Through the Washington Nationals’ 4-1 loss to the Pittsburgh Pirates on Tuesday, Soto had 500 plate appearances in 114 games. He finished last season with 494 plate appearances in 116 games. This provides an apt year-to-year offensive comparison and shows that the biggest difference with Soto, the Nationals’ left fielder of the present and future, is his tendency to run.
Soto’s final rookie stat line: 77 runs, 121 hits, 25 doubles, 22 home runs, 70 RBI, 79 walks, 99 strikeouts, .292 average, .406 on-base percentage, .517 slugging percentage and a 142 OPS+, an advanced statistic that measures hitters against a league average and factors in opponents and ballparks played in. His stat line this season, in a near-identical sample size: 79 runs, 122 hits, 20 doubles, 28 home runs, 83 RBI, 78 walks, 100 strikeouts, .290 batting average, .401 on-base percentage, .557 slugging and, again, a 139 OPS+. Most numbers are almost equal. His added power fits a leaguewide trend. The steals, already seven more with six weeks to play, are what really stand out.
“That’s a lot,” Soto said with a big grin, back when he was at 10 steals. “I’ve been working really hard on it, so now I see the results that make me really happy. You never know, maybe I get 20 or something like that.”
The first step was getting faster, plain and simple, and Soto put that at the top of his offseason to-do list. That meant never skipping leg day in the gym. That meant going to the beach every Saturday, in his hometown of Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic, and trudging through the ankle-high sand, sometimes pulling weights along with him. Once he got to spring training, a bit slimmer, a bit stronger in his lower half, Soto began working with first base coach Tim Bogar on how to better read pitchers.
Bogar heads the base stealing efforts and often uses what the Nationals call “hot counts” to improve odds. A hot count is one in which a pitcher has a low throw-over percentage — meaning he rarely tries to pick off at first base — and tends to throw breaking balls to the batter. Breaking balls are easier to steal on because they get to the plate slower and can be hard for the catcher to handle. Hot counts don’t really apply to Trea Turner or Victor Robles, known base stealers who are treated accordingly. But with Soto, who is much closer to average speed, the formula often applies.
That has helped Soto turn a deficiency, or a non-skill, into a deceptive strength. Teams don’t tend to Soto like a base stealer, so he exploits them. He plays the numbers game. He often picks a specific count to run in, talking quietly with Bogar once he reaches first, and then uses instincts to time the pitcher and take off.
“With Juan, it’s a great blend of understanding analytics and what we’re trying to do but also using his natural ability and feel for the game,” Bogar said. “That can be a dangerous combination, and it takes a lot of work. But there’s no questioning that he’ll put in all the work. Stealing has become another part of what he looks at every day.”
He figures Soto will get watched more closely now because teams can easily spot the steals uptick in the scouting report. But that’s fine with Bogar and Manager Dave Martinez. Even if Soto’s steals numbers plateau and he doesn’t get to 20 or even 15, the Nationals will benefit from pitchers paying more attention to him. They already have to worry about Turner, Robles and, to a lesser extent, Adam Eaton on the base paths. Now, with their cleanup hitter stealing bases, there are few breaks for pitchers, who ultimately want to focus on the plate.
It’s another way Soto can bother opposing teams, as if his swing weren’t enough.
“Think about it this way: You go through a whole at-bat trying to get Juan Soto out, you’re grinding, and instead he walks or singles or whatever,” Bogar said. “Now you have a premier power hitter on first base, and that usually means you can just try and get the next guy. You can ignore him. But not Juan, and that probably gets guys at least a bit ticked off.”
Yeah, when you think about it that way, it doesn’t sound great.