Meet Juan Soto: The 19-Year-Old MLB Phenom Who Could Replace Bryce Harper

Danny KnoblerMLB Lead WriterJune 18, 2018

NEW YORK, NY - JUNE 13:  Juan Soto #22 of the Washington Nationals follows through on his seventh inning home run against the New York Yankees at Yankee Stadium on June 13, 2018 in the Bronx borough of New York City. The Nationals defeated the Yankees 5-4.  (Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images)
B/R

You can start with the home run, the one that soared over a bullpen at Yankee Stadium on Wednesday. You can start there, because balls don't go to that part of Yankee Stadium very often, especially when they're hit by 19-year-old kids. Especially when they're hit by a left-handed hitter off a left-handed pitcher.

Juan Soto did that, 20 games into his major league career.

The Washington Nationals' phenomenal young outfielder actually hit two home runs in that game, becoming just the fourth teenager in the last 50 years to homer twice in the same game, according to research via Baseball Reference. You may have heard of the other three: Bryce Harper, Andruw Jones and Ken Griffey Jr.

So start with the home run, but don't end there, because if you do you'll miss so much of what makes Soto "special," to use the word repeated so often by Nationals players, coaches and front office officials. It's not usual for a 19-year-old to do the things Soto is already doing for the Nationals, but Soto is not your usual 19-year-old.

"This kid's just different," said Johnny DiPuglia, Nationals vice president of international operations and perhaps the biggest of Soto's many big boosters. "He's different in every area of life."

Different, because he learned English from Rosetta Stone faster than any Latin American prospect the Nationals have ever had. Different because he went from the Low-A South Atlantic League to the majors in less than a month, which has to be a record, too, or at least close to it. Different because when the Nationals asked him to work on getting faster, he went from being a far-below-average runner to one who is now above average.

There's more, from a swing that Nationals hitting coach Kevin Long describes as one of the best he's ever seen—"I'm sure he'll struggle some, but it will be hard for him to go through anything for long because his swing is so good," Long said—to the way Soto prepares for games, the way he carries himself in the clubhouse, the way he carries himself on the field and even to the way he looks.

"No tattoos, no earrings and a clean haircut," DiPuglia said.

That may matter to you or it may not, but in 2018, it does make Soto different.

But the biggest difference is how quickly he got to where he is and how well he's already doing. He's the youngest player in the major leagues in six years (since Harper and Jurickson Profar debuted in 2012, when they were a dozen days younger than Soto was at the time of his May 20 call-up, per research via Baseball Reference).

"I mean, 19?" Nationals pitcher Max Scherzer told B/R. "I was a freshman in college. Maybe by 21 I could have played in the big leagues, maybe a little bit, but not the way he's doing it."

So far, Soto in 2018 is like Harper in 2012. That year, Harper debuted in the big leagues at the end of April, was in the All-Star Game in the middle of July and was named Rookie of the Year when the season ended. Six years later, Soto could be on the same path.

Juan Soto's emergence alongside Bryce Harper has helped give the Nationals one of the most potent outfields in the National League.
Juan Soto's emergence alongside Bryce Harper has helped give the Nationals one of the most potent outfields in the National League.Nick Wass/Associated Press

"He's doing a great job for us," Harper said. "He's going to be a great player. I look forward to seeing him play for a long time."

But will he?


The question no one from the Nationals, least of all Harper, wants to hear is where he'll be playing next season. Harper made it clear in spring training he wouldn't discuss his impending free agency during the season, and he has stuck to that policy.

There was a time when many people in baseball considered it a given Harper would leave the Nationals, but recently there has been more talk that he could stay. Jon Heyman of FRS Sports wrote in late May and early June that one Harper teammate and one rival general manager predicted he'll re-sign.

According to Heyman, there's no talk of in-season negotiations, so it's hard for anyone to know whether Harper will go, but it may not be as safe an assumption as it once was.

None of it really matters to Soto's future. Either he plays with Harper, as he's doing now, or he takes Harper's place as the Nationals' big-hitting outfielder.

If he hasn't already.

Admittedly, it's not fair to think that way or to talk that way, even if Soto is outperforming his better-known teammate right now. The teenage phenom still doesn't have a full month in the big leagues. Harper is a five-time All-Star and one-time Most Valuable Player who is still just 25 and already has 169 major league home runs. Harper's batting average has slipped, but through Sunday, he was leading the National League with 19 home runs.

Harper's still a huge star and hugely important to the Nationals. Soto is 19.

Believe it or not.


