In a week when the Washington Nationals lost Stephen Strasburg and Starlin Castro indefinitely and multiple Cincinnati Reds games were postponed by a positive novel coronavirus test, a pall hung over much of mini-season baseball. Even in Washington, with the Nationals at 8-12 after a deflating ninth-inning collapse against the Atlanta Braves, “defending” often feels like a term for fending off gloom, not a cause for post-title grinning.
Except, that is, for Juan Soto, baseball’s joy stick.
At 21, is the Nats’ left fielder improving? Is such a near-fantasy possible? Is the same thing happening to Soto that happened with Ted Williams, Ty Cobb, Mickey Mantle, Willie Mays, Hank Aaron, Jimmie Foxx, Ken Griffey, Jr., Joe DiMaggio, Miguel Cabrera, Eddie Mathews and even Mike Trout?
After one, two or three full seasons in the majors when they were standouts — but also assumed to be rather close to their finished form — those prodigies all got better. In fact, most of them got much better. They didn’t just want to excel; they wanted to bedazzle.
Does Soto have another gear, too, and did we just glimpse it over the past week as he went 12 for 26 with five homers, 12 runs and 12 RBI over a seven-game span?
In a pandemic-mutilated year that could end any week, on a Nats team that seems several bricks shy of another payload, Soto has been the gleaming light of must-see hope and can-I-play-a-baseball-game-today-please.
Every day for a week, you got to choose what you loved best. Was it the 463-foot home run over the New York Mets’ huge apple in center field? Was it the 466-foot home run, for now his longest ever, that would’ve gone entirely out of Citi Field, except it hit a girder supporting the right field roof that, heretofore, thought itself safe?
“I like to watch where they land,” said Soto, who does not pimp his homers but is suitably observant.
Was it the assortment of opposite-field home runs during the week — three of them, averaging 416 feet — that showed how pointless it is to avoid Soto’s power by pitching him away, because his best power, relative to the rest of MLB humanity, is to the opposite field? (He has hit 22 homers to left since the start of 2018 — more “oppo boppo” than any hitter.) Was your favorite swing his fourth and final homer against the Mets, the take-that blast he hit in his next at-bat after being drilled with a fastball?
Or did you prefer the subtlety of Sunday when, seeking a spark for his hurt, inconsistent team, Manager Dave Martinez moved Soto up from cleanup to No. 2. Maybe get the Juan-derful one just one extra at-bat.
Soto’s reaction? What fun! So, he got two 100-mph hits, two walks and would’ve had a third walk but for a blown full-count call by a having-a-bad-day ump. His reaction to the bad call, which got the Nats’ hitting coach ejected? No reaction at all. Just draw a walk and score the winning run in the eighth to get a 6-5 win for Max Scherzer and end the day with three more runs scored.
After being named NL player of the week on Monday, Soto began work on his new week with a booming 445-foot home run in Atlanta — just to the left of straightaway center field, a trademark Soto depository — in the Nats’ crushing 7-6 loss Monday night.
These days, I am tempted by the ultimate no-no-never-go-there comparison — that Soto may become the very, very poor man’s version of the greatest pure hitter who ever lived, Ted Williams. Did I say “very” enough?
In his first two seasons, at ages 20 and 21, Williams hit .336 with a .439 on-base percentage and a .601 slugging percentage. As a rookie, at 20, he drove in 145 runs. That made him a household name — the Splendid Splinter. His OPS+ — which accounts for external factors such as ballparks and adjusts so a score of 100 is the league average — was an average of 161 in his first two seasons. Wow, what an infant immortal!
But in his next two years, Williams slashed .379/.525/.688 and hit .406 at 22. That’s vastly better. His OPS+ was an average of 225 over those two seasons — an insane 125 points better than the league average. His career: .344/.482/.634 — and a 191 OPS+.
Nobody since has approached that, and Soto won’t.
But there’s a huge lesson in those numbers — the same one you can find in all the great names I listed earlier. You can be very good to wonderful and still get better year after year, even if you’re no Teddy Ballgame.
Entering Monday night’s game at Atlanta, Soto is .292/.407/.551. Like I said, “very, very poor man.” But as a 20-year-old in 2019, he had 34 homers, 110 runs, 110 RBI and 108 walks and then had five homers and 15 RBI batting cleanup for a World Series winner. His OPS+ was 141 — 41 points above average. Recall, Ted’s was 161.
Even though Soto, who missed the first eight games of this season with what may have been a false-positive coronavirus test, can play only a maximum of 52 regular season games, we may still get a clear-focus hint of the future.
Yes, we may have to relax and accept that, like Frank Robinson, Mel Ott, Alex Rodriguez, Albert Pujols and Frank Thomas, Soto at 19 and 20 was basically the finished product. Okay, great!
But, of the prodigies who have erupted at anything like Soto’s level, you’re more likely to see one big jump in performance, usually at 21, 22 or 23 — such as Bryce Harper’s MVP year at 22.
Some of MLB’s greatest players have been grim obsessives, like Williams. Soto is joyful. But he is also obsessive about hitting. He talks it and demonstrates it to his teammates in the dugout, illustrating how to hit to the opposite field by snapping a towel.
Every day in his long pregame practice sessions, he strives “to be perfect. We know nobody is perfect,” Soto said last week. “But every day, in all my drills, in everything, I try to be perfect.”
At this point, it’s standard to mention that some careers, dazzling from debut to 25, taper off and fade after 30.
It’s getting very hard to apply that disclaimer to Soto. Aside from injury — by baseball or life — it’s hard to find a hitter at Soto’s level who didn’t maintain or else improve.
Since he arrived, I’ve tried to remind myself that the reason Soto pops up so high on so many all-time lists of great young players is that he had the good fortune to pile up stats before reaching 21. To get a clearer view, let’s look at career stats through 25 — especially numbers such as OPS and wRC+ (weighted runs created plus) that show per-game production, not just raw totals.
I ran my finger down the list of “best OPS” through age 25 since 1900 and, yes, there they were — Williams and Babe Ruth at No. 1 and No. 2. No Soto in sight, but here are Mantle (No. 10), Trout (No. 14), then Mays, Ott and Shoeless Joe Jackson at Nos. 19, 20 and 21.
Then I jumped. At No. 22 was Soto. And he has the chance to get better over the next five years and move up. At .958, he is ahead of Rodriguez, Robinson and a ton of Hall of Famers.
If you want a most-favored stat by advanced metrics, among all players through age 25 with 1,000 at-bats, Soto ranks 32nd in wRC+, just behind Stan Musial.
Nobody stays as hot as Soto is now. That’s not the point. However, it’s the torrid streaks, the weeks that hint at legend, that tip us off to players who may still be traveling the high mountain road from better than we could expect to almost better than we can imagine.
All things considered in this housebound, hope-hindered year, we appreciate getting to go along for the ride for as long as it lasts.
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