As our offseason coverage kicks into high gear, we’re going to review each significant player on the Nationals roster. We continue today with Juan Soto, whose second big league season was even more impressive than his historic rookie campaign.
PLAYER REVIEW: JUAN SOTO
Age on opening day 2020: 21
How acquired: Signed as international free agent, July 2015
MLB service time: 1 year, 134 days
2019 salary: $578,300
Contract status: Under club control, arbitration-eligible in 2022, free agent in 2025
2019 stats: 150 G, 659 PA, 542 AB, 110 R, 153 H, 32 2B, 5 3B, 34 HR, 110 RBI, 12 SB, 1 CS, 108 BB, 132 SO, .282 AVG, .401 OBP, .548 SLG, .949 OPS, 138 OPS+, 1 DRS, 4.8 fWAR, 4.7 bWAR
2019 postseason stats: 17 G, 75 PA, 65 AB, 12 R, 18 H, 3 2B, 0 3B, 5 HR, 14 RBI, 9 BB, 21 SO, .277 AVG, .373 OBP, .554 SLG, .927 OPS
Quotable: “You can always tell the young guys that come up that can slow the game down. I always say that, and everyone kind of says: ‘What does that mean?’ It means at any moment, at any time, you can take a deep breath and you don’t try to do too much and you just stay within yourself. It sounds easy to do, but it’s hard to do even in the regular season for a 20-, 21-year-old. To be able to do it on this stage, to be able to execute the plan that he had ... he’s got a chance to be OK.” - Ryan Zimmerman, on Soto’s performance during the postseason
2019 analysis: After his historic performance as a 19-year-old rookie, Soto understandably faced a daunting challenge trying simply to duplicate that kind of output as a 20-year-old sophomore big leaguer. And yet he not only duplicated it, he exceeded it, taking his game to another level and further solidifying his position as one of baseball’s best players (regardless of age or experience).
Having seen the kid destroy fastballs as a rookie, opposing pitchers tried to get him out with a healthy dose of off-speed stuff this year. But Soto made the adjustment and continued to thrive. After batting only .212 on changeups in 2018, he hit .313 with four homers off that pitch this season. He didn’t hit a home run off a curveball as a rookie; he hit five this year. And he continued to use the entire field to his advantage: Soto batted .351 when pulling the ball to right field, .351 when going the other way to left field and .403 when hitting it back up the middle to center field.
Then there was his improvement in the field. Having admittedly struggled while learning how to play left field on the fly as a big league rookie, Soto made major strides this season, especially on balls hit over his head. By year’s end, he had been named a finalist for the Gold Glove Award, a massive achievement.
Everything culminated, of course, in October, when the whole world got to learn just how special Soto is. He delivered in the clutch and thrived against some of the toughest pitchers in the sport. His five postseason homers came off Hyun-Jin Ryu, Clayton Kershaw, Gerrit Cole (twice) and Justin Verlander. Oh, and of course his season-saving hit in the National League wild card game came off Josh Hader.
2020 outlook: How good is Soto right now? Well, in two major league seasons he owns a .403 on-base percentage and .535 slugging percentage. Only four others have done that or better these last two seasons: Mike Trout, Christian Yelich, Mookie Betts and Alex Bregman. So, yeah, he deserves to be considered one of the very best hitters in the game, even at this young stage of his career.
Soto undoubtedly has been helped by the talent that has surrounded him in the Nationals lineup since he debuted. He had Bryce Harper and Anthony Rendon hitting in front of him last year, and this year he had Rendon in front of him and Howie Kendrick behind him. If the Nats don’t bring back either of those two stalwarts, Soto suddenly becomes the focal point of the lineup, and opponents will have an easier time pitching around him.
So, what’s next for him? Could he somehow get even better in his third major league season? Don’t tell one of the most talented, hardest-working (and most confident) hitters in baseball he can’t.