"He's a grown man in a kid's body," Nationals pitcher Gio Gonzalez said. "He's such a professional already."

Of all the things that impress about Soto, the one trait most Nationals people keep coming back to is his maturity. He just doesn't act like a typical 19-year-old.

Part of that is the way he carries himself, with a self-confidence that never seems to stray into youthful bravado. Some of it is the way he seems to understand the game, the way he gets ready to play and the way he reacts if anything goes wrong.

As impressed as the Nationals have been with Soto's hitting, they've been equally struck by his presence.
As impressed as the Nationals have been with Soto's hitting, they've been equally struck by his presence.Lynne Sladky/Associated Press

"Just watch how he handles bad calls from umpires," Nats bench coach Chip Hale said. "He might be called out on a bad pitch, but he goes back to the bench and starts rooting for his teammates."

Long was struck by the fact that when Soto showed up in the big leagues, he already had a set pregame routine. He hit off a tee, did one drill in which he brings the knob of the bat to the ball and another that is designed to help get his hips moving.

"His swing mechanics are flawless," Long said. "I marvel at what he can do at this age. I haven't had much experience with 19-year-olds, but I've been around long enough to tell you that's as good a swing as I've seen."

Many young hitters, even great young hitters, are basically see-the-ball, hit-the-ball types. Soto is different, already showing the ability to adjust to how pitchers attack him, already able to make use of the resources available in a modern big league clubhouse.

"He looks at video," DiPuglia said. "At his age, most kids only look at video games."

And he can communicate with coaches, teammates and even with the media in English, after that Rosetta Stone crash course.

"That's very important for me," said Soto, a native of the Dominican Republic. "I tried to learn as fast as I could."

He still likes to have an interpreter around for interviews, just in case he doesn't fully understand a question. But in a nine-minute conversation with Bleacher Report, Soto didn't need to consult the interpreter a single time.

He speaks clearly and confidently enough that he has already done interviews in English for the Nationals' pregame radio show.


As ready as he appears, Soto wasn't supposed to be in the major leagues this soon. He almost certainly wouldn't have been, except for a string of injuries Nationals outfielders suffered in the early weeks of the season.

Adam Eaton got hurt. Brian Goodwin got hurt. In Triple-A, Victor Robles suffered a hyperextended left elbow, taking him out of the picture as a possible replacement.

When Howie Kendrick went down with a right Achilles injury May 19, the Nats were nearly out of internal options. General manager Mike Rizzo could have considered looking to trade for a stopgap. Instead, even as Kendrick was riding off the field on a cart, Rizzo was reaching for his phone to call assistant general manager Doug Harris, who oversees the Nationals farm system.

Get Soto to Washington, Rizzo said.

It didn't matter that Soto had played just eight games at Double-A Harrisburg after starting the season with Low-A Hagerstown and winning a quick promotion to High-A Potomac. Nor did it matter that Soto played just 32 games in 2017 because of first a broken ankle and then surgery on his right hand.

What mattered was the Nationals had a need and that they believed Soto could handle the challenge.

"We actually had kept a really close eye on him," manager Dave Martinez said. "We watched him [on video], and Mike and I both thought he was ready."

They felt Soto had a chance, in part because he always showed an ability to control the strike zone. He had more walks (29) than strikeouts (28) in the minor leagues this season, just as he had in his limited time last year.

Rizzo also felt Soto could help a team that began with huge expectations but was sitting in third place in the NL East, just four games over .500 when he arrived.

"I was looking for a jump-start, to bring some life and energy, some exuberance into the ballclub," he said.

Soto brought more than that. The Nationals won eight of the first nine games he started, helped in large part by the .387 he hit in those games.

"I just had in my mind that I was going to do my job and help the team out," Soto said.

When Eaton came back from the disabled list June 9, there was never a chance Soto would be sent back to the minor leagues. He was playing too well. He had become too important to the team. The Nationals have four outfielders they want to play (Soto, Harper, Eaton and Michael A. Taylor), but it's clear now Soto is and will remain an everyday guy.

Soto played only eight games at Double-A Harrisburg before he was promoted to help plug the holes in a Nationals outfield depleted by injuries.
Soto played only eight games at Double-A Harrisburg before he was promoted to help plug the holes in a Nationals outfield depleted by injuries.Photo courtesy Washington Nationals

"He took advantage," first baseman Mark Reynolds said. "He's playing like he doesn't want to go play anywhere else."


Soto said he always loved to hit, but he was pitching when Nationals scout Modesto Ulloa first went to see him. Ulloa watched him throw three innings in the first game of a doubleheader. In the second game, Soto got three hits. Ulloa took notice.

