A lot has been made of Juan Soto’s big bat and his impact on the offense. But within the last two months heading into the All-Star break, Soto has improved on his tracking in the outfield, and his overall defense has excelled. He is making stellar catches and reading balls hit to his area well. Soto is throwing to the correct cutoff area after retrieving base hits.
Nationals third base coach Bobby Henley said Soto has an understanding about his position and is learning to take control of a situation when he has a feel for a hitter and where the ball might go.
“Those guys are doing remarkable,” Henley said of the Nats’ outfielders. “Even (June 16 against Arizona) Soto moved over five steps on a guy trying to hit the ball to left field. He told (Victor) Robles ‘You got my back’ and I told Robles ‘I’ve got your back.’ We have a system where we basically cover all the gaps.
“We rotate and we are leaning that way so we are giving ourselves a better chance, but Soto started that. And again, it’s really cool to be able to see those guys go from day one of basically standing where they need to stand to now we are feeling the game out, we are understanding the game.”
Now the team prepares to go on the road to Philadelphia on Friday to begin the second half against the Phillies. Nationals manager Davey Martinez said Soto has improved all facets of his game. Now with all the game experience Soto built in left field these first 80-plus games of 2019, the 20-year-old is ready to take that next step.
“I think his overall game has gotten better,” Martinez said. “Everybody talks about his hitting, but I think his outfield play has gotten better. His baserunning’s gotten better. In that aspect, he’s become that polished player. Still young, still learning. Works incredibly in all aspects of the game. But I think we still haven’t seen what he potentially can do as he gets older.”
Soto has been almost exclusively in left field this season. But Martinez said the young slugger liked playing right field in the Dominican Republic prior to his arrival with the Nationals.
“Left field, for me, was the toughest position to play. He’s played right field,” Martinez noted. “The other day we had decisions to make where (Adrián) Sanchez was going to end up. So Sanchez was maybe going to have to play the outfield. And we asked Sanchoo ‘Where would you prefer to play if we had to put you in the outfield?’ He said he felt more comfortable playing left field.
“So when we told Soto, ‘You are going to have to move to the right field,’ he was really excited, ‘cause that’s where he pretty much played. He said ‘I feel so much more comfortable in right field because that’s where I am just now really starting to learn how to play left field.’ I said, ‘Well, you are doing a great job playing left field.’ He really is. He said, ‘Yeah, it was just a lot harder than it was playing right field.’”
Soto’s and Robles’ improved outfield defense decreases opponents’ scoring chances. This buys the Nats offense more time to connect. And in many cases, it’s Soto and Robles who are doing the damage on offense as well, making them the multi-dimensional threats general manager Mike Rizzo has always envisioned.
* The Nationals announced the pitching assignments for the Phillies series: