For even the greatest hitters, facing big league pitchers as a teenager is often too much, too soon.
When Alex Rodriguez arrived in Seattle as a 19-year-old, he hit .232 in 142 at-bats. He was second in the MVP balloting as a 20-year-old, but as a teenager, he struggled through uncomfortable at-bats. Mike Trout reached the majors as a 19-year-old and hit just .220 in 123 at-bats. Greatness had to wait until he was Rookie of the Year and second in the MVP balloting the next season.
Merely making to the majors as a 19-year-old hitter is a strong indicator of future greatness, which makes what Nationals outfielder Juan Soto is doing all the more remarkable.
After just 122 games in the minors and a mere eight above Class A, Soto has immediately become a middle-of-the-lineup fixture for the Nationals. The lefthanded hitter rarely gives away an at-bat. And when he finds a pitch to hit, he has reached parts of Nationals Park that few others have ever reached.
“He doesn’t have holes in his swing,” said a pro scout. “And he has the best hitting approach on the team.”
So what has allowed Soto, who won’t turn 20 until Oct. 25, to have so much success at such a young age? Beyond all of his tools, it’s the mature way he approaches each at-bat.
“He’s probably the best pure hitter I’ve had,” Double-A Harrisburg hitting coach Brian Rupp said the day after Soto got the call to Washington. “The consistency is what sets him apart. He doesn’t have too many bad at-bats, and even if he does he usually follows it up with a pretty good one.”
For an example of what Rupp was talking about, look no further than Soto’s last minor league game, against Richmond.
After singling in his first at-bat, Richmond’s Jordan Johnson followed a first-pitch fastball with three consecutive offspeed pitches that caused Soto to flail at strike three. Johnson tried slipping a first-pitch fastball by him two innings later and Soto shot it into the left-center-field gap for a run-scoring double.
That’s how Soto operates. If he makes a mistake, he doesn’t sulk. He internalizes it and quickly figures out a way to not let it happen again. That’s a rare skill for any ballplayer, but a 19-year-old? That’s almost unheard of.
“The biggest thing for me is that he wants to learn,” Rupp 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.”
If you watch Soto’s swing from the side, it’s easy to see part of what has allowed him to have so much success so quickly. He couples blazing bat speed with a path to the ball that keeps the barrel through the hitting zone for a very long time.
Add to that a sense of hand-eye coordination that allows him to quickly manipulate the barrel to different parts of the zone, and you get a hitter with an ability to make hard contact on a great variety of pitches.
“The ability to get the barrel to the ball,” Nationals hitting coordinator Troy Gingrich said of Soto’s best attribute. “He has some lightning-quick hands, some bat speed, and 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.”
Asked about the last time he’d seen a hitter with that combination of skills, Gingrich was quick with his response.
“I haven’t seen it since Bryce Harper.”
Like Soto, Harper blazed a path to the majors as a 19-year-old. But in Harper’s case, everyone was ready and waiting for his arrival. He’d been the best ninth grade baseball player in the country, the best 10th grader and when he skipped two years of school to go to junior college, and he was by acclimation the best prospect in the 2010 draft. His arrival in the big leagues was long awaited.
Soto understandably slid much more under the radar because his rise from obscurity to stardom was so much quicker. One of the best international prospects in the 2015 signing class that also included fellow Dominicans Vladimir Guerrero Jr. and Fernando Tatis Jr., Soto was seen as an advanced hitter whose other tools were solid but not spectacular.
In his pro debut in 2016, Soto skipped the Dominican Summer League and went straight to the Rookie-level Gulf Coast League. He hit .361 to lead the league in batting by nearly 40 points. He also led the GCL in slugging percentage and finished second in on-base percentage.
Soto was expected to be one of the best prospects in the low Class A South Atlantic League in 2017, but he played in just 32 games because of a broken ankle, hamate injury and hamstring pull.
Soto returned to Hagerstown in 2018, but after 16 games he jumped to high Class A Potomac. Just 14 games later, he was headed to Double-A Harrisburg. A little over a week later, he was a big leaguer.
