Juan Soto, who turned 22 in October, finished the 2020 campaign with the highest batting average in the National League (.351; second-highest in the majors), MLB’s highest OBP, (.490), highest SLG (.695), highest wOBA (.478), highest wRC+ (200), the fifth-most walks (41), and the highest BB% (20.9%) in the 47 games and the 196 plate appearances he had in the 60-game season, after starting a little late following a positive test for COVID-19 on the morning of the season opener.
In addition, Soto, in his third season, had the league’s 10th lowest O-Swing% (“Swings at pitches outside the zone/pitches outside the zone,” per Fangraphs) at 21% (one spot behind Anthony Rendon on the season; 20.8%, and not too far behind Cavan Biggio’s MLB-low 16.3% O-Swing%).
Soto saw the seventh-lowest percentage of pitches in the zone overall as well (37.2% Zone% - Pitches in the strike zone / Total pitches); and saw the second-lowest number of first-pitch strikes (49.5% F-strike% - First pitch strikes/PA). Put simply, the kid’s got preternatural strike zone awareness. Pitchers are afeared. But we knew this.
Knowing it and seeing it up close though?
Josh Harrison joined the Nationals right before the delayed start to the 2020 campaign, and he got to see Soto up close over the course of the truncated season.
He told Sirius/XM MLB Network Radio hosts Casey Stern and Ryan Spilborghs this week that he came away with an increased appreciation for just how talented Soto really is, at just 22.
“When I first signed there,” Harrison said, “... he was still waiting to be cleared to play. I had only seen him playing against him or either the World Series. Guys tell me right away like just wait till you see him, I’m like, ‘Man, I’ve seen him, I know he’s impressive, I’ve kept up with him,’ it’s like, ‘No, just wait till you get a chance to see him every day.’
“And it literally took maybe three games for me to say, ‘Okay, I knew he was good, knew he was special, but...’ it literally solidified it. It honestly solidified it, his first day back was like an intra-squad day where we didn’t have a game due to some cancellations, and just seeing him hop right in the box after missing time, I was like, ‘Yeah, this kid is special.’ And it feels weird calling him a kid because at the end of the day he’s in the locker room with a bunch of old men, he’s very mature for his age.
“But you can tell right away that his plan at the plate, his swing, everything about it, he’s a guy that ... you give him some time he’s going to year after year he’s going to be arguably one of the best hitters.”
Soto told reporters after the final game of the year back in September he was most proud of the patience he showed at the plate this season, when asked to pick one thing from his campaign that stood out for him.
“I’ve been really proud about being patient and taking my walks, because they’ve been walking me a lot,” Soto explained.
What one thing stood out about Soto for Harrison?
“He’s stubborn,” the 33-year-old, 10-year veteran said.
“A lot of it as you mention, taking those pitches, he knows the zone. And where most of us might take a pitch that we know is a ball with two strikes and they ring you up, he don’t care. You can ring him up, he’s going to tell you, ‘Hey, that was a ball.’ He doesn’t deviate from his plan of wanting to swing at strikes.
“I remember talking to our hitting coach at one point during the season, Kevin Long, and he had [thrown] out a stat saying [Soto] had seen maybe like 120 pitches that were like one ball off the plate, and whether it’s one ball, up, down, in, out.
“He’s like, “How many pitches you think he swung at?’ I think he swung at six.”
“And that right there was like, he knows the zone. He knows what he wants to swing at.
“Granted we’re human, he’s going to swing at certain pitches to protect here and there, but I’ve seen him get rung up on pitches that are borderline that other guys are going to swing to foul off and he’s like, ‘No, that’s a ball, I’m walking.’ You leave a lot up to the umpire to call it, but I even think they respect him and say, ‘Yeah, this guy really does have an understanding of the strike zone,’ and he’s one guy that he’s going to tell you, ‘No, that’s not a strike, that’s a ball.’ And he’s not going to take it outside of his approach, his plan, because if you watch him in the cage, there’s a purpose with everything that he does when he’s doing his routine, about where he wants to make contact, where the pitch is located on the plate.
“So getting to see that from a 22-year-old was very encouraging to see that. Not only is he blessed, he’s gifted with the talent, but he puts in the work.”