WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. -- Two ideas are percolating around Juan Soto this spring: pressure and patience.
There was none of the former last season. Howie Kendrick’s torn Achilles tendon opened a chance for Soto to come to the major leagues. Mike Rizzo’s surprise call -- even folks overseeing the minor-league system were startled by the choice -- was also necessary for Soto to be tossed into left field.
If the 19-year-old floundered, so be it. His discipline at the plate earned him a shot. Soto could easily be sent back down if he was not ready. No pressure.
His patience became the baseline for his evolving into a phenomenon. At the plate, in the outfield, with the work and tedium of a full baseball season. Soto kept working when he dipped in August relative to his other months. He “took” his walks throughout the season. His discipline was uncommon and resonated more because of his age.
He’s famous now, asked for autographs during a tour of Japan and recognized at home in the Dominican Republic. Soto arrived at big-league camp for the first time Monday. His plush locker is next to Victor Robles. Anything that has jumped out since walking into the major-league side of the operation in West Palm Beach?
“It's really good to see what a nice clubhouse here,” Soto said with a smile.
Soto said he feels no pressure to replicate the rocket ride of his first year. He didn’t just come from the minors. He rose from low-A ball to the major leagues, where he finished second in National League Rookie of the Year voting.
Martinez already spoke to him about not thinking about numbers. The emphases for Martinez are to repeat last year, but not in a numerical sense. More so in the thirst to learn and daily amusement that should accompany playing this game as a 20-year-old.
“For me, it’s keeping him grounded,” Martinez said. “The biggest thing for me is not to try to do more. Just go out there. He’s really good at taking his walks. And just playing the game. I want him to continue having fun and just play the game. I told him: Don’t put any numbers in your head. Just go out there and have fun like you did last year. Just play the game.”
A few feet from Soto’s new locker is Howie Kendrick. He’s entering his age-36 season and 14th year in the majors. Nine of those years were spent with the Anaheim Angels. Four were alongside Mike Trout. All of this makes Kendrick a good resource for assessment, and he voluntarily made the comparison.
“He’s happy, loves the game,” Kendrick said. “He goes 0-for-4, he’s, ‘no big deal’ and right back at it. I played with another guy that was just like that and his name was Mike Trout. The guy came in and would play the game, wanted to win every day and just had a great attitude every single day. And I see a lot of those same similarities in Juan coming in every day, playing the game, plays it at a high level. Not quite as speedy as Mike Trout but he does a lot of similar things that Mike does and hopefully he’ll continue his success into the season and…show us what type of player he’s really going to continue to be.”
Improving his defense remains a priority for Soto. The Nationals placed him in left field last season out of need. He had played five games at that spot in the minor leagues prior. He improved, continued to work on outfield drills during the offseason, and comes to Florida focused on that aspect.
Martinez has also publicly taken a bit of a defensive stance about one Soto-related item: The Soto Shuffle. Players pinned a nickname on Soto’s tendency to swipe the dirt away in the batter’s box after he takes a ball. Martinez argues it’s Soto’s way of resetting and being in the moment. It’s also caught the attention of opponents and veterans who like to dip into the unwritten rules when determining whether someone is “showing up” the pitcher.
“We talk a lot about it,” Martinez said. “But they’ve got to understand it’s his way of keeping engaged in the at-bat and getting to the next pitch. That’s all it is. He’s not showing anybody up. We talked to him about it. We also told him: Look, every now and then, I know you get in the moment and you don’t realize you do it, but just back it down a little bit.”
So, the spring training formula for Soto is be the same. More or less. Then let everything else take care of itself.
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