Because he has moved so quickly through the minor leagues, Soto has been a rare sight for opposing scouts. Now that he’s established in the Nationals’ lineup, however, those scouts can finally get a look at the talented teenager.
“The word gets thrown around, but he’s a true phenom,” a veteran evaluator said, “there’s no question. His power—I saw him in the big leagues (because) I didn’t get a chance to see him in the minors—but the ball he hit at Yankee Stadium was 70-75 game power (on the 20-80 scouting scale).
“He can go the other way, he goes with the pitch real well, he makes adjustments on breaking balls, stays back really nice with good balance. Good hand-eye coordination. There are so many things you could say about him. He’s an everyday player, he’s an impact guy.”
For all of Soto’s physical gifts—and there are plenty—his two-strike approach has gained the most acclaim. As the game has increasingly shifted toward an all-or-nothing mindset, Soto has shown at an early age a willingness to change his approach as the count dictates.
In early July, Soto showed of his maturity. With the Nationals trailing 4-3 with two outs in the ninth inning, he stepped to the plate against Red Sox closer Craig Kimbrel.
Kimbrel’s first pitch to Soto was 99 mph and up and out of the zone. Soto chased for strike one. Kimbrel went back to the exact same pitch for a swinging strike two.
Down 0-2 to one of the best closers of the 21st Century, Soto fouled off a third 99 mph high fastball to stay alive. He then stared at a 87 mph slider that darted low and out of the zone for ball one.
Kimbrel missed badly up and out of the zone with a 96 mph fastball to even the count back at 2-2. Soto held up on a 98 mph fastball that missed the zone in on his hands to make the count full. Kimbrel went back to the slider, this time in the zone and Soto fouled it off. Kimbrel then missed high again as Soto worked back from an 0-2 count to draw his third walk of the game.
It was a remarkable at-bat, but not all that unusual. Through his first five weeks in the majors, Soto had drawn 13 walks in two-strike counts. That’s the same number this season as Mookie Betts. Out of his first 47 big league games, Soto had reached base in 39 of them.
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“His approach within an at-bat, he’s always made adjustments,” Nationals farm director Mark Scialabba said. “That’s special to him as well. He’s made adjustments level to level, but he’s so advanced that he makes adjustments within an at-bat. He’s able to do that and that’s what makes him unique.
“His two-strike approach and how he attacks those situations—he’s not afraid to spread out, choke up, use the whole field and put the ball in play. That’s something that we’ve preached from day one with a lot of our players, and he’s taken to it to another level and he successfully mimics other players who do that as well.”
Harrisburg manager Matt LeCroy, who has been at the Senators’ helm for five of the last seven seasons and had a seven-year big league career, has been around more than his fair share of great players. And even though he got to manage Soto for about a week, he saw the teenager quickly carve a place alongside the best LeCroy has seen.
“Whenever you have a special player like (Anthony) Rendon or (Victor) Robles or Juan, they have an ability to hit the fastball better than anybody,” LeCroy said. “That’s what’s going to take him to the next level and keep him there.
“But him and Rendon, to me, have the ability to lay off the offspeed. It’s pretty amazing. I don’t think you can teach that. You see all the great players who play, they have the ability to slow the game down, and all three of those guys have that ability.”
Soto credits his advanced game to a childhood spent being forced to adapt to advanced competition at an early age, which foreshadowed his early professional career.
“When I was a child, I always played above my level,” Soto said. “When I was 12 years old I was playing with guys who were 14-15 years old, so that helps. I played in tournaments, league and everything. I repped the D.R. like three times when I was a child—pitching, hitting and everything.”
Soto actually played with Guerrero Jr. growing up. As Soto explains, the two matched each other swing for swing. Now, they’ll be carrying that debate to the majors.
Soto is the youngest player in the big leagues (he’s almost a year younger than the Braves’ Ronald Acuna Jr.). And just like he did done against older competition as an amateur and in the minors, he’s doing a lot more than simply surviving.
A Star Is Born
Want to be a star? Make it to the major leagues as a teenager hitter. Here’s the complete list of players to log 100 plate appearances or more in the big leagues as a teenager since 1990.
|Melvin Upton Jr.||Devil Rays||177||.258||.324||.409|