Washington Nationals’ GM Mike Rizzo explained the thinking behind calling Juan Soto up from Double-A to the majors when the decision was made back in mid-May, following a season-ending injury to infielder/outfielder Howie Kendrick.
Soto, 19, had struggled through an injury-impacted campaign in 2017, but picked up where he left off when healthy in previous seasons, posting a .362/.462/.757 line with 10 doubles, 14 home runs, 29 walks, and 28 Ks in 39 games and 182 plate appearances at Low-A, High-A, and Double-A before the outfielder got the call.
Soto was asked, before making his major league debut, if he expected to be called up as early in the season as he was.
“Like that quick, no,” he told reporters. “But that was my goal. My goal was to come here at some [point] this year, but I didn’t think it was going to be that quick.”
“He’s passed all the tests that we’ve thrown at him,” Rizzo said that day, “... and we feel that because of the circumstances that he’s our best option to help us win baseball games in the big leagues and to forward his developmental process.”
A few days later, the Nationals’ GM and President of Baseball Operations went into more detail about the decision when he was asked by 106.7 the FAN in D.C.’s Sports Junkies if Soto was up to stay.
“Performance dictates if he’s here to stay or not,” Rizzo explained. “This kid is 19 years old, it’s been a meteoric rise through our minor league system. Johnny DiPuglia, our Vice President of International Baseball, and I scouted and signed [Soto] when he was 16 and a half years old. He was injured most of last year, didn’t get a lot of at bats, we started him at Low-A Hagerstown, we figured he would run through that league pretty good and then sent him to Potomac and he earned a promotion there to Double-A, which is really a testing spot for a 19-year-old player, and kind of really separates the prospects from the suspects, if you will, and for the 30 at bats or so that he had down there, [he] looked very, very comfortable, didn’t look overmatched, was actually overmatching the league, and then Howie [Kendrick] went down in that [Los Angeles] Dodgers series, we felt that we wanted to get something that was an offensive force for us, something that could jumpstart us, you throw that youth and exuberance into the lineup and the other players feed off him, so when Howie was injured I called our Farm Director Doug Harris and [Director of Player Development] Mark Scialabba, and said, ‘Get Soto moving this way, he’s going to join the club and stay with the club,’ and we’re going to play him.
“The deal that [Nats’ manager] Davey [Martinez] and I had was that if we call this special kid up, he’s not going to be off the bench, he’s not going to spell, he’s going to play just about every day, because he’s earned that right and for his development, even though he’s developing in the big leagues, he needs to play every day.
“So we felt that his offensive game was major league-ready. He’s got a terrific approach at the plate, very balanced attack, he’s got great bat speed, he’s got a natural loft to his left-handed swing, but the thing that really separates him from a lot of players is his knowledge of the strike zone. He very rarely swings at pitches off the plate and out of the zone and we thought that that was really the most important thing to bring him up where he wouldn’t be overmatched at the major league level.”
All of those attributes, the bat speed, plate discipline, knowledge of the zone, and power, were on display in the 116 games he played and 494 plate appearances he had in his first season in the majors.
He finished his rookie season with a .292/.406/.517 line, 25 doubles, 22 homers, 79 walks, 99 Ks, and 146 wRC+ in a 3.7 fWAR campaign, collecting the second-most home runs and posting the third-highest average, third-highest slugging percentage, highest wRC+, the most walks, fourth-most RBIs, and the highest OBP, OPS, OPS+ (142), and wOBA (.392) of any teenaged player in major league history. He also finished second in voting for the NL Rookie of the Year, behind Atlanta Braves’ outfielder Ronald Acuña, Jr.
So the decision to call Soto up appears to have been a good one, even though it might not have happened when it did if top outfield prospect Victor Robles had been available.
Soto’s manager told MLB Network’s Hot Stove hosts this week that he was as surprised as the outfielder by the timing of the decision to call him up.
“At the moment we were in, with all the injuries, and after Howie went down, I know Mike Rizzo came to my office after the game and he just looked at me and he goes, ‘We’re going to call up Juan Soto.’ And I was just like, ‘Woah.’ And he said, ‘Hey, we’ll see what he can do, we’ll match him up,’ and just kind of ease his way through everything and I put him in the first game and I said, ‘You know what, the kid is young, he’s ready, he’s excited, just throw him in the game,’ and in his first at bat, against a left-handed pitcher, he goes out and hits a three-run homer, so I was like, ‘Okay, here we go,’ and the kid came out every day with the same intensity, same approach, and just loves to play the game. Didn’t matter where I put him in the lineup, tried different things with him, and finally settled in at the five hole and just did really well.”
[ed. note - “It was Soto’s second at bat that he hit the three-run home run, which is like, much less impressive.”]
What stood out for Martinez from the now-20-year-old outfielder’s game?
“His ability to control the strike zone was, at 19 you don’t see that kind of stuff,” Martinez said, “and I can remember having conversations with him throughout the game where he said, ‘This guy is pitching me backwards, so my approach is going to be a little different,’ and I was like, at 19 he’s telling me that, something that took me maybe 3 or 4, 5-6-7 at bats to realize, ‘Hey, they’re doing something different to me, so I’ve got figure this out.’ He was, on the dime, pick it up right away and make those adjustments.
“The other thing too is before each game he comes over and he gives me a hug, and I go, ‘What are you going to do today?’ and he goes, ‘Four lines drives up the middle,’ that was his approach. I’m going to hit four hard line drives up the middle and he never changed that approach.”
Hopefully he never does. Long live patient Juan Soto.