- The Washington Times
Monday, May 16, 2022

This season hasn’t been the best for Juan Soto and Nelson Cruz.

Soto, the preseason NL MVP frontrunner, is still putting up good numbers for the Nationals — leading the major leagues in walks along with eight home runs in 36 games — but he was batting a career-low .260 going into Monday night’s game against the Miami Marlins. Cruz, meanwhile, is legitimately slumping, as the 41-year-old designated hitter was hitting just .194 before Monday’s game. But an MLB season is a marathon, so the two Dominican-born players on Saturday sat in the dugout with manager Dave Martinez to talk shop and try to boost their fortunes. 

“Just listening to those two talk about pitch sequences, what they were seeing and what he thought his swing was — it was pretty awesome,” Martinez said.

Soto, 23, played his 500th career major league game on Sunday, and it’s not an exaggeration to say that he’s one of the best young hitters in the sport’s history. But Martinez said Soto, a baseball wunderkind, being open to learning from Cruz, a grizzled veteran, is an example of how Soto yearns to improve — a vital trait if he wants his next 500 games to be anything like his first 500. 

He understands really well who he is and who he wants to be,” Martinez said. 

In statistics compiled since 1920, Soto ranks in the top 50 in several key offensive categories through 500 games. But it’s his plate discipline — his patience combined with a keen eye — that makes him stand out. 

“He knows the strike zone better than anybody I know,” said Martinez, who played 16 years in the majors before spending the last 15 as a coach and manager.  

Soto’s 401 walks through 500 games ranks fourth in the live-ball era. One of the three players with more walks than Soto is Ted Williams, who had 411 walks in his first 500 contests as a youngster with Boston. 

Soto’s .429 on-base percentage — .4288 to be exact, which only matters considering Lou Gehrig’s is infinitesimally smaller at .4286 — is sixth on the list. Four of the players ahead of him are Hall of Famers: Jimmie Foxx, Paul Waner, Frank Thomas and, of course, Williams. 

While Soto is known for his skill at taking walks — he led the majors last season with an eye-popping 145 free bases in 151 games — Martinez said Soto is still looking to let it rip when he steps up to the plate. 

“He’s always ready to hit every pitch,” Martinez said. “With that being said, he can stay on the ball a little bit longer. He recognizes pitches way before the strike zone because he’s ready.”

In 2018, Martinez’s first with the Nationals, he said the organization was consistently telling Soto, who spent the first six weeks of the season in the minors, to “accept his walks.” While many fans see walks as something the pitcher is at fault for, it’s also a skill for hitters — one that is difficult to teach. 

Soto’s maturity at the plate is the main reason he made his major-league debut at just 19 in 2018, Martinez said. Soto played only 122 minor league games — none in Triple-A and just eight in Double-A — before getting the call.

“We approached him when he was young about accepting his walks,” Martinez said. “He took it to heart, and he got better at it.”

His high walk-rate as well as his 106 home runs — eclipsing the century mark earlier this season as the eighth youngest player in league history to do so — are the main reasons why Soto’s overall production is in elite territory. Soto’s .974 OPS (on-base plus slugging percentage) is 14th among live-ball era players through their first 500 games. The only players ahead of him to debut post-World War II are Thomas, Todd Helton and Albert Pujols. The others include Hall of Famers Johnny Mize, Joe DiMaggio and Hank Greenberg as well as all-time greats Williams, Gehrig and Foxx.

But Soto knows the success he’s seen isn’t guaranteed forever. Opposing pitchers are working harder than ever to prevent Soto from beating them. His slugging percentage dipped last season and his on-base numbers soared, as pitchers were more careful when facing him

That trend has continued this season: 56.2% of the pitches he’s seen are out of the zone. The lack of good pitches to hit has caused Soto to uncharacteristically reach outside the zone, as his chase rate is at 20.3% compared to just 12.2% last season. (The average chase rate since 2015 is 28.3%). 

When he fishes for a pitch outside of the zone, he’s oftentimes visibly frustrated — knowing that giving the pitcher a free strike diminishes his greatest strength. It probably doesn’t help either that the Nationals entered Monday with the second-worst record in the majors at 12-24.

So, when Soto and Cruz sit in the clubhouse or in the video room or in the dugout and talk hitting, there’s one lesson Cruz is quick to give Soto

“For me, it’s just how to keep positive,” Soto said last week when asked about what Cruz has taught him.” It doesn’t matter if things aren’t going our way. Just keep positive, keep playing baseball, keep playing hard every day.”

• Jacob Calvin Meyer can be reached at jmeyer@washingtontimes.com.

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