July 13, 2024

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How Yankees' Juan Soto took steps to improve his defense off the field

How Yankees' Juan Soto took steps to improve his defense off the field

Jackie Bradley Jr. witnessed the highlight of Opening Day, a life-saving one-hop hit to home plate by his offseason training buddy, New York Yankees right fielder Juan Soto.

“I definitely did,” Bradley said. “You could tell he was more confident. He wasn't just getting to the ball and trying to hit the cutoff man. No, he attacked the ball. He had every intention of firing him. “It was a great throw.”

Soto, 25, sought advice from Bradley, a former Gold Glove quarterback, while the two were training together in Miami. He's working hard with Luis Rojas, the Yankees' third base coach and outfield coach. In the words of his manager, Aaron Boone, “He's not satisfied with his reputation as a mediocre outfielder. He wants to win a Gold Glove.”

Make no mistake: Soto's historic offensive production, on display all weekend as he dismantled the Houston Astros, is the main reason he will make $500 million next season in free agency. But in the early days of the season, starting with a ninth inning in which he eliminated Mauricio Dupont as a potential Opening Day equalizer, his defense was intriguing.

For Davey Martinez, Soto's former manager with the Washington Nationals, playing Dupont brought up memories of Soto's early years, when few complained about his defense.

“His first step was good and he always came up to get the ball like he did the other day,” said Martinez, a former Major League pitcher. “I love the kid because he's always willing to do the work.”

However, after last season, Soto realized additional work was needed. Playing for the San Diego Padres, he ranked 31st among left fielders in defensive runs saved and 32nd in outside runs above average. His decline alarmed some residents, who viewed him, at a young age, as being on the path to becoming a DH.

His trade to the Yankees entailed a return to right field, a position he played in 2021 and '22. The first of those years was Soto's last full season with the national team, and he was rated as an above-average defender. But after being traded to the Padres in July 2022, he regressed dramatically.

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A cynic might point out that Soto's renewed commitment to both his defense and base running is the natural response for a player who realizes that in his first year of walking, he has to be at his best. But Soto has been serious about his defense before, so it's not unusual for him to be serious about this again.

“For me, this is really important,” Soto told me Saturday. In an interview with Fox Sports. “It's like people say: offense wins games, but defense wins championships. I think I've got to improve that part of my game. I've worked really hard this season. I've really focused on that. And now, back in right field, I really wanted to get Good jumps, make her feel good again.

Soto and Bradley are both represented by Scott Boras, and Bradley said they naturally gravitated toward each other while training at the same facility in Miami. Bradley, who remains a free agent and wants to continue playing, picked Soto's brains out at bat. Soto picked Bradley's mind to play.

Throwing was a major theme. Soto, who played 150 or more games in each of his four full seasons, missed time with a strain in his left (throwing) shoulder early in 2021. Bradley said over time he overcompensated with the injury and stopped trusting his arm.

“I was just trying to get him to change his arm slot a little bit, so he's more on the ball, to get a more accurate spin instead of coming down to the side of the ball when the ball isn't in hand.” “Able to get pregnant,” Bradley said. “You're always talking about a particular pitcher who lives in the area. This will allow him to throw more accurately, because he'll be more on the line, but also he'll have a bigger load. He's not going to come out and die on you.”

How can a player make such improvements?

“Repetition,” Bradley said. “You have to throw. I feel like a lot of guys at the highest level just throw to throw. And now he's throwing with intent. He knows what he needs to work on to keep his arm strong constantly and develop a pattern for it that will just kind of become second nature to him.”

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Most fans think of outfield play in relatively simple terms – catch the ball and then throw it. But mastering each position requires precise skills. Soto said his conversations with Bradley “helped me a lot.” Bradley also advised him on his routes, and about getting every advantage when trying to cover ground, even if it means taking his eyes off the ball.

Consider the play Soto made on Friday night, in the second game of the season. His highlight was a sliding catch he made over Alex Bregman with two on and the Yankees took a 2-1 lead into the seventh inning. But for Rojas, Soto's shot at Jeremy Peña into the right corner earlier in the game was perhaps even more impressive.

During spring training, Soto failed to finish a similar play, as the ball bounced off the top of his glove. On Peña's ball, he kept his glove close to his body until the final moment, when he raised his arm and caught a backhander.

“Just like a wide receiver, they keep going and then the ball comes and that's when they (extend their arms),” Rojas said. “It's the same on the field. If you lift your glove too early, you might get away from your running style. An extra step, a step and a half can be the difference between getting the ball and not getting it.

Rojas said Soto's first-pitch speed and route efficiency “were not quite there last year,” at least not comparable to what the Yankees have seen thus far. Soto was doing it again on Sunday, launching an 83-footer into the gap in right-center to steal Bregman's extra bases. The probability of catching the ball was only 45 percent. But Soto, by working on his pre-pitch technique, put himself in a better position to respond to contact.

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When a pitch is thrown, the difference in its setup is obvious.

“He's jumping around a little bit,” Rojas said. “It's not quite like a jump on the court. A smaller type of jump, where you're syncing up with the ball in the contact zone. It has some movement before contact rather than starting from scratch. It's not just how you do the pre-pitch, but when you do it. You have to It is delayed slightly, so that it is actually in motion when the ball is hit.

Rojas said Soto frequently practices with a smaller glove, trying to get a better feel for his hands. He follows a similar routine with his throwing, trying to develop the muscle memory to consistently make powerful, accurate throws. “He will correct himself a lot,” Rojas said. “He's so demanding that I tell him, 'Don't be so hard on yourself.'”

Roberto Clemente won't be on the right, and neither will Dwight Evans or Mookie Betts. On Saturday, Soto was playing with Dupont shallow, and the ball sailed over his right shoulder for a double. Dupont hit the ball at 99.4 mph. The probability of the play being caught was only 35 percent, according to Statcast. Aaron Judge, who is five inches tall and 6-foot-7, might have had a chance to make the jump. But the judge is in the center now.

The Yankees acquired Soto because they wanted his left-handed presence, his signature blend of power and plate discipline, and his game-changing offensive talent. It turns out that with Soto, Judge, and Alex Verdugo, they might end up with above-average defensive cap space as well.

Take it from Bradley, who said of Soto's offseason work, “I wouldn't expect anything less from a guy who's trying to be great.” And take it from Rojas, who considers the future $500 million man to be completely coachable.

“He's not just an attacking player. He wants to be a complete player,” Rojas said. “And I think he has the ability to do that.”

(Top photo by Juan Soto: Michael Stargell/MLB Images via Getty Images)