Image credit: Juan Soto (Getty Images)
RICHMOND—Last year, a series of injuries made it difficult for Juan Soto to stay on the field. This year, his prodigious talent has made it difficult for him to stay on the same field for more than a couple of weeks.
Just ask Nationals minor league hitting coordinator Troy Gingrich, who, thanks to a two-day torrent of rain, got to see Soto for all of seven innings before the big club pulled the trigger and called him up to Washington.
“(Saturday) was the first game I got to see him all year,” Gingrich said. “Every time I was on my way to go see him at one of our other affiliates he had just been moved up. It was kind of bad timing on my part.”
Injuries to his hamstring, wrist and ankle in 2017 limited Soto to just 32 games between low Class A Hagerstown and rehab appearances in the Rookie-level Gulf Coast League, which makes his rapid-fire progression this season even more eye-popping.
Soto returned to Hagerstown to begin this season and blitzed the league for a 1.300 OPS in 16 games and forced a promotion to high Class A Potomac. He homered seven times in 58 at-bats there, prompting a quick move to Double-A Harrisburg, where he became the league’s second-youngest player, behind only New Hampshire third baseman Vladimir Guerrero Jr.
Then, after just eight games, thanks to the organization’s belief in his talent and a series of serious injuries in the big leagues—the latest of which was Howie Kendrick’s ruptured Achilles tendon—he was gone.
Harrisburg manager Matt LeCroy got word from Washington in between games of his team’s doubleheader with Richmond, which meant he had to squeeze a celebration into a 30-minute period that also needed to include a uniform change and the writing of a new lineup.
“I actually did it with the whole group, the whole team,” LeCroy said. “I tried to make a big deal about it and I wanted everybody to be a part of it, because I know everybody respects him. The short time he was here he was a really good teammate.”
So, why did Soto, who has played just 121 minor league games—and just eight above A-ball—and who won’t turn 20 years old until late October, get the call? First, the other options are very limited. Victor Robles, Alejandro De Aza and Rafael Bautista are all on Triple-A Syracuse’s disabled list, leaving the team with just three healthy outfielders.
The situation isn’t much better in Double-A, either. With Soto gone, the Senators’ roster includes just two true outfielders—journeyman Zach Collier and Daniel Johnson, the team’s No. 8 prospect entering the season. The roster is so thin, in fact, that on Sunday infielder Austin Davidson was forced into playing in the outfield for just the sixth time in a minor league career that has spanned five seasons.
After a season battling injury after injury, simply being healthy played a huge part in Soto getting his first call to the big leagues. Oh, and he’s pretty darn talented, too. He entered the season ranked behind only Robles on the Nationals’ Top 30 prospects list, and checked in at No. 29 on the most recent version of Baseball America’s Top 100 Prospects list. When the next revision arrives in a couple of weeks, he’ll climb significantly higher.
LeCroy has been Harrisburg’s manager for five of the last seven seasons, so he’s seen his fair share of talented players, but none have moved up the ladder quite this quickly.
“What I like about Juan is that he’s got really good plate discipline. That’s what (Anthony) Rendon had. Rendon stayed in the zone so well and he recognized pitches,” the manager said. “That was Juan. Juan had this unique ability to slow it down and be able to lay off the tough pitches.
“They pitched him really tough here. Even though they didn’t know who he was, they treated him (like they did). He was getting a lot of 3-2 changeups, 3-2 breaking balls and they threw soft stuff when he was behind, but he handled it well and he didn’t go out of the zone and that’s why he did so well.”
In 38 minor league games this season, Soto drew 28 walks, struck out 23 times and posted on-base percentages of .400 or better at all three stops. That’s tough to do for any hitter, but it’s especially rare to see from a 19-year-old.
Soto credits his sharp eye to a lifetime of playing the game on the biggest stages and against players two or three years older.
“I just think I’m blessed. When I was a child I just kept playing and playing and that helped me a lot. When I was a child I always played above my level. When I was 12 years old I was playing with guys who were 14-15 years old, so that helps,” Soto said before Saturday’s doubleheader. “I played tournaments, league and everything. I repped the Dominican Republic like three times when I was a child, pitching, hitting and everything.”
And when he finds a pitch he can handle, Soto’s smooth, powerful lefthanded swing helps him do damage. His 14 home runs are tied with San Diego’s Franmil Reyes for the most in the minor leagues, and his .757 slugging percentage is second only to the Angels’ Jabari Blash. His 1.218 OPS is the best in the minors.
“The ability to get the barrel to the ball,” Gingrich said, when asked what makes Soto’s prospect status so lofty. “He has some lightning-quick hands and some bat speed. He has the ability to let the ball travel. It’s almost like he’s going to get beat and then you see the ball going out to right-center on a pitch inside. His hand-eye coordination and how he can get the barrel to the ball, along with his bat speed and the power that he possesses, is uncanny.”
The analytics back up Gingrich’s view, too. TrackMan measured Soto’s average exit velocity this season at 89.4 miles per hour, which is among the best in the minor leagues. It also projected his average home run distance at just shy of 400 feet. In other words, Soto has the eye to find his pitch, the swing to reach it and the strength to hit it very hard.
Part of that skill set involves natural talent, but plenty of work goes on behind the scenes to maintain that talent. Even though he only had him for a week, Harrisburg hitting coach Brian Rupp came away impressed by Soto’s work ethic and desire to learn as much as possible.
“The biggest thing for me is that he wants to learn,” he said. “He got to experience, in a brief time, some of the things that he hadn’t really seen before and he’d come up to you after almost every at-bat and want to talk and that type of stuff. That kind of speaks volumes for a kid his age who wants to learn that much.”
One of the drills that Soto said has helped the most involves hitting off a tee without looking at the ball, which he says helps him stay square to the pitcher and keeps him from pulling off the ball. The results were easy to see in the two hits he got on Saturday.
The first pitch of his first at-bat was a fastball on the inner half, which Soto ripped just to the right of second base for a single. Two at-bats later, he got a fastball on the outer half and stung the pitch into the left-center field gap for a two-run double. Both at-bats showed Soto’s innate ability to do a lot without trying to do too much.
It’s not just on the field, either. Soto has worked since a very young age to become fluent in English. He does his interviews without a translator and can speak with every coach without the help of a middleman.
“It’s hard, but I was in the Dominican when I was like 10 years old (and) my mother put me in a school just for English. I was there and I did like three levels before I left. I would say, ‘I don’t want to learn English,’” he said. “But she told me, ‘If you want to be a baseball player, you have to learn English,’ and I said, ‘No, I don’t have to do that, I just have to hit.’ But now I’ve started talking with all the guys, with all the American guys, and going to places and talking with people and that’s how I’ve learned.”
After battling through injuries and working hard on and off the field to harness and maintain his talent, Soto made his big league debut on Sunday. The Nationals’ lack of other options suggest he’ll get plenty of chances to show what he can do at the game’s highest level.