably, the Nationals were happy with the strides he made last season. And they are confident he will continue to make those strides, in part, because of how driven he is.

“I’m better than I was [in left field], but I have to keep working,” said Soto, who went 2-for-3 with an RBI Monday afternoon in the Nats' 3-2 loss to the Cardinals. “I don’t want to stay down here; I got to keep working and keep going [upward]. Do more to help my team. Because the more I work on my defense, the better my future will be.”

Soto’s future is undoubtedly already bright as he prepares to enter his second season in the big leagues as one of the focal points in the middle of the Nationals' lineup. But he finished second in the voting for the 2018 National League Rookie of the Year Award in part because the defensive gap between Soto and Braves phenom Ronald Acuna Jr. was significant enough to cost him the award. 

This year Soto is focused on closing any existing gaps in his game. 

“He just wants to be a great baseball player,” said Nationals third-base coach Bobby Henley, who also works with the outfielders. “He doesn’t want to be a one-dimensional guy, he wants to be a great baseball player. I think the things that he feels that he can get better in -- and there’s a lot of aspects, not just the defense, but that’s one thing that he’s focused on and really wants to take a lot of pride in -- he has taken a lot of pride in it and taken huge strides.”

For road games during his rookie season, Soto would always ride the first bus to the stadium. Expected of him, perhaps, because of some unwritten rule for rookies, but he would have done so anyway as part of what became his strict pregame routine. He would get to the stadium around 2 p.m., grab some lunch and go out to left field with Henley to begin their daily work. Soto wanted to take the time to study each playing field, learn how the ball bounces off the outfield wall or which angles to take to cut a ball off in the gap. 

The two would work on drills designed to quicken his first step, or for Soto to become more comfortable chasing balls tailing away from him off the bat of a lefty. And then, it was time to work on his throwing arm -- with an extended round of long toss before he began to practice throwing to each base. Sometimes, Nats manager Dave Martinez would join to pass along tips from his playing days as an outfielder. 

“It’s really extraordinary to see somebody at such a young age stay so disciplined with his work ethic,” Henley said. “And if he makes a mistake, he’s able to learn from it and move on, which is also amazing at such a young age to do that. He’s a joy to work with.”

Soto may never have the elite speed of strong defenders like his teammate Michael A. Taylor, but he doesn’t have to. He is about league average now -- Statcast tracked him at 27.2 ft/sec when 27 ft/sec is the league average -- but good defenders such as Ender Inciarte (21 OAA w/27.9 ft/sec) or Jackie Bradley (11 OAA with 27.8 ft/sec) prove you don’t have to be. 

Here: Taking a look at Soto’s directional Outs Above Average chart, as measured by Statcast, shows that he was not particularly good or bad going to any one direction. He graded out negatively running straight in for balls or going back and to his right or left. Where Soto could make up for that ground is by improving his first step and getting better jumps.

And even after all the success Soto had last season, Henley fully expects the young star will be on that early bus once again this season, continuing the work they began in left field.

“He’s a special talent,” Henley said. “As hard as he works and as determined and athletic as he is, he’s going to continue to get better and better."