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Nationals/MLB | Perspective

Juan Soto has been the best teenage hitter ever, and it doesn’t look like a fluke

September 12, 2018 at 1:58 PM

Juan Soto has put together one of the best age-19 offensive seasons in major league history. (Drew Hallowell/Getty Images)

Trea Turner thought about a typical Juan Soto at-bat, then tried to describe how another pro analyzes and appreciates his Washington Nationals teammate.

“The way Juan lays off close pitches — take a 2-1 to get to 3-1 and an even better count. That discipline is so hard,” Turner said. “The early recognition of the type of pitch — you can’t teach that. And he can adjust to how they are pitching him from one at-bat to the next, or sometimes even within one at-bat. They’ve got to pitch him perfectly. And hope they get some calls on the corners, too.

“Soto’s at-bats are like a perfect storm.”

Juan Soto is 19.

Sometimes storms can lose their intensity after a while. But only one teenager ever has been in the class Soto has been as a pure hitter this dazzling season: Hall of Famer Mel Ott, who hit 511 homers, was a walk machine and is ranked in the top 20 players of all time.

After a five-hit, two-homer doubleheader in Philadelphia on Tuesday, including a game-winning opposite-field home run in the 10th inning of the second game off a 99-mph fastball, Soto is now neck and neck with Ott for the best hitting season ever by a teenager.

Another National, Bryce Harper, had the best all-around season ever by a rookie in terms of WAR (wins above replacement) at 4.4 in 2012, thanks in part to his good fielding and base running grades. But right now, Soto has generated more offense than any teenager ever, according to FanGraphs, which puts his value at 29.2 runs. And Soto has done it in just 421 plate appearances. To compare, Harper was worth 16.8 runs in 597 plate appearances.

Related: [Svrluga: Ryan Zimmerman has always been a Nat. But will he always be a Nat?]

Ott holds many marks for 19-year-olds, but perhaps the most impressive is his on-base-plus-slugging percentage, the most widely-used catch-all offensive stat in baseball. Ott’s mark of .921 dwarfs everyone except Tony Conigliaro (.883), who got to 100 homers faster than any American Leaguer before a fastball hit his eye and derailed his career. Next best was Harper, well back at .817

Then the dropoff in OPS at 19 is stunning, considering the greatness of most of the players in the top 10. Mickey Mantle (.792). Supernova Cesar Cedeno, who had a higher career WAR through age 25 than Willie Mays. Hall of Famer Freddie Lindstrom. Edgar Renteria, the only outlier, who nonetheless was World Series MVP at 21. Oh, and Ty Cobb (.749) and Ken Griffey, Jr. (.748).

Entering his 100th game Wednesday, Soto’s OPS was at .950.

Followers of the Nats have every reason to feel dizzy. The Nats have had two of the four best teenage players ever with Conigliaro and Ott in that quartet. Their arrivals were utterly opposite. Harper debuted after four years of national fanfare. Soto showed up this May after eight games in Class AA, as obscure as a genuine prospect could be. That’s why we still have so much catching up to do.

Related: [Boswell: Dave Martinez was the wrong man for the Nats job. Now it would be wrong for him to lose it.]

Let’s pause to acknowledge that because teen standouts are so rare — maybe 10 in all, and just six with more than 10 homers — they get extra jaw-agape praise. However, by age 20, true stars, either full blown or obviously about to explode, have arrived by the dozen, at least 50 of them. By 21, the flood gates are open.

So it can be deceiving, yet also great fun, to obsess about the ability of a dazzling player because he is 19, rather than 20, 21 or 22.

For example, the Atlanta Braves’ speed-plus-power rookie Ronald Acuna, 20, is having a season every bit as good as Soto’s and maybe a hair better. But that word “teenager” — and the neon names of those other super teens — tempts us to project an entire future from that slim sample. That fandom euphoria is why we need to shift back quickly to Harper, the Soto of 2012.

Everyone who had ever seen a ball with stitches wondered if Harper would have a career comparable to his hero Mantle. The charts and stats paralleling the pair — and other elite teens — filled screens and pages. Where would Harper eventually stand in MLB’s pantheon?

Near the end of his seventh season, it’s clear that, remarkable as he is, including an MVP award in 2015, Harper is not a Mantle. The Mick’s WAR through age 25 was 52.8, while Harper’s is now 27.5 at that age.

Projecting prodigious career success from teenage fantasy stats is a treacherous business. And, as the Nats may discover in the next few months, a dicey issue on which hundreds of millions of dollars may hinge.

Harper has been fascinating to watch and analyze. Now D.C. has another joyful prognosticating conundrum: Will Soto be Ott, or some fraction of him?

Related: [From February: Meet Juan Soto, the Nationals’ next great slugging hope]

General Manager Mike Rizzo is the man most responsible for believing in Soto enough to bring him to the majors two years ahead of schedule after five Nats outfielders were hurt this spring. His central insight was that young players with exceptional batting eyes and patience, which shows up in walks, can move up fastest. When Rizzo was a Chicago White Sox scout, he first noticed the pattern with Frank Thomas.

“His ability to work the count and draw walks — he’s elite in that regard already,” Rizzo said this week. In fact, Soto’s walk rate (16.6 percent) makes the closest numbers by teens — Mantle (11.1) and Ott (10.4) — look small. MLB’s best walking man, Cincinnati’s Joey Votto, has averaged 129 walks per 162 games for the past eight years. The highest-probability Soto prediction is that he will be similar.

“Most great young players think they can hit anything. So they swing at everything,” said four-time all-star catcher Matt Wieters. “Soto doesn’t.”

Then Rizzo gave a variation on Turner’s perfect storm observation. The league has figured out that Soto’s worst-looking swings and misses, which are rare, come on fastballs up and in. But his areas of greatest home run power, and velocity off the bat, are the boxes in his strike-zone map that surround that up-and-in box, as well as up-and-away, which he destroys.

Fuse, meet dynamite.

“Even the best hitters are going to make outs. But with them you have very little margin of error. You better hit your spots,” Rizzo said. “Because you must be so careful, because their power is often right near the spot where you may get them out, they’re going to get in a lot of hitter’s counts: 2-0, 3-0, 3-1. It seems like they are almost always in control of the at-bat.”

That certainly describes Soto. In fact, those comfortable at-bats give Soto an I’m-having-fun presence at the plate that MLB is trying to digest.

These days, hitters, after a strikeout, often give a glare at the pitcher once they’re out of the box. Soto never does. His body language says, “You beat me. But I’ll be back.” Will that respect save him from becoming a target?

“Those who are very talented will be tested by all sorts of people — opponents, umpires,” Rizzo said of what appears to be Soto’s innate showmanship, his sense that his at-bat is theater for the whole ballpark.

“You have to understand your place in the game. He has a great feel for his.”

So far, at least for his age, that place is very close to the very top.

Tom Boswell has been a Washington Post sports columnist since 1984. He started at The Post in 1969 as a copy aide, and he spent 12 years as a general-assignment reporter, covering baseball, golf, college basketball, tennis, boxing and local high school sports.

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