The five best offensive players in baseball at age 19 were, in order: Juan Soto (29.5 offensive runs above average, according to FanGraphs), Mel Ott (26.2), Tony Conigliaro (18.9), Bryce Harper (16.8) and Ty Cobb (13.9). Mickey Mantle and Ken Griffey Jr. are also in the top 10.
The next season, at 20, Ott drove in 151 runs. Conigliaro led the American League in home runs. Harper missed 43 games because of injuries but continued to hit at a high level. Cobb batted .350, led the AL in eight offensive categories and basically took over the sport. Mantle was third for MVP. Griffey was an all-star, won the Gold Glove in center field and hit .300.
At 20, Mike Trout blew up the sport with a 10.0 WAR (wins above replacement). Alex Rodriguez hit .358 with 141 runs. Ted Williams had 145 RBI. Frank Robinson hit 38 homers. Al Kaline won the batting title.
So that’s where we are with Juan Soto. Hey, not expecting too much.
On his first day in the Nationals’ spring training camp, Soto walked into the clubhouse, quietly, as always, blending in with others, standing erect but deflecting attention with his conventional haircut and lack of any apparel that might attract your eye. Mr. Any Player.
Soto immediately spotted Patrick Corbin, the Nats’ new $140 million free agent southpaw, sitting on his stool, facing into his locker. Soto, who still will make the major league minimum salary this year, walked over, softly tapped him on the shoulder, then introduced himself when Corbin stood up: “I’m Juan Soto.” No big deal. Glad to meet you. Welcome to the ballclub. Just like he was 30, not 20.
Minutes later, Soto sat at his locker, getting organized, opening mail. A nondescript 3-by-1-foot box lay in front of him — probably junk, but it could have held a large plaque. Veteran Howie Kendrick spotted the box, hustled over and “stole” it. Pretending to read the label, Kendrick feigned amazement and announced, “Nationals Player of the Century!”
Soto looked up casually and smiled a little but not much. “It says ‘Player of the Century’ right here!” Kendrick said for everyone to hear. Peeking inside, Kendrick said, “It’s gold!”
With a small playful expression, Soto said, “It’s like Seve’s gold,” referring to catcher Pedro Severino, a fellow Dominican, who has a couple of chains around his neck but not a lot.
Immediately, a half-dozen players, led by Kendrick speaking Spanish, started ragging on the extroverted Severino about the dubious quality of his “gold,” a mock argument that Severino enjoys. Soto had deflected the moment, not denying that he might be the player of the century but also completely downplaying it into a harmless joke that someone else could enjoy.
Some players just have the touch. They don’t deny they expect to be great, but they also don’t make a big deal of it or act as if it makes them better than anyone else. So far, Soto has it.
Many players don’t like to give the spring ritual of a group interview to beat reporters as soon as they step into the clubhouse for the first time. In other words, see me but don’t bug me. Soto got rid of his obligation within his first half-hour.
So, Juan, what did you do in the offseason? “Relax with family,” he said, shrugging, smiling, willing to make the whole interview a case of nothing-to-see-here.
But every specific question brought a bright answer, eyes enjoying the task of answering in English, as he always tries to do. Did Soto, who was considered a slow runner when he first signed with the Nats for a $1.5 million bonus, keep working to improve his speed in the winter, or did he rest his body after such a long, grueling season?
“Oh, yes,” said Soto, who by last season had reached MLB-average sprint speed. “If I don’t keep working on it, I’ll be bad again.”
Did he do much offseason hitting? “A lot, a lot,” he grinned, as if anything could stop him from swinging at baseballs.
Anything different about him now? “My arm is getting stronger!” he said.
Ah, just a growing young man, discovering new skills. And his arm was fine last season.
What if Harper does not return? “He helped me a lot last year,” said Soto, earnestly, hoping Harper will be back. “If he’s not [here], I’m going to keep doing what he told me.”
Perhaps it is lucky for Soto that the Nats had a magnificent 19-year-old in Harper and that he needed a few years — with WARs of 4.4, 4.1 and then 1.6 before exploding into an MVP with a WAR of 9.3 at age 22. If Soto sputters a bit this year, many will, quite properly, say, “So what? It took Harper until his fourth full season to figure it out. Give Juan a few years. He’ll get there.”
It may also be a break for the left fielder that he can’t hear everything that his teammates already say about him.
“The sound that his bat makes when it hits the ball — there are only a handful of players like that,” veteran pitcher Jeremy Hellickson said. “That ball he hit through the upper-deck runway in right-center field in Yankee Stadium [and onto the concourse] — I’ve never seen a ball hit near there in a game or even batting practice. I can’t imagine a ball going that far. . . . I’m glad he’s on our team.”
There is mythmaking, which is fun, and then there is real baseball, which is incredibly hard. By August of last year, pitchers were adjusting to Soto, sometimes bothering him with fastballs up and in. By September, he had adjusted back and was lashing those pitches into the right field corner. That battle will continue all season. Like everyone, Soto will have his lulls.
However, one gift separates Soto from almost any young player ever: his command of the strike zone and his ridiculously high walk rate of 16 percent. Just two young players have had comparable batting eyes and plate discipline at 19 or 20: Ott and Williams.
The only instruction Nats Manager Dave Martinez has for Soto is “keep taking your walks.” That’s exactly right. If Soto remains selective, keeps hitting to all fields and “crushes” mistakes, he will have a very high floor and a scary ceiling.
It is always wise (and safe) to counsel caution about prodigies, mention “sophomore slumps” and nod toward every flaw that flesh is heir to. Consider it done. Check that box.
But Soto’s big league performance was so remarkable last season, on top of hitting .362 with 102 RBI in just 122 games as he rocketed up through the minors, that the stat-crunching world is smacking its computers to make sure the machines’ guesstimates for this season are correct.
For example, the respected ZiPS projections foresee that Harper will bat .271 with a .407 on-base percentage and .537 slugging percentage and have 35 homers, 104 runs and 109 RBI this season. Soto? Try this: .296/.400/.559 with 36 homers, 106 runs and 112 RBI.
The Nats have found only one thing to worry a bit about: what Martinez calls “the Soto Shuffle.” Between pitches, Soto paws at the ground, sometimes steps in front of