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‘It’s a fight, just the pitcher and me’ — What’s behind the Juan Soto Shuffle

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WASHINGTON — The between-pitch routine that is now known simply as “The Soto Shuffle” began when Juan Soto was young — exceedingly young — in the minor leagues. It developed into a tic, but began as a mindset, a tenet, about taking ownership of at-bats and, more so, approaching life with unwavering confidence. The ritual followed him to the majors, where Soto finished his teenage years, its theatrics growing increasingly more aggressive as the months passed and the success persisted.

Then Anibal Sanchez saw it.

“He just started laughing,” Soto recalled. “I mean, I started laughing too.”

It was July 20, 2018, during their second confrontation. Sanchez was pitching for the Atlanta Braves, midway through his 13th season. Soto was 19 years old and two months into his big league career. Sometimes he would take a pitch and aggressively tug at his crotch. Other times he would squat really low, lunge forward, stare directly into Sanchez’s eyes and grin.

“I’m like, ‘What’s going on over here?'” Sanchez said. “I thought this guy was going to fight with me.”

It continued through Soto’s first two plate appearances. Sanchez would giggle, causing Soto to crack a smile and break character. On nights when he wasn’t pitching, Sanchez began imitating Soto’s routine from the opposing dugout, egging him on. Soto grew to love it.

The following year, Sanchez joined Soto on the Washington Nationals and began to view the histrionics differently. He saw a young man with distinct poise who took on a fighter’s mentality in the batter’s box. The routine, Sanchez learned, was merely an extension of Soto’s identity.

“It’s good,” Sanchez said, “especially when you have him on your team.”

“The Soto Shuffle” will be on display on baseball’s grandest stage this week, when the Nationals — fresh off a convincing sweep of the St. Louis Cardinals in the National League Championship Series — face the Houston Astros in their first World Series.

Fans throughout the country have become equal parts captivated, enraged and excited by the flamboyance of Soto’s routine. He’ll swing his hips or spread his legs or sweep his feet or shimmy his shoulders or lick his lips or squeeze his, um, junk, sometimes all at once. Soto has stated that it’s a mechanism to synchronize his timing, but he also admitted to an ulterior motive.

“I like to get in the minds of the pitchers,” Soto said earlier this postseason, “because sometimes they get scared.”

Soto’s father, Juan Sr., was watching from the Dominican Republic when Cardinals starter Miles Mikolas got Soto to bounce into an inning-ending groundout in Game 1, waited for him to turn his head and grabbed his own crotch in retaliation. The incident, dismissed as playful banter by Mikolas, seemed to symbolize the sport’s ongoing culture war. But Juan Sr. just laughed. The antics, he explained, are the manifestation of a mindset ingrained in Soto as a child.

“It’s like I always told him — when you get into the batter’s box to hit, you own that space,” Juan Sr., speaking in Spanish, said in a phone conversation. “Nobody can intimidate you. On the contrary, those guys [the pitchers] are the ones who should be afraid of you. And you have to show them why.”

When Soto was only a few months old, his father was already taking him to Estadio Quisqueya, home to the Licey Tigers and the most intense, pressure-packed baseball on the island. Juan Sr. would bring a bottle and a blanket, and the two would take in the atmosphere together. Baseball was at the core of Soto’s life from then on. He was always too young and too good for the league he played in. Through the years, his father often repeated the same phrase: “You’re going to be a big leaguer.”

Soto never needed the confidence boost.

“That,” Juan Sr. said, “was always in him.”

The Nationals signed Soto for $1.5 million in July 2015, a franchise record on the international market. Injuries limited him to 83 games through his first two seasons of professional baseball, so he used the downtime to become a fluent English speaker. After the 2017 season, he returned home to Santo Domingo and trained with purpose, then zipped through the Nationals’ minor league system the following spring, graduating from both Class A levels in five weeks.

Soto arrived at the Nationals’ Double-A affiliate in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, on May 10. The clubhouse was overrun, and one of the catchers was forced to share half his locker with Soto.

“Don’t worry,” Soto told him, “I won’t be here long. This isn’t my league.”

Nine days later, Nationals president of baseball operations Mike Rizzo sat in Dave Martinez’s office after his postgame media session. Martinez, then in his second month as a major league manager, lamented the injuries that were beginning to pile up, the latest a torn Achilles tendon suffered by Howie Kendrick.

“We’re bringing up Soto,” Rizzo said.

Martinez was incredulous.

“We’re bringing up Soto,” Rizzo repeated. “He’s gonna have to learn to play sooner or later.”

Soto homered in the first at-bat of his first start and batted .346 through the first 16 games of his rookie season. By the end of it, he owned a .292/.406/.517 slash line with 22 home runs in 494 plate appearances, setting a record for weighted runs above average among teenagers. Martinez was awed by Soto’s plate discipline and poise, but was also impressed by his diligence.

Soto’s second-year numbers — .282/.401/.548 with 34 homers in 659 plate appearances this season — only improved. When the postseason began, he held the record for most walks before age 21 and trailed only Mel Ott for the most home runs. Then came the game-winning hit off Josh Hader in the eighth inning of the NL wild-card game, and the game-tying home run off Clayton Kershaw on the decisive night of the NL Division Series.

“He likes the big moments,” Martinez said. “The 50,000 fans, the big lights — it doesn’t bother him a bit.”

Soto expanded his strike zone often in the minor leagues and was told to home in on one pitch, in one location, until he got into two-strike counts. Soto has adopted that mindset in the major leagues, a strategy that works only when hitters possess a firm grasp of opponents’ tendencies. Nationals starter Max Scherzer has taken note of the way Soto interprets data, a rarity for his age.

