Hardworking Soto gets head start on offseason improvements

What does Juan Soto do for an encore after a rookie season that obliterated records for offensive production by a teenager?

The now 20-year-old has a simple plan for making sure he isn’t bitten by a sophomore slump: Keep working hard and try not to change what brought him such instant success in the major leagues.

“I think, do my routine, and no change,” Soto said Saturday at Nationals Winterfest. “If that worked, I got to keep going until I (retire).”

Soto tied teammate Bryce Harper for the most home runs hit by a teenager (20), and the rookie’s three multiple-homer games were the most ever by a player before reaching his 20th birthday. He drew the most walks (79) and had the highest on-base percentage (.406) and OPS (.923) ever by a teenager. He became the first teenager - and the youngest player ever - to steal three bases in a game.

Soto-22nd-HR-gray-sidebar.jpgYet there’s still room for improvement - and the possibility that opposing pitchers will invent ways to combat his strengths before he figures out how to combat the changes. It’s happened to every rookie, and it’ll happen to Soto.

But if there’s pressure on him after slashing .292/.406/.517 with 22 homers and 70 RBIs after being summoned from the minors in mid-May - and finishing second to the Braves’ Ronald Acuña Jr. in the National League Rookie of the Year balloting - Soto is embracing it rather than worrying about it.

Just another one of the “Juan Soto things” Soto tends to do, apparently.

“Yeah, why not? I like that,” he said. “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.”

Soto’s season stretched into November as part of a collection of major league stars who toured Japan for an exhibition series. It was there that Nationals manager Davey Martinez and hitting coach Kevin Long saw the beginnings of Soto’s desire to keep adjusting to the adjustments pitchers will inevitably make next season.

“Perfect example: He goes to Japan, not knowing anything about it, and he’s hitting moonshots,” Martinez said. “He just adapts every day. I think he won’t change, because his approach is simple. Stay in the middle of the field. And with two strikes, just try to put the bat on the ball and put it into play. And he’s really good at it. I haven’t seen a 19-year-old player who can do that consistently; he does it every day.”

Long was prepared to spend time in spring training working with Soto on recognizing and attacking the breaking pitches that gave him some trouble during his rookie campaign. Until, that is, Soto got a head start on the process during the Japanese tour. One of Soto’s homers in Japan caught Long’s eye.

“Breaking balls are at an all-time high in baseball; fastballs are at an all-time low. What we did learn from Juan Soto is what? He smashes fastballs,” Long said. “I’m watching and I see Japan. Oh, that’s Juan Soto. Boom, there’s a breaking ball. He said, ‘Did you see the curveball I hit?’ He said, ‘I know what they’re gonna try to do with me. They’re going to try to throw me breaking balls.’ He’s going to be just fine. His mechanics are sound and his approach is sound enough that he’s going to be fine.”

For now, Soto is doing the one thing he wasn’t able to do while piling up impressive numbers in 2018: rest.

He recognizes that the demands on him will be different given his suddenly higher profile, and that he’ll have to work hard to maintain his offensive production. But as he spends time in his native Dominican Republic, Soto is trying to embrace the notion of giving himself a break, no matter how counter that concept seems to his workaholic mentality.

“Now, in the offseason, yeah, I got to rest now,” he said. “The season, no, now it’s my time to rest. (Then), I start working out again and getting ready for next year.”

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