WEST PALM BEACH , Fla. — To the Washington Nationals, too many games ended last season with star Juan Soto watching from the on-deck circle instead of swinging in the batter’s box.
Nationals manager Davey Martinez hopes to limit the number of times that occurs this season by moving Soto to the second spot in the batting order.
“Last year there were 14 times when he was on deck and didn’t get that last at-bat,” Martinez said. “If he’s going to get an opportunity to hit again, you want him to hit.”
Last year, Washington’s No. 2 hitter made 19 more plate appearances than its No. 3 hitter. But that’s not the only reason Martinez likes Soto hitting second.
With the National League adopting the designated hitter this year, the ninth batter — for the Nats, often this spring it’s been Victor Robles — isn’t a pitcher, which should provide the No. 2 hitter with more RBI opportunities.
Martinez also helped sell Soto on the move to the second spot with a persuasive factoid.
“I told him seven of the last 10 MVPs did hit second,” Martinez said.
Christian Yelich, Shohei Ohtani, Mike Trout, Freddie Freeman and Jose Altuve are among the stars who hit second primarily or saw significant at-bats there during their recent MVP seasons.
Big hitters Bryce Harper, Aaron Judge and Manny Machado also have seen ample time in that slot.
Soto is embracing the opportunity to follow their paths.
“I am going to accept the challenge and see how it goes,” Soto said. “It’s going to take a little bit to get used to it, but I think it’s going to be fine.”
Aside from being ready to hit a minute or two earlier in games, Soto expects to be asked to fulfill some of the more traditional duties of the No. 2 hitter.
“It’s not always to bring the run in; sometimes you’ve got to get him over or get on base for the guys behind you, and all that stuff,” Soto said.
He’s even considering more steal attempts.
One of baseball’s most prolific young hitters, the 23-year-old Soto hit .313 with 29 homers and 95 RBIs last season. Hitting primarily from the No. 3 spot in front of Josh Bell, Soto led the majors by drawing 145 walks, 34 more than second-place Joey Gallo, to top baseball with a .465 on-base average.
Soto led the National League with a .351 batting average during the pandemic-shortened 2020 season.
The Nationals hope that by signing veteran Nelson Cruz to be their designated hitter, they addressed concerns regarding teams pitching around Soto.
The top of Sunday’s lineup against Houston was representative of what Martinez plans for Opening Day, with Cesar Hernandez leading off, followed by Soto, Cruz and Bell.
“I think he’s got pretty good — not pretty good, really good — protection,” Martinez said.
Even with that protection, Soto still will likely get his walks.
Blessed with an uncanny ability to judge borderline pitches, Soto is being actively encouraged to be as selective as ever this year.
“Honestly, I say this about him every year, but I think he’s going to have a monster year,” Martinez said. “My big thing with him as we always talk about is accepting his walks, especially early in the season. Early in the season, it seems like he wants to swing, swing, swing.”
Soto swings so often early as a means of refining his timing at the plate. That timing proved elusive earlier this spring, but with two Grapefruit League games remaining before Opening Day, Soto is 7-for-23 with two homers, five RBIs and six walks.
“I feel good,” Soto said. “I’m ready to go since a week ago.”
The Nationals open the season Thursday at home against the New York Mets.
Source: ESPN MLB