“When you’re young and trying to solidify yourself, you’re trying to solidify yourself in the baseball standards,” Scherzer said. “But to be able to take on the data is a whole different ballgame. And the fact that you can do both, especially when you’re young, that really is a testament to how smart he is.”

Soto accumulated one hit and seven strikeouts through his first 12 at-bats in the NLCS. The Cardinals attacked him mostly with breaking balls out of the strike zone, and Martinez noticed Soto trying too aggressively to pull pitches. The night before Game 4, Soto was in the batting cage with hitting coach Kevin Long until midnight, working on seeing the ball deep and hitting it to the opposite field. Hours later, in an eventual 7-4, pennant-clinching victory on Tuesday night, Soto put together four impressive plate appearances — lining a double down the left-field line, flying out to the left-field warning track, smoking a 107 mph line drive to center field and singling sharply through the right side.

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Sources — Yankees say Jacoby Ellsbury got unauthorized medical treatment

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The New York Yankees intend to not pay Jacoby Ellsbury the remaining $26 million due under his contract, contending he violated the deal by receiving unauthorized medical treatment, sources confirmed to ESPN’s Buster Olney on Friday.

According to multiple reports, Yankees general manager Brian Cashman sent a letter to Ellsbury and his agent, Scott Boras, informing them the team had converted his contract to a nonguaranteed deal.

The Yankees said Ellsbury, who has not played since 2017 due to myriad injuries, was treated by Dr. Viktor Bouquette of Progressive Medical Center in Atlanta without the team’s permission, according to multiple reports.

The New York Post first reported that the Yankees didn’t intend to pay Ellsbury, who had two years remaining on his $153 million, seven-year contract when he was released Wednesday.

Ellsbury and The MLB Players’ Association can file a grievance challenging the conversion of the contract to nonguaranteed.

Ellsbury is owed $26,285,714 by the Yankees in one of their biggest free-agent mistakes: $21,142,857 for next season plus a $5 million buyout of a $21 million team option for 2021. If Ellsbury is not paid, that amount would come off the Yankees’ luxury-tax payroll next year.

He was released Wednesday to clear a 40-man roster spot as the Yankees added seven players to protect them from next month’s Rule 5 draft.

Now 36, Ellsbury hit .264 with 39 homers, 198 RBIs and 102 stolen bases in 520 games over four seasons with the Yankees. He spent his first seven seasons with the Boston Red Sox and was an All-Star in 2011, and he arrived in New York with a .297 career average, 65 homers, 314 RBIs and 241 steals for Boston.

Ellsbury injured an oblique muscle in his right side early during spring training in 2018, developed a bad back and had hip surgery Aug. 6 to repair a torn labrum in his left hip. He experienced plantar fasciitis in his right foot during his rehab program before spring training this year.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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Where does Jacoby Ellsbury rank among MLB’s worst big-money free-agent signings ever?

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Midway through the 2019 season, a member of the New York Yankees organization assessed the laundry list of injured players, providing updates on rehabilitation schedules, the latest baseball activities for those ailing, and possible timelines for their respective returns to the lineup.

When I brought up Jacoby Ellsbury, the response was an incredulous stare.

As in: Really? There was no expectation he would play this year, and in the end, Ellsbury didn’t play much for the Yankees over the course of his seven-year, $153 million contract before his release this week. Ellsbury competed in 520 games over four seasons. He did not play in any games for the Yankees in 2018 or 2019 and won’t in 2020, the last year of the contract.

He scored 273 runs, hit 39 homers, stole 102 bases and generated 8.1 fWAR in his time with the Yankees. Mike Trout and Alex Bregman had more fWAR than that in 2019 alone.

That value deficit is why Ellsbury’s deal will go down as one of the worst big-money contracts in baseball history. Using a Fangraphs search tool, Sarah Langs of MLB.com pegged the Ellsbury contract value at $63 million, so what the Yankees got in return was almost $100 million less in value. (According to the New York Post, the Yankees are filing a grievance to recoup some of the Ellsbury contract.)

What follows are some of the least productive free-agent contracts we’ve seen in baseball, among deals of at least $50 million.

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Jose Abreu agrees to 3-year, $50 million contract with White Sox

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The Chicago White Sox have agreed to a three-year, $50 million contract with Jose Abreu, the team announced Friday.

Abreu, who made his third All-Star team in six seasons with the White Sox, led the American League with 123 RBIs in 2019 while batting .284 with 33 home runs.

“This is a dream come true for me and my family,” Abreu said in a release by the team. “To the fans, I told you I would come back. I never doubted it. Everybody knows the group of talented players that we have, and I want to help guide them and together make the Chicago White Sox a championship team.”

The first baseman/designated hitter, who will turn 33 in January, showed he can still catch up to fastballs as he ranked among the leaders in overall exit velocity, but he struggled with breaking pitches and rarely walks.

Abreu signed a one-year, $17.8 million qualifying offer last week, choosing to forgo free agency before agreeing to the new contract with the White Sox.

In an interview after the season, he told the team’s website: “I always look at [Derek] Jeter’s story and I look at Mariano [Rivera]’s story, who played their whole career with one team. I haven’t been here that many years, but I want it to be that way for me, with the Chicago White Sox. That’s why I say if they don’t sign me, I’ll sign myself. I’ll play for free.”

Under the new deal, Abreu will receive a $5 million signing bonus, $11 million in 2020, $16 million in 2021 and $18 million in 2022, with $4 million deferred. Abreu also has a full no-trade clause in 2020 and a limited one in 2021, according to a copy of the agreement obtained by ESPN.

Abreu’s signing is the second big move of the offseason for the White Sox, who announced Thursday that they had agreed to terms on a four-year, $73 million contract with All-Star catcher Yasmani Grandal.

ESPN’s Jeff Passan contributed to this report.

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