Nationals

Nationals

An informational table titled “Prospects Report” hangs at the top of Juan Soto’s Fangraphs page. Two numbers on the far right stand out: The first is “50”, his future value rating, which means he projects as an average major-league player. The second is “2020” which is listed as his “ETA” into the major leagues. Those 2018 numbers are severely outdated a year later.

Soto roared to the major leagues from Single A last season to finish second in National League Rookie of the Year voting as a 19-year-old. He then joined an MLB All-Star team to play in Japan before finally returning home to take a break.

Soto’s 2018 started in front of 3,424 fans at State Mutual Stadium in Rome, Georgia, where he homered on the second pitch of his first at-bat. It ended Nov. 14 with him going 3-for-4 in the Nagoya Dome, home to the Chunichi Dragons in the Aichi Prefecture. He made 698 plate appearances during his run from northwest Georgia to central Japan. 

“Yeah I got to rest now,” Soto said recently. “The season, no. Now it's my time to rest.”

While he finds some respite, his team, and the league, wonders what’s next. The Nationals know they have an Opening Day left fielder who could be one of the league’s best hitters. They learned his patience and power translated from minor-league outposts to MLB’s biggest parks. They also saw the league quickly try to pin down this unexpected meteor. Pitchers threw Soto a fastball just 47.5 percent of the time last season. It’s the same treatment Bryce Harper received as a rookie. 

 

“What we did learn from Juan Soto is what? He smashes fastballs,” Nationals hitting coach Kevin Long said. “So, I’m watching and I see a game in Japan. Juan Soto, there’s a breaking ball, (makes a loud noise). First thing he says, ‘Did you see that curveball I hit?’ I said, ‘Yeah, I saw it.’ He says, ‘I know what they’re going to try to do to me now. They’re going to try to throw me a lot of off-speed.’ He’ll learn. He’s a quick-learner. He gets it."

“But that’s one part of the game he knows we’re going to have to address because they’re going to throw him a lot more off-speed stuff. And he’s going to be just fine. His mechanics are sound and his approach is sound enough, he’s going to be able to do that.”

Sound, solid, just fine are all applicable to Soto’s first season. An increase in exposure didn’t turn him into an introvert. Rather, it spurred him to sign more autographs, understand the same questions came with a new round of reporters as opponents changed, and that doing “Juan Soto things” increasingly became a phenomenon.

Soto’s grasp on his swirling life stood out as much as his plate work. His adjustments were swift in both arenas. He spent the entire season doing interviews in English. Every national broadcast brought another round of sitdowns in the dugout or under a set of lights. Much of it became a trial run for what will happen in 2019, particularly if he duplicates his season and Harper does not return. He’s known now, an idea that pleases him.

"Yeah, why not?” Soto said. “I like that. I like to be ... how they talk about me and it's positive. I like all this stuff. I don't think like that, I just keep being me and keep playing baseball."

It’s not just the United States. Returning to the Dominican Republic this offseason was another jolt. 

"It's different now because everybody knows you,” Soto said. “Every place you go everybody know you. It feels pretty good, because the people, every park they see me they are very proud of me."

The year wasn’t perfect. Soto’s OPS dipped to .800 in August. More than reasonable by typical rookie or 19-year-old standards, and acceptable by regular major league measure, but a modest slump for him. The upside of the downturn was it inspired one of the quotes of the year after Soto’s offense picked up in early September and he informed reporters he just kept doing “Juan Soto things” to come out of his relative August malaise.

His defense needed work. Soto arrived with a routine honed by outfield/baserunning coordinator Gary Thurman during Soto’s brief stay in the minor leagues. From there, the Nationals focused on Soto’s first step and park-by-park tutorials before batting practice. Soto ventured onto the field around 2 p.m. at the start of each new series to learn the wall, what playing straight up in that park meant, how the opposition’s personnel performed and how hitter tendencies determined his in-game positioning. Soto was never afforded other times to learn, so the season became perpetual on-the-job training. 

 

“Once he starts playing, you get opportunities to watch what his strengths and weaknesses are and where he’s at, even though you hear it from Gary,” Nationals outfield coach Bob Henley said.

Henley also had another duty: aid Soto on the basepaths. The teenager made a mistake about three weeks into his major-league life when he failed to tag up at second base during a Sunday game in Atlanta. The Nationals lost 4-2 in one of the season’s more bizarre games: Jeremy Hellickson pitched ⅓ of an inning, Jefry Rodriguez debuted out of the bullpen as emergency relief, Tanner Roark allowed a walkoff, two-run homer in the ninth. 

Washington was off the next day. Henley didn’t mention the mistake on the flight home or even directly when work began the following Tuesday. It came up when Soto went to apologize for being too far off the bag to tag, not realizing Ender Inciarte, one of the game’s elite defenders, would be able to zoom in and catch a pop-up.

“So he comes to me, he says, ‘Hey, Bob. In that situation…’” Henley said. “You know what I did? I said it’s completely my fault, Juan. That situation the other day was my fault. I said in that situation...here’s what I want to do: We’re going to have hand signals, nobody out situation that I remind you where you need to be because I need to get better with Juan and knowing where he’s at. And of course now in those situations we have hand signals as far as what you’re doing and reminders for him because he was a kid still playing with the best players on the planet.”

Soto turns 20 in May. Life will be different then. The league is expected to tantalize him with more off-speed pitches. Charts and information about his weaknesses will abound. Everyone knows his name. 

He will be different, too. At least to a degree. Soto will be at major league spring training for the first time. He’ll own all the knowledge about parks, and new planes and the big league life. Expectations will also exist, taking over for last year’s anonymity. Those circumstances aren’t the least bit jarring to him.

"I think, do my routine, and no change,” Soto said. “If that worked I got to keep going until I retired."

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