Washington Nationals’ GM Mike Rizzo and the player development people in the Nationals’ organization believed Juan Soto was ready to play in the majors at 19 years old. He started the season at Low-A, jumped to High-A ball, then moved up to Double-A briefly before he got the call.
Rizzo made the decision to bring Soto up after Howie Kendrick went down with a season-ending injury to his achilles tendon.
Rizzo noted then that it wasn’t even the first time he took a shot with a 19-year-old phenom.
He talked in an MLB Network Radio interview Friday afternoon about how Soto compared to some of the other teenagers he’d called up, like 2005 No. 1 overall pick Justin Upton and the Nats’ 2010 No. 1 overall pick, Bryce Harper.
“I think Harp had a little bit more power production at the age of 19, and Justin, he was just a toolbox,” Rizzo explained.
“At the time [Upton] was a 70 runner, and could play defense. We drafted him as a shortstop and he had power at that time at 19.”
Rizzo was just getting started. Strap in.
“I think Juan’s advantage over those two is his knowledge of the strike zone,” Rizzo told MLB Network Radio hosts Jim Bowden and Mike Ferrin.
“As good as Harp’s knowledge was as a 19-year-old when we brought him up from Triple-A, Juan’s knowledge of the strike zone and pitch recognition is really — you don’t see it very often. I think that’s his big skill: He knows pitches, he knows the strike zone, so he’s hitting ahead in the count. It seems like he’s 2-0, 2-1 quite a bit, because he doesn’t chase out of the zone, and I like the fact that he has a balanced approach, kind of a flat bat through the hitting zone, the barrel stays in the hitting zone quite a long time, and his power and his focus is middle of the field, or left-center, and he will pull an occasional off-speed mistake, but he’s looking middle of the field, with a great balanced approach, and what was the greatest thing about him when we brought him up after I think eight games in Double-A, was he had a major league hitting routine when he came to the ballpark when he was in the Gulf Coast League and that was well-noticed by our player development guys, and every report I had on him, when we had him in Spring Training, and all the reports when we kept moving him from level to level [were] this guy is not going to chase out of the zone, he’s going to get good pitches to hit, he’s going to be in a favorable count, and he can spit on off-speed pitches and he can turn around fastballs.”
Soto has continued to do just that at the major league level, which made manager Davey Martinez comfortable inserting the young slugger in the cleanup spot for the series finale with the Baltimore Orioles on Thursday night... and again in the series opener against the Philadelphia Phillies on Friday, after he’d driven in the runs that beat the O’s with a two-run double in the eighth inning of what was a 2-2 game.
“It doesn’t bother him where he hits, it really doesn’t,” Martinez said before the first of three with the Phillies.
“I love his at bats. Like I said, he’ll take a walk when he needs to, and he puts the ball in play.”
Asked if he could think of a comp for the Nationals’ left fielder, Martinez pointed across the outfield to the Nats’ now-25-year-old right fielder.
“For me, if you watch him, for me, he reminds me of Bryce a lot when Bryce was younger. Their swings stay in the strike zone a real long time, and when I see him out there, I really see his swing path almost the same.”
Thursday night’s double, in particular, Martinez said, was a good example of what he was talking about.
Soto took a first-pitch change, then lined an 0-1 fastball from Orioles’ right-hander Mychal Givens to left-center to drive in two runs and snap a 2-2 tie.
“He creates a lot of length in the strike zone swinging, so he’s going to be good,” Martinez said. “If he stays, which he will, he’s going to be really good.”
A reporter noted that Soto, among NL players with at least 100 plate appearances, had seen the lowest percentage of fastballs (46.1%) before Friday night, a sign that opposing pitchers weren’t willing to throw heaters at him after seeing what he’s done in his first month-plus in the majors (.400 AVG on fastballs).
“He’s a student of the game, he learns, he picks things up fairly quickly,” Martinez said, “and he makes adjustments.”
How will he react when the league continues to adjust their approach?
“He went through one phase where they did try to get him to start chasing,” Martinez told reporters.
“They’re throwing a lot more breaking balls to him and he went and started swinging at them, and he admitted, he said, ‘Hey, I’ve got to see the ball up more,’ and he did that on his own. Like I’ve said before, this kid is 19, but he’s got the baseball mind of a 30-year-old veteran. And he takes everything in stride, and like I said he works really hard. He works on his whole game. Yesterday I watched him, he’s on second base, and I could tell he was really trying to time the pitching, he wanted to steal, and he’s pretty smart about that.”
Soto doubled to lead off the second on an 0-1 change from Phillies’ righty Zach Eflin in the first of three in D.C. on Friday night, scoring on a double by Michael A. Taylor in the next at bat, and he finished the night 1 for 4 with a run scored and a .323/.420/.594 line against in 112 plate appearances.