On a humid evening at Pfitzner Stadium in Woodbridge, Va., when Anthony Rendon’s rehab appearance was supposed to be the story, 19-year-old outfielder Juan Soto seized the spotlight again. He has been doing that regularly this season, particularly in the 12 games since the Washington Nationals promoted him from Class A Hagerstown to Class A Advanced Potomac. In those 12 games, Soto has six home runs, tied for the Carolina League lead. The other c0-leader has played 29 games.
On this particular evening, Soto took a swing so unforgiving, so powerful, that it almost appeared he had hours to line the whole thing up instead of milliseconds. The blow sent a home run deep over the wall in right field, pulled with such propulsion that it appeared to be holding its plane as it found the woods behind the fence. Later, a Potomac Nationals official said Soto hit the ball 105 mph, and that such force was his recent norm.
“It’s pretty much the same here,” Soto said when asked to compare his experience with Potomac to his experience in Hagerstown. “Just the pitchers are better, so just that.”
If the pitchers are better at every minor league level, Soto has not permitted them to show it. He hit .361 in the Gulf Coast League two years ago, and was named the MVP. He hit .429 in six games in Class A short-season Auburn later that season. Last season, shortened by injuries, Soto hit .360 in 23 games for Hagerstown. He is hitting .388 for Potomac, showing off the prolific power that makes so many in the organization gush.
But they and outside evaluators have gushed about power in young players before. The thing everyone points out, the thing Potomac hitting coach Luis Ordaz said sets Soto apart from anyone else his age, is his understanding of the strike zone.
“He knows it real well, the strike zone. When you swing at strikes, you have a better chance to be successful,” Ordaz said. “And he’s very impressive in the way he knows the strike zone.”
For his brief minor league career, Soto’s strikeout-to-walk ratio is nearly 1 to 1. He doesn’t know where his sense of the strike zone came from, which means he hasn’t really had to hone it yet. As he moves into Class AA, likely sometime in the next few months, Soto will encounter better breaking balls and more varied arsenals. Weaknesses in his approach will probably be exposed. In fairness to Soto, however, most minor leaguers see those weaknesses exposed long before Class A.
Those who’ve seen Soto since the Nationals signed him out of the Dominican Republic say he still has improvements to make defensively. He profiles best to a corner outfield position, with a frame that makes him look five years older, but seems likely to grow even bigger. Asked about what he hopes to improve on offensively, Soto couldn’t pinpoint anything. He just wants to keep “doing his job.” Even his hitting coach couldn’t identify any major project points.
“What he’s doing is good for him,” Ordaz said of Soto’s routine. “It works for him and he feels comfortable. We stick to that.”
Soto said he’s been using that routine since the Gulf Coast League where his coach, Jorge Mejia, drilled the importance of consistent preparation. Veteran hitters usually establish those routines later in their careers. In that way, like so many others, Soto is beyond his years. People around the game are starting to notice.
For years, Victor Robles was the can’t-miss Nationals kid, and he climbed as high as fifth on prospect rankings lists last season. Now, with Robles out for months with a hyperextended elbow, Soto’s hype is building. MLB Pipeline moved him up to 28th on its list. Baseball America writers indicate Soto is due for a major jump in their rankings, too. He is ranked the Nationals’ second-best prospect behind Robles.
“I like [the attention],” Soto admitted. “I just try to be focused on the game, but I like how they talk and everything.”
Soto’s confidence does not translate to arrogance or laziness. He is known as a dogged worker with a precocious attention to detail. When he was hurt last season, he committed to other Nationals initiatives, including his work with the Rosetta Stone program. Last season, Soto hardly said a word to reporters without an interpreter nearby, and never in English. Last week, he conducted an entire interview in polished English.
Such is the velocity at which Soto develops — a velocity that mirrors the unlikely exit velocity he is posting in Potomac over his first two weeks here. No one should expect Soto to continue mashing baseballs like this. Then again, no one should be surprised if he does.