Inside Juan Soto's 'Yankee Classic' throw — and what makes a great right fielder

HOUSTON — Juan Soto's Yankees debut, which will live for years in replays and memories and what Aaron Judge referred to as "Yankee Classic" rebroadcasts, had its roots in a subtle moment the day before.

While the team worked out at Minute Maid Park on Wednesday afternoon, it noticed that the infield was playing more quickly than usual. Ground balls were scooting through the turf and into the outfield. They filed away the mental note, believing that it might help throw a runner out on a bang-bang play.

Almost exactly 24 hours later, with Opening Day against the dreaded Houston Astros on the line, the Yanks and closer Clay Holmes clung to a 5-4 lead in the ninth. They had earned it with a day of long, grinding, '90s dynasty-type of at-bats, crawling back from an early 4-0 deficit.

When Jose Altuve came up with no outs and Mauricio Dubon on first, a big hit seemed like a fait accompli. That's just what happens to the Yankees against this team, and especially in this park.

But in 2024, for one day at least, Altuve was not the hero. He lined out to second base. Yordan Alvarez followed with a single, pushing Dubon to second.

Kyle Tucker followed with a single to right field. It seemed that the speedy Dubon was about to tie the game, and put the Yankees back in their place.

From his perch in the dugout, manager Aaron Boone saw what he had noticed the day before: the ball whizzed through the infield and arrived at Soto in five fast hops. He also noted that Soto got a good read on the ball and moved efficiently toward it.

That tracked with what caught the attention of Boone and outfield coach Luis Rojas during spring training: Soto was working toward becoming a better outfielder than he was long reputed to be.

Unlike the defensively elite Judge, Soto grades out, in scouting lingo, as an average or solid average outfielder at best. His range and routes have always been so-so, and his arm is generally seen as a 55 on a 20-80 scouting scale (Judge, by comparison, grades as a 60-70 arm, depending on who is writing the report).

Mar 28, 2024; Houston, Texas, USA; New York Yankees right fielder Juan Soto (22) reacts towards the Houston Astros dugout during the fifth inning at Minute Maid Park. Mandatory Credit: Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

"One of the things that stood out in talking to Louie Rojas in spring and even our other coaches and staff members, [they're] seeing a work ethic," Boone said. "His process and work ethic and care factor [is] not just hitting, but he takes great pride in his defense. When you're young and athletic and you care and you work, you can move the needle. He works hard on getting reads and jumps and all those kinds of things."

"He has been working on it all spring," Judge added. "A lot of people haven't seen that, on the back fields working on just how he wants the ball to come out of his hands."

As Soto charged the ball and scooped it into his glove, he winged it to Platinum Glove winner Jose Trevino behind the plate, trusting him to finish the play.

"I worked all spring training long on my arm and the throws from right field," Soto said. "I just keep working on the angles. It's different angels from left field and right field. Just getting back to right field [after playing left for San Diego] and getting the angles right, taking good routes to the ball. [Rojas] really helps me a lot to see where to take good routes to the ball."

As Soto set his feet to throw, Judge — moved to center, because the Yanks acquired Soto — peeked at Astros third base coach Gary Pettis, and saw that he was waving Dubon home.

Judge has plenty of experience making great throws from right.

"The most important thing is getting the ball," he explained. "A lot of people skip that step, and that's what causes a lot of issues. He was nice and easy, got the ball, and from there it's trust it, let it rip. We do a thousand throws throughout the offseason, spring training, [during the] season. It's really muscle memory. So the most important thing is get the ball, and let it rip."

That's exactly what Soto did. His 55 arm made the throw to Trevino on one hop.

"He has good spin on it, which makes the throw play up," Rojas said.

Trevino tagged Dubon. Soto pumped his arms and screamed. Rojas had been trying to get him to take pride in his defense, to pimp plays like he does during his swaggy at-bats. This was exactly what he meant.

The call survived a replay review, and Holmes soon locked down the win.

Between Soto's throw and a potential game-saving catch deep in left center in the seventh by another Winter Meetings trade pickup, Alex Verdugo, the Yankees featured elite defense at the outfield corners — courtesy of two guys acquired to help the offense.

"Left field was obviously a struggle for us last year in a lot of ways," Boone said. "And the way [Verdugo] was tracking that ball, it felt like he had a chance but he needed to be perfect — and he was."

"Ooh, I was a little worried," Judge said of the play in the seventh. "Man, he's got some range. He's a heck of an outfielder, especially with how tricky that left field is here. You've got the boxes coming in and it's kind of jutting out."

Yankee Stadium features a spacious left field, and calls for an athletic defender. That's why the Yanks assigned Brett Gardner — a center fielder by trade who played an 80 left field — to the position for so many years. Soto was not going to be a left fielder in that ballpark.

But to hear the Yankees tell it, maybe he can be better — and swaggier — in right than anyone expected.

For one day, at least, it was his defense that made the postgame clubhouse light and airy — the same clubhouse in which grown men sobbed and sniffled after Altuve's home run to win the 2019 American League Championship Series.

"That was a Yankee Classic," Judge said. "Juan's debut."