A lot of talk this week has centered around the Nationals' outfield defense, with the signing of free agent Kyle Schwarber. When Victor Robles is going well, he is an elite center field defender. But can Schwarber and Juan Soto hold their own on the corners?
Nationals outfield/baserunning coordinator Gary Thurman acknowledges that there is a difference between guys like Robles and Michael A. Taylor, who have the ability to turn extra-base hits into outs. But Thurman believes that the best defense is yet to come from Soto.
"I think he's going to be slightly above-average," Thurman said. "He's only 22. He's not like a Michael or a Robles just because of his body type. He doesn't have the quick-twitch muscles like those guys do. But I think what is going to make him get over the top is his work ethic and the way that he goes about his business. He works very hard."
Thurman remembers when Soto arrived with the Nationals and all the questions the young Dominican asked about defense: throwing the ball to the cutoff man, tracking well-hit balls over your head and what to do at the wall. He said Soto practiced and practiced to get better at his defense, relentlessly repeating drills in the outfield.
"I had him when he first got drafted, so I have had him the whole time," Thurman said. "And the work ethic that he put into outfield was tremendous. I wish that everybody did (what Soto does). I have a saying: Perfect practice makes perfect. He took that to heart. He practices to do everything right."
Thurman detailed Soto's practice on three separate fundamental plays:
* "When we did 'get behinds' and I said, 'Hey, we need to get at least three steps behind the ball.' Well, he wanted to get five steps behind the ball and have some energy going through the ball."
* "When we did 'look-offs.' a lot of guys would run one step and then just haul ass. I said, 'We need to take three steps because we have to read the trajectory of the ball, the speed of the ball. We have to figure out where it's going to go before we can put our head down to run.' That's exactly what he did."
* "When we did balls in the wall and I said, 'Simulate pushing the ball into the ground, so you get it on the first try so we don't have to go back a second time,' he did that. He practiced on a mission."
The bottom line for Thurman when discussing Soto is the player's need - his ultimate goal - is to be the best at all facets of his game. The former Royals outfielder remembered seeing a hot-hitting player or two he coached just practice to practice, but not to get better. He appreciates how Soto, a player who had already demonstrated his ability to hit, seeks out the coaching and repetitions necessary to get better at outfield defense.
"I think he always knew that he could hit, and he knew that his defense wasn't as good as his hitting, and he wanted to make those the same," Thurman said. "I think it is harder for him to play outfield than it is for him to hit and so he really worked on that because he wanted to have a full game, a full-rounded game.
"A lot of guys, as long as they can hit they don't really give a (hoot) about defense. He gives a (hoot) about defense."
Soto is getting noticed for his defense at the major league level as well, having been named a Gold Glove finalist in 2019. This is an example of how Schwarber and Soto should be able to hold their own in the outfield, turning a potential liability into a workable positive.