Eventually, more Nationals scouts went to see him. Rizzo traveled to the Dominican Republic to get a look himself, because to sign him the Nationals had to hand out a $1.5 million bonus, which at the time was a club record. It wasn't close to the $3.9 million the Toronto Blue Jays gave Vladimir Guerrero Jr. that same month, but it was still a significant commitment to a kid DiPuglia described as "bow-legged, thin, not a good runner and didn't throw well. But the bat was a special bat."

It wasn't just that, though, that struck the Nationals' decision-makers.

"When we went down there [to the Dominican Republic], I saw him play for several days," Rizzo said. "I got to sit and talk with him, got to interact with him. We knew where he came from. We saw a really clean-cut, businesslike type of personality that was educated, book-smart, but also his baseball IQ was as good as any 16½-year-old that I've ever signed."

On July 2, 2015, Soto became a member of the organization. His minor league debut came the following year, and, as a 17-year-old, he hit .368 with a .973 OPS in 51 games in the low minors and was named Most Valuable Player in the Gulf Coast League. There was already a buzz about him going into 2017, but then came the injuries that cost him most of the season. Soto returned to play in instructional league games, which got the Nationals excited again as the club headed to spring training this year.

He wasn't in the major league camp, but the Nationals brought him over for five Grapefruit League games. He got one start, in a split-squad game in Jupiter against the Miami Marlins. Though the other split-squad game was at home in West Palm Beach, Rizzo made the short drive to watch the road game.

As teammate Max Scherzer said, Soto "just hits. Every now and then, you can just say a guy has a knack for hitting the baseball."
As teammate Max Scherzer said, Soto "just hits. Every now and then, you can just say a guy has a knack for hitting the baseball."Jim McIsaac/Getty Images

He wanted to see Soto against left-hander Caleb Smith, who started for the Marlins. Soto didn't disappoint, collecting two hits, including a long home run off Smith.

"I'm glad I was there," Rizzo said.

The Nationals sent Soto to the South Atlantic League to begin the season, but they expected him to move quickly. And while no one could have predicted he'd be in the big leagues by May, the thought he could help sometime this season was very much in the minds of the Nationals brass.

It was in Soto's, too.

"Yes, but they had to make the decision," he said. "I saw a couple of other guys [playing in the big leagues at a young age]. I said, 'Why not?'"

Why not, indeed.


There are plenty of numbers that tell how well Soto did in his first 23 major league games. There's the .312 batting average, the five home runs, the .976 OPS, the .385 batting average in 31 plate appearances against lefties.

There's also 27.2, which is Soto's average sprint speed in feet per second, as measured by MLB.com's Statcast. He has been clocked as fast as 29.3 feet per second, which is just a touch below elite-level speed, and he has gone from home to first in as little as 4.03 seconds.

That isn't Robles-type speed—which led all of MLB at 30.9 feet per second in 2017—but it's not the bow-legged plodding he was doing at 16.

"I never thought he'd do that," DiPuglia said.

Soto was always seen as a good hitter, but he's made himself a better runner, too.
Soto was always seen as a good hitter, but he's made himself a better runner, too.Mitchell Layton/Getty Images

The Nationals had asked Soto to work on getting faster and stronger, and he took it to heart. This past winter in the Dominican Republic, he hit the weight room and also ran on the beach and elsewhere with a personal trainer.

"I worked a lot," he said. "I got a lot faster than I was a couple years ago."

Considering all he's been willing to do to get to Washington, and all he's accomplished since he arrived, it's easy to imagine Soto becoming one of the game's biggest stars. It's easy to imagine him becoming the face of the Nationals if Harper moves on or perhaps even if he doesn't.

Heck, with what Soto is already doing at 19, it's easy to imagine him having a major impact on how this season turns out.

"Think of [Miguel Cabrera] with the 2003 Marlins," one National League scout said. "Or Andruw with the 1996 Braves. They took their teams to the World Series."

Cabrera had just turned 20 when he debuted with the Marlins in June 2003. Jones was 19 when the Braves brought him to the big leagues in August 1996.

"[Former major league player and broadcaster] Joe Garagiola taught me a long time ago there's no time limit on talent," Rizzo said.

Some players are just different. Some are special, from the first time you see them.

Look at Juan Soto. He's one of the special ones.

   

Danny Knobler covers Major League Baseball as a national columnist for Bleacher Report.

Follow Danny on Twitter and talk baseball.

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