Juan Soto’s 2019 stats were remarkably similar to those he put up as a 19-year-old rookie in 2018.
Soto, now 20, put up a .292/.406/.517 line with 25 doubles, 22 homers, 77 runs, and 70 RBIs in 116 games and 494 plate appearances in 2018, finishing the year with 145 wRC+ in what ended up being 3.7 fWAR campaign which was one of the best seasons put together by a teenager in MLB history, and he followed it up with a .282/.401/.548, 32 double, 34 homer, 110 run, 110 RBI season in 2019, finishing up at 142 wRC+ and 4.8 fWAR in 150 games and 659 PAs.
So how did he avoid a sophomore jinx the second time around, when the scouting reports were more detailed and the league wasn’t going to let him beat them?
“For me, just try to forget everything and come with the next year as a new year,” Soto told reporters in advance of the Wild Card matchup in D.C. this past Tuesday.
“Just try to play the same baseball I’ve been playing, have fun, enjoy it, don’t matter what they say. They’ve told me all this stuff, oh, the players, the second year is the bad one.
“But I just tried not to think about that and tried to help my team as much as I can, try to make the plays and all this stuff. That’s it.”
Soto finished his second big league season tied for second in MLB history with his 56 career HRs before his 21st birthday, hitting as many as Tony Conigliaro did for the Red Sox, behind only the New York Giants’ Mel Ott, who hit 61 before turning 21, and Soto’s 187 walks before turning 21, are the most in MLB history. He doesn’t concern himself too much with his place in baseball history though.
“I mean, I just see all this stuff because they send it to me and they’re showing me,” he said.
“I feel really happy because all the work I did in the offseason is coming out. It’s getting paid back. I feel really happy and feel really proud of myself. But it’s not over yet.
“We’ve got to keep working. We’ve got a long way to go. This is just a start.”
He’ll also have to brush off the fact that his game-winning hit in the NL Wild Card Game on Tuesday made him the youngest player in MLB Postseason history to come through with a game-tying or go-ahead RBI in the eighth inning or later.
Soto stepped up with the Nationals behind 3-1 in the eighth, with the bases loaded, against Milwaukee Brewers’ left-hander Josh Hader, against whom left-handed hitters were 9 for 63 this season, and lined a single to right, which was misplayed into a go-ahead, base-clearing hit that put the home team on top, 4-3.
“I just step in there,” he explained after the game, “I know he’s in trouble. He going to try to attack me with his fastball up and the slider.
“I mean, I just step in there and try to hit the ball and single to the middle. That’s [was] all I [thought] in that bat, hit a ground ball single to the middle and try to tie the game.”
He did more than that, of course, and a half-inning later the Nationals booked themselves a flight to Los Angeles for the start of the NLDS.
Before Game 1 with the Dodgers, Soto’s manager, Davey Martinez, talked to reporters about the maturation he’s seen from his left fielder in the two years they’ve spent together in D.C., and what convinced him that the 20-year-old was ready for the spotlight and Postseason.
“I saw him a couple years ago in Spring Training,” Martinez said. “We brought him up to play in a couple games as just a backup outfielder. He went and got some at-bats.
“One particular day we were playing Detroit in Spring Training, a tough left-handed pitcher. He comes up there, swings at a pitch, looks horrible, and shakes his head, steps out of the batter’s box, gets back in there. Next pitch was probably the same pitch, and he just stood there and looked at it and didn’t even budge. Shook his head. I thought, oh, you know, next pitch, guy throws a fastball up out over the plate, hits a double off the left center field wall.
“Then I realized, I said, man, like, I thought Juan Soto, but I said who is this kid right here? I said this kid’s all right. Next time he comes back up, kind of similar, swings at a first pitch, breaking ball, steps back, shakes his head. Next pitch, hits a base hit to right field. Got him up for a third at-bat. He [takes] a good at-bat, works a walk. And I realized I said this kid’s 19?
“Like, come on now. But then we get, then with all the injuries we had last year, [GM Mike Rizzo] comes to my office and says, ‘We’re bringing up Soto.’ And I looked at him and I go, ‘What?’ He goes, ‘We’re bringing up Soto. He’s going to have to learn how to play sooner or later.’”
Soto, who was signed out of the Dominican Republic in 2015 for $1.5M, played in a total of 122 games in the minors over three seasons, in which he was limited by injuries, and they knew he had some learning to do when they called him up out of necessity, but he ended up staying up all season, and started in left all year, and he’s not going anywhere anytime soon.
“[Rizzo] said don’t worry about his outfield, just, I said he’ll be all right. I said all right, well, we’ll teach him. Comes into my office and says, ‘Hey, look this is what, you got to learn how to play the game, every day you’re going to work.’ And didn’t play the first game. Next day we started him, played against a lefty first at-bat, goes deep the other way left center field, and I thought, okay, you know, this, we’ll just teach him.”
“Honestly,” Martinez added, “by watching him he taught me a lot about what kind of person he is, how competitive he is. Now he’s grown into that guy where he is a guy for us. He likes the big moments. The 50,000 fans, the big lights, doesn’t bother him a bit. He just loves to play the game. He steps in the batter’s box, as you all know, we call it the Soto shuffle. But that’s no intention to show anybody up, it’s him getting ready for the next pitch.
“That’s just who he is. He’s a very intense kid, he loves to hit, he loves to play the game.
“Besides his hitting, he’s gotten so much better in the outfield, it’s unbelievable.
“Like, I looked at his numbers at the end of the year, and he’s probably one of the best left fielders for sure in the National League, based on numbers, based on what I’ve seen.
“So he’s gotten a lot better.”
“For me, I think I’ve been working a lot on my first hard step and all this stuff,” Soto said when asked about his improvements defensively, “and my defense is throwing and like to get more chances to get to the ball. Got more room to go, like more -- more range.
“So now I can get better in the left field. I feel more comfortable because I just started playing left field last year, and in the minors, I always played right field. But now I’m getting really comfortable in the left field and throwing and all this stuff.”
“And, Gerardo Parra,” Soto added, “... when he got here, he helped me a lot with my throws and all this stuff, how to stay to throw low and get a little bit more back spin on the throws. I think just working a lot, that helped me, everything.”
Did anything surprise him about his first full season in the majors?
“For me, I play -- that’s our goal is play the most games you can. Last year my goal was play 130 games, and we made it. This year, my mind was set to play 162. So I just come into the season to try to play the most games I can and try to be focused and be strong the whole season, try to -- don’t waste too much energy outside of the field and be focused on this.”
Soto went 1 for 4 in his first career NLDS game, which the Nationals lost, 6-0, in LA’s Dodger Stadium.
“We’re not going to give up,” he said after the game, “... we’re just going to fight, we’ll come ready to go, forget about what just happened today and tomorrow is another day.”