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How Yankees’ Juan Soto took steps to improve his outfield defense

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How Yankees’ Juan Soto took steps to improve his outfield defense

Jackie Bradley Jr. saw the Opening Day highlight, the game-saving, one-hop throw to home plate by his offseason training buddy, New York Yankees right fielder Juan Soto.

“I did. I sure 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 throwing him out. And it was an awesome throw.”

Soto, 25, sought advice from Bradley, a former Gold Glove center fielder, while the two worked out together in Miami. He is working diligently with Luis Rojas, the Yankees’ third base coach and outfield instructor. In the words of his manager, Aaron Boone, “He’s not satisfied with his reputation of being an average 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 primary reason he likely will command $500 million next offseason in free agency. But in the early days of the season, starting with his ninth-inning erasure of Mauricio Dubón as the potential tying run on Opening Day, his defense has been eye-opening.

For Davey Martinez, Soto’s former manager with the Washington Nationals, the play on Dubón evoked memories of Soto’s early years, when few complained about his defense.

“His first step was good and he would always come get the ball as he did the other day,” said Martinez, a former major-league outfielder. “I love the kid because he’s always willing to put the work in.”

After last season, however, Soto recognized additional work was necessary. Playing for the San Diego Padres, he ranked 31st among left fielders in defensive runs saved and 32nd in outs above average. His regression alarmed some evaluators, who considered him, at a young age, on a 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 Nationals, and he rated as an above-average defender. But after his trade to the Padres in July 2022, he dropped off considerably.

A cynic would suggest Soto’s renewed commitment to both his defense and base running is the natural response of a player recognizing that in his walk year, he needs to be at his best. But Soto was serious about his defense before, so it’s not out of character for him to be serious about it again.

“For me, it’s really important,” Soto told me Saturday in an interview for 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 really worked hard this offseason. I really focused on it. And now, moving back to right field, I wanted to really get good jumps, make it feel comfortable again.”

Soto and Bradley both are 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 brain on hitting. And Soto picked Bradley’s brain on fielding.

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

“I was just trying to get him to change his arm slot a little bit, so he would be more on top of the ball, to get a truer spin instead of getting off to the side of the ball when the ball wouldn’t be able to carry,” Bradley said. “You always talk about a certain pitcher having life through the zone. This will allow him to throw more accurately, because it will be more on line, but also have more carry. It won’t just come out and die on you.”

And how does an outfielder 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. He’s now throwing with intent. He knows what he needs to work on to continuously keep his arm strong and develop a pattern so it will just come kind of second nature to him.”

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

Consider a play Soto made Friday night, in the season’s second game. His most notable catch was a sliding grab he made on Alex Bregman with two runners on and the Yankees leading in the seventh inning, 2-1. But to Rojas, a running catch Soto made on Jeremy Peña in the right-field corner earlier in the game might have been even more impressive.

During spring training, Soto failed to finish a similar play, the ball bouncing off the top of his glove. On the Peña ball, he kept his glove close to his body until the last instant, when he raised his arm and made a backhand grab.

“Just like a wide receiver, they keep going and then the ball is coming in and that’s when they (extend their arms),” Rojas said. “It’s similar in the outfield. If you get your glove up a little bit too soon, you might get away from your running technique. An extra step, step and a half can be the difference between getting and not getting to a ball.”

Rojas said Soto’s first-step quickness and route efficiency were “not entirely there last year,” at least not compared to what the Yankees have seen thus far. Soto was at it again Sunday, sprinting 83 feet into the gap in right-center to rob Bregman of extra bases. The ball had only a 45 percent catch probability. But Soto, by working on his pre-pitch technique, has put himself in better position to react to contact.

As a pitch is thrown, the difference in his setup is evident.

“He’s hopping a little bit,” Rojas said. “Not quite like an infield hop. A smaller type of hop, where he’s syncing with the ball in the contact zone. And he has some movement prior to contact rather than starting from zero. It’s not only how you do your pre-pitch, but when you do it. You’ve got to be a little later, so you’re actually in motion when the ball is hit.”

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

He is not going to be Roberto Clemente in right, not Dwight Evans or Mookie Betts, either. On Saturday, Soto was playing Dubón shallow, and a ball sailed over his right shoulder for a double. Dubón hit the ball 99.4 mph. The play had only a 35 percent catch probability, according to Statcast. Aaron Judge, five inches taller at 6-foot-7, might have stood a chance of making a leaping grab. But Judge is in center now.

The Yankees acquired Soto because they coveted his left-handed presence, his distinct blend of power and plate discipline, his game-changing offensive talent. It turns out with Soto, Judge and Alex Verdugo, they might end up with an above-average defensive outfield, too.

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

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

(Top photo of Juan Soto: Michael Starghill/MLB Photos via Getty Images)

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