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Juan Soto’s power made him a household name. His plate discipline could make him an all-timer.

Juan Soto has a 16.2 percent walk rate over his first two seasons in the majors, the best mark of all time for a player 21 or younger. In second place on that list: Ted Williams. (Jonathan Newton/The Washington Post)

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. — The other night, in the latest in an interminable line of innocuous spring training games, the Washington Nationals had a runner on third base. Juan Soto came to the plate. He saw four pitches. He never lifted his bat. He walked to first base.

“Hey, man,” Howie Kendrick said to him back in the dugout. “You don’t like steaks?”

A steak, in dugout parlance, is an RBI. (RBI = rib-eye. Get it?) Soto knew exactly what Kendrick was asking.

“I like them,” Soto responded. “But they weren’t strikes.”

And if a pitch isn’t a strike, Soto, in more dugout parlance, spits at it. For all the damage the 21-year-old can do with a bat — and it is significant — his most impressive trait is how infrequently he swings one. If pitches were spread out across a buffet table, Soto would take his tongs, pick up each one individually, examine them on all sides and put the vast majority back, perhaps with a small dash of disgust.

“If it’s not a pitch where I can do damage, I don’t swing,” Soto said. “Why swing?”

It is such a simple concept. It blows his teammates away.

“I don’t get it,” three-time Cy Young Award winner Max Scherzer said, shaking his head.

“Explain how he does that to me,” right fielder Adam Eaton said, eyes wide.

“It’s what makes him, him,” Manager Dave Martinez said.

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Soto receives and deserves enormous respect for his power. It produced 56 homers over his first two seasons; it propelled the titanic, opposite-field blast off then-Houston Astros ace Gerrit Cole in Game 1 of the World Series; and it caused everybody to pause and stare Saturday morning on a back field here when he pulverized a ball into the stratosphere during batting practice, turning a mundane drill into a stop-what-you’re-doing event.

“When he gets up there to hit, you kind of sit and watch everything he does,” Martinez said, “because you feel like something good is always going to happen.”

But for all his precociousness, Soto’s most preternatural ability is his selectivity. In the two seasons since the Nationals promoted him to the majors as a 19-year-old, he is one of only five players with an on-base percentage of at least .400. The other four — Mike Trout, Christian Yelich, Mookie Betts and Alex Bregman — averaged more than 2,500 major league plate appearances before 2018, the season Soto opened with low Class A Hagerstown before shooting to the majors.

Matt LeCroy then was the manager at Class AA Harrisburg, Soto’s last stop before Washington. Soto lasted there for 10 days and eight games. His impact remained the rest of the season.

“He changed the whole complexion of my team,” LeCroy said. “Everybody started to watch him — watch him work, watch him play, watch his at-bats — and then our at-bats got better. More intense, longer, more of a battle. He shrunk the zone. He’s facing guys who were doing really, really well in our league, and he’s just laying off a 3-2 splitty, and you’re like, ‘Oh, my gosh.’ ”

It wasn’t always this way. No discussion of Soto is complete without mentioning how quickly he processes information, whether it be over the course of a season or in a single at-bat. When he arrived from his native Dominican Republic to play in the rookie-level Gulf Coast League in 2016, he walked roughly once every 13 times he came to the plate. That wasn’t enough. Jorge Mejia, his hitting coach with the Gulf Coast Nationals, had a conversation with him.

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“They saw my numbers, and they told me I don’t take too many walks,” Soto said. “They told me to look for one pitch in specific, and if it’s not that pitch, just don’t swing until you have two strikes. I try, and it works. It was easy for me. I just started taking pitches — taking, taking, taking — and then swinging when they’re missing [with their intended location].”

Rarely does such an inherently passive act make jaws in the dugout drop like this. Soto walked once every six times at the plate as a big leaguer in 2019, the sixth-best rate in the majors. A pitcher can prey on a hitter who he knows will chase pitches that aren’t strikes. But according to data compiled by FanGraphs, only 10 hitters over the 2018 and 2019 seasons swung at pitches outside of the zone less frequently than Soto. Those hitters — including such savants as Trout, Betts, Joey Votto, Joe Mauer and Carlos Santana — averaged more than 3,400 big league plate appearances before 2018. Soto entered those seasons with zero plate appearances above Class A.

So what takes most players years to master, if they can master it at all, Soto developed on the fly — and in a hurry. Soto’s career walk rate in the majors is now 16.2 percent. In the history of the game, no player 21 or younger has walked as frequently. The next best, at 15.2 percent: Ted Williams.

“When he sees something — a pitch or a tip or how this guy’s going to attack him — he processes things like nobody’s business,” Eaton said. “He can make an adjustment mid-pitch, which a lot of us can’t do. It’s something that he has an unbelievable knack for and is able to do on the fly. And to have his talent level — it is God-given, in a sense. But, man, that guy works so hard at it.”

Which, in turn, makes pitchers work harder.

“Sometimes, you get a guy 2-0, and you can just let a fastball rip, and it might be above the zone and he’ll go after it,” closer Sean Doolittle said. “But a guy like Soto, you know you have to get him out in the zone. It’s a little bit annoying.”

“If the ball’s an inch off and they call it a strike,” Kendrick said, “he’s like, ‘It wasn’t a strike.’ ”

“You’re looking for that 50-50 line where he’s going to swing at it,” Scherzer said. “Some guys, that 50-50 line is way out there, out of the zone. But as it gets closer and closer to the zone, it makes it harder. And when he starts spitting on off-speed pitches, it’s forcing everything into the zone, and your room for error just shrinks.”

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Soto not only knows this, he thrives on it. It’s why it seems appropriate that he just might be the first major leaguer to pimp his takes.

“I’m a big fan of the ‘Soto Shuffle,’­ ” Doolittle said. That move — watching a pitch go by, then kicking at the dirt, strutting and staring out at the pitcher as if he had just gone deep rather than taken ball one — has been described as “a reset,” which is exactly what Martinez said the other day. But Soto fully understands the dynamics at play.

“Sometimes they just get frustrated, the pitchers,” he said. “And I like that.”

On Saturday afternoon, up the road in Jupiter, Fla., in a game against the St. Louis Cardinals, Soto faced right-hander Carlos Martínez. He saw six pitches. His bat never left his shoulder. He took a walk. The home runs, they will sell the tickets and make the highlights. But the ability to look at a pitch that’s a smidgen outside and know — beyond question — that it’s a ball is what will make big leaguers truly marvel at the genius that is Juan Soto.

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