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Soto raking his way to best teenage season ever

June 28, 2018

Playing in the Major Leagues as a teenager is itself quite an accomplishment.Juan Soto, the Nationals' 19-year-old rookie sensation, isn't just playing in the Majors. He's thriving.Through his first 34 career games, Soto has raked his way into contention for the title of best teenage hitter in baseball history. There

Playing in the Major Leagues as a teenager is itself quite an accomplishment.
Juan Soto, the Nationals' 19-year-old rookie sensation, isn't just playing in the Majors. He's thriving.
Through his first 34 career games, Soto has raked his way into contention for the title of best teenage hitter in baseball history. There is a long road to travel to make that a reality -- roughly half of Washington's 2018 schedule remains -- but the skills and approach Soto has displayed thus far seem to bode well for his chances.
"I think we're all amazed every single day," Nats ace Max Scherzer told reporters after a recent start, raving about Soto's competitiveness, batting eye and feel for the strike zone. "He's got some antics. He's got some flair. He's a great young player."
Soto -- who won't turn 20 until Oct. 25 -- entered Friday with a stellar .318/.436/.564 slash line in 133 plate appearances. His park-adjusted OPS+ of 166 was well above the league average of 100 and tied for fifth among all players with at least 100 plate appearances, in the neighborhood of J.D. Martinez (173) and Freddie Freeman (161). It's also, at this point, a record for a hitter in his age-19 season or younger.
Highest OPS+ by a teenager *
Minimum 100 plate appearances, since 1901
1. 166 -- Juan Soto, 2018 Nationals

  1. 146 -- Whitey Lockman, 1945 Giants
  2. 139 -- Mel Ott, 1928 Giants **
  3. 137 -- Tony Conigliaro, 1964 Red Sox
  4. 132 -- Ty Cobb, 1906 Tigers**
  5. 130 -- Jimmie Foxx, 1927 Athletics **
  6. 122 -- Sherry Magee, 1904 Athletics
  7. 119 -- Johnny Lush, 1904 Athletics
  8. 118 -- Bryce Harper, 2012 Nationals
  9. 117 -- Mickey Mantle, 1951 Yankees
    * Age-19 season or earlier
    Hall of Famer
    It should be noted that of the nine players immediately following Soto on that list, more than half had these seasons before baseball was integrated, and only current teammate Harper was a teenager within the past 50 years. The only other hitters to reach the league-average 100 OPS+ mark at that age since 1975 are Ken Griffey Jr. (108 in '89) and Edgar Renteria (103 in '96).
    But again, just getting to the game's highest level this young is a feat. That's especially true for Soto, whose professional experience before his callup had included a grand total of 122 Minor League games -- eight of them above Class A.
    Over the past 30 seasons, just nine other position players had logged even 20 big league games before their 20th birthdays: Adrian Beltre, Juan Gonzalez, Griffey, Harper, Andruw Jones, Aramis Ramirez, Renteria, Alex Rodriguez and Ivan Rodriguez.
    All of those players became stars. But even in that elite group, most weren't particularly productive hitters as teenagers. Alex Rodriguez, who would go on to pile up more than 3,000 hits and nearly 700 homers, batted .224/.257/.352 (56 OPS+) in 65 games from 1994-95 (his age-18 and 19 seasons). Of those nine hitters, Harper posted the highest OPS as a teenager, at .817.
    In contrast, Soto hasn't stopped crushing the ball since his May 20 debut. He homered in his first start, stepped further into the spotlight with a two-homer game at Yankee Stadium on June 13, and he has reached base safely at least once in 29 of his 32 starts.

His manager draws a comparison between Soto and another hitter who burst onto the scene with Washington as a 19-year-old.
"If you watch him, for me, he reminds me of Bryce a lot, when Bryce was younger," Dave Martinez said. "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."
Harper, who won the National League Rookie of the Year Award, was a force back in 2012. But thus far, Soto has risen above even that lofty standard, especially in some key areas that typically elude young, inexperienced hitters:
• Martinez gushed that he loves Soto's at-bats, and it's easy to see why. Soto has nearly as many walks (23) as strikeouts (24), with a 17.3 percent walk rate that is virtually identical to that of Joey Votto. He chases pitches out of the zone at a rate well below the MLB average and impresses veteran teammates with his savvy.
"Hitter's counts, he still sits on really good pitches -- 2-0 sliders, 2-0 splits, 3-1 changeups -- he doesn't swing at them," said Nationals first baseman Mark Reynolds, who has spent 12 seasons in the Majors. "It's pretty advanced knowledge of the strike zone for someone who's 19."
• As good as he has been against right-handed pitchers, the left-handed Soto has done even more damage against southpaws. It's a tiny sample, to be sure (39 plate appearances), but he is 12-for-33 (.364) with two doubles, four home runs, six walks, six strikeouts and a 1.249 OPS off lefties.
Harper is the only left-handed batter on record to homer that many times against southpaws in a season at Soto's age, having smacked six in 183 plate appearances in 2012.
"There are a lot of guys who have been in the big leagues for a long time who are left-handed that can't hit lefties," Reynolds said. "So, it's a special talent. It's fun to watch. It's pretty cool to be a part of."
• Soto is fully capable of turning on a pitch and driving it. Take, for example, the 111.8-mph rocket he sent soaring over the second deck in right field at Nationals Park on June 18. (Technically, Soto hit the homer before his MLB debut, as Washington was completing a suspended game against the Yankees that began on May 15.)

But Soto also has constructed an admirably left-leaning spray chart. Statcast™ divides the field into three sections, and about 72 percent of Soto's batted balls have gone the opposite way or straightaway. His opposite-field slugging percentage of 1.103 ranks second in MLB, sandwiched between J.D. Martinez and Aaron Judge.

Like his plate discipline and ability to handle lefties, Soto's use of the whole field could help him withstand the barrage of countermeasures headed his way.
If one thing is for sure, it's that if Soto has a weakness, opposing pitchers will find it and do everything they can to exploit it. Then it will be up to Soto to adjust.
From what Reynolds has seen so far, he believes that process will happen quickly, preventing prolonged slumps. And Soto's skipper, who himself spent 16 seasons as an MLB hitter, said he already has watched his star rookie deal with pitchers increasing his diet of breaking balls and trying to get him to chase.
"This kid, he's 19, but he's got the baseball mind of a 30-year-old veteran," Dave Martinez said.
"He's a student of the game. He learns. He picks things up fairly quickly and he makes adjustments."
If that proves to be true, Soto just might solidify his standing as the best teenage hitter in baseball history.

Andrew Simon is a research analyst for Follow him on Twitter @AndrewSimonMLB.