The strategic takeaway from Tuesday night’s 5-4 victory for the Nationals over the Houston Astros in Game 1 of the World Series — read that phrase a few times — is that the 20-year-old Soto can’t be pitched to, and that is a series-altering notion.
The first four at-bats of Soto’s World Series career produced three hits, including an opposite-field homer off previously unhittable Gerrit Cole that found the railroad tracks that sit atop the Crawford Boxes in left field at Minute Maid Park.
Six-day layoff, a problem for the Nats’ hitters? Soto’s 3-for-4, three-RBI day led an unprecedented roasting of Cole, who allowed one run in 22⅔ innings over three previous starts this October — and five in seven innings against the Soto-led Nats.
The World Series. Twenty-first birthday still a few days off. Gerrit Cole on the mound. The approach?
“I forget about everybody around,” Soto said. “It’s just you and me.”
For Washington, that’s a watered-down version of Soto’s remarkably advanced approach, which we’ll get to. For Houston, he is the most significant problem in navigating the rest of this series, because if Cole can’t get through Soto, who can?
“He’s a dog that plays checkers,” said Johnny DiPuglia, the Nationals’ vice president of international operations.
“You don’t see dogs playing checkers,” DiPuglia said.
No, you don’t. And you don’t see Juan Sotos.
So what, exactly, do we have here? Statistically, the hitters through age 20 who most resemble Soto, according to baseball-reference.com, are the following: Tony Conigliaro, Mickey Mantle, Frank Robinson, Bryce Harper, Mike Trout and Ken Griffey Jr. Blink your eyes clear, read those names again, and smile about the future. General Manager Mike Rizzo pointed out he has brought four 19-year-olds to the big leagues over his career in Arizona and Washington — Justin Upton, Harper, Soto and Victor Robles.
“You guys rank them,” Rizzo said. “He’s up there.”
What Soto has is a rare combination in a 32-year-old with 5,000 major league plate appearances, let alone a 20-year-old who began last season with Hagerstown, the Nats’ affiliate in the low Class A South Atlantic League. From a teenager riding the buses in the bushes to this absolute monster.
“He’s one of the top five players in all of baseball, really, for me,” Los Angeles Dodgers Manager Dave Roberts said.
Note: Roberts said that before Soto absolutely clobbered a pitch from Dodgers legend Clayton Kershaw to tie the fifth game of the division series in the eighth inning. Maybe that moved him into Roberts’s top three?
Whatever the ranking — let’s discuss that in the offseason — there are obvious physical gifts that contribute to Soto’s production. The strength needed — forearms, wrists, legs — to do what Soto did to Cole’s fourth-inning fastball is obvious, raw and pure. The pitch, at 96 mph, was up and away, and Soto attacked it with a movement that’s simultaneously violent and smooth.
The two-out double an inning later came after Cole worked him to a full count. This one was a slider, and there’s the point that’s problematic for the Astros going forward. If he can hit two of the best pitches in two different counts from the pitcher who has been the game’s best for most of this season — to the opposite field, with power — then is there anything he can’t hit?
“Hitting, and hitting off that guy, are two different things,” Rizzo said.
“Maybe he thinks he’s better than the guy who’s the best in the world,” DiPuglia said.
So to get to the level Soto has reached at this age — with just 1,665 professional plate appearances, not counting the postseason — it can’t just be physical. And it’s not.
“He understands the game at a really high level,” said Max Scherzer, who earned a win in Game 1. “Has a very good baseball IQ and has a really, really good hitter’s IQ.”
This is manifesting itself in the postseason, as Soto works counts and takes pitches with his special, I-see-what-you’re-doing-to-me shuffle in the batter’s box on baseball’s biggest stage. But it also showed up on the back fields at the Nationals’ West Palm Beach, Fla., spring training complex, before anyone knew who Juan Soto was.
Dave Martinez, his manager, likes to tell the story about the first time he saw Soto — spring training last year. First at-bat, he badly missed a slider in the dirt, typical for a 19-year-old facing big league pitching, just flailing. But Soto followed by stepping out of the box, shaking his head a bit, resetting, stepping back in, getting the exact same pitch — and taking it. There’s maturity in that moment.
“Next pitch, same pitch, got it up a little bit,” Martinez said, “and he hit a rocket off the left-center field wall.”
That’s a preternatural ability to learn and adjust from pitch to pitch, and he has carried that to the majors. Take Tuesday night. In the first, Cole blew him away with three fastballs, all up in the zone. Think he didn’t take that info — and that feeling — into his next at-bat? DiPuglia said it’s not uncommon for Soto to talk about the spin rate of a curveball or the tilt on a slider or whether a fastball has run.
“He’s prepared, man,” DiPuglia said. “The kid’s prepared better than any young player I’ve ever seen. It comes from being smart. It comes from loving the game. It comes from knowing the history of the game. And it comes from being prepared and asking the right questions.”
Now he is up against an Astros organization that considers itself the smartest in baseball. Can it figure out a way to pitch to him? The truth is, he hasn’t been the best version of himself this postseason. Before Tuesday, he was hitting just .237 (9 for 38) with only four walks in 10 games.
But in the midst of all that were moments that show he can deliver, even through struggles. Think of those, to this point: the rip of a single that beat Milwaukee in the wild-card game. The bomb against Kershaw that set up Howie Kendrick’s NLDS-winning grand slam. And now, Tuesday night, in the Nationals’ first World Series game — three RBI, a homer, a double and, for good measure, a stolen base. The last time a player had three hits, a homer and a stolen base in a World Series game: 1997, a year before Soto was born.
“Nothing seems to bother him,” Martinez said.
Including a pitcher he had never seen before. In the eighth, the Astros brought in reliever Will Harris. There is no lefty in the Houston bullpen, no weapon to neutralize Soto.
Harris got Soto to look at a curveball for strike one, then got him to foul off a fastball for strike two.
His response? Shake his head, get back in the box and rifle an 0-2 curveball into center for a single.
That’s what we’re looking at here: a generational talent on baseball’s grandest stage. Revel in it, Washington — in the World Series, and in the homegrown stud who is in the process of altering it.
For more by Barry Svrluga, visit washingtonpost.com/svrluga.