JUPITER, Fla. -- There are loud cheers each time Juan Soto steps into the batter’s box. He hears them, including afternoons like Tuesday, when he hit his first home run of Spring Training.
“I like that,” Soto said following the Nationals’ 9-6 win over the Cardinals at Roger Dean Chevrolet Stadium. “I like when the crowd gets pumping and gets excited to see me. That made me feel more ready to get an at-bat. I think that helps me a little bit more in my at-bats. For me, I just feel excited about it.”
The left-handed Soto smacked a one-strike, two-run shot the opposite off righty Seth Elledge to drive in Kurt Suzuki in the top of the third inning. The late-February long shot that flew just beyond the 387-foot marker was a reminder of what he accomplished last year -- and a glimpse of his potential as he embarks on his third Major League season.
“He’s really good at just knowing what he needs to do,” manager Dave Martinez said. “That was huge. He puts the ball in play. We talk about it all the time, but he’s just a kid that just continues to keep learning and wants to learn.”
Soto also drove in Jacob Wilson with a line drive single to left in the fourth inning Tuesday. He finished the game 2-for-3 with three RBIs.
Soto finished tied with Anthony Rendon with a team-leading 34 home runs last season. He ranked sixth in the National League with a .949 OPS, seventh with 110 runs and ninth with 110 RBIs. Then, he broke out with five postseason homers, including in back-to-back World Series games.
Along the way, Soto turned 21 years old. Only Mike Trout, Jimmie Foxx, Ted Williams, Rogers Hornsby, Ty Cobb, Mel Ott and Mickey Mantle hit better than him through age 21.
“Every year, I try to start to feel it in the spring,” Soto said. “Feel it back there and then get used to it, because I don’t want to get too much out in front because it’s going to be harder to keep it tight and keep it behind the ball. But for me, every Spring Training is a new goal, new things to do.”
That’s where the hard work and preparation comes into play. Per Dan Szymborski’s ZiPS projections on FanGraphs, Soto's is forecasted to amass a 5.7 WAR in 2020. The only position players projected higher than him in that system? Trout (7.9), Alex Bregman (7.1), Mookie Betts (6.1) and Francisco Lindor (6.0). And Soto's mark is projected to be above reigning National League MVP Award winner Cody Bellinger (5.6).
For Soto, homering to the opposite field early in Spring Training was a good sign of his progress.
“Keep it tight, keep it right,” he said. “That’s the whole thing we’re always talking about with [hitting coach] Kevin Long and all these guys. Just trying to keep it tight and try to drive the ball to the middle, to the other way. Then we get in later in the spring, we get inside and try to pull it.”
“You got to keep going,” he later added. “It’s just the beginning. We just started right now. Everything I do, I feel proud of this. But I think I can get more, and I want more.”