Fastball-masher Soto now adjusting to offspeed

April 18th, 2019

WASHINGTON -- A few days ago in the batting cage, Nationals hitting coach Kevin Long brought some information to help quantify what the second-year slugger had been facing at the plate. Nobody in the Majors had seen a lower percentage of fastballs than Soto at that point, and as of Thursday afternoon, Soto had been thrown a fastball just 43.3 percent of the time, second lowest in the Majors behind Eloy Jimenez of the White Sox (43.0 percent).

It’s why Soto’s eyes grew wide at the plate and afterward when he spoke about the fastball Giants starter Jeff Samardzija threw him in the first inning on Wednesday, which Soto promptly deposited into the right-field stands for a two-run homer.

“I was waiting for that,” Soto said. “For a couple days.”

The Nats knew the league would adjust to Soto after his record-setting rookie season as a teenager where he routinely punished fastballs. He saw 52.9 percent of fastballs in 2018 and batted .350 with a .695 slugging percentage, compared to .225 with a .305 slugging percentage against other pitches. Naturally, an adjustment was coming, but Soto did not expect it to be this drastic.

It’s not like Soto’s sophomore season is off to an awful start. Entering Thursday’s game against the Giants, he was batting .254/.380/.475 for a 124 wRC+ and three home runs, a solid start but a notch below the level at which he played during his rookie season. Soto’s strikeout rate has jumped to 26.8 percent this year, up from the 20.0 percent in ’18, and he has struggled with breaking pitches, on which he is batting .200 with a .350 slugging percentage.

“I’m kind of happy it’s happening,” Long said. “Because at the end of the day, he’s so good and so talented, I’m not worried not even an inkling. I know he’s going to figure it out.”

Soto’s inexperience is actually what inspires Long’s confidence.

At 20 years old, after only 512 plate appearances in the Minors and only slightly more than that in the Majors, Long realizes Soto has seen so few good breaking balls in his lifetime. Most of the time in the past when he recognized an offspeed pitch coming out of a pitcher’s hand, he knew the pitch was likely headed out of the strike zone, and he was able to mentally check out. That's not the case in the big leagues. Where Long sees Soto struggling is with the offspeed pitches that wind up in the strike zone.

So Long thought back to his years working with Derek Jeter when he was the Yankees’ hitting coach for eight years.

“Jeter said it a million times: 'The only reason I’m a good offspeed hitter is because I’ve seen so many,’” Long said. “So I’ve got 20 years worth of at-bats against offspeeds, what does Juan Soto have? He’s only 20 right now.”

To help aide his comfort level, the Nationals are giving Soto something like a crash course on offspeed pitches during his batting practice sessions: 100 curveballs on Tuesday, 100 sliders on Wednesday, 100 changeups planned on Thursday.

“So basically what we’re doing is we’re taking him from being a rookie and a guy who hasn’t seen very much to now he’s got one year, to now he’s got two years,” Long said. “We’re trying to basically speed up the process.”

Long has done similar exercises before with young hitters in the past, but he reiterated he was not concerned that Soto would eventually get himself back on track. His swing is too good and Long has routinely praised Soto’s elite ability to make adjustments at the plate.

And with each day, Soto feels himself growing more comfortable handling offspeed pitches. In the third inning of Thursday afternoon's 4-2 win over the Giants, he deposited an RBI double into left field on a knuckle curve by Drew Pomeranz. He has now reached base in 12 of his last 13 games (13 hits, 12 walks).

“A little bit, but we’re just getting there,” Soto said. “I’ve never seen that many [offspeed pitches], but I’m getting used to it. I’ve seen a lot now. After seeing, seeing, seeing I’m getting better. Just wait and trust the process.”

Worth noting

Soto was hit by a pitch on the left wrist/hand in the fifth inning, the first time in his career he has been plunked in either the Majors or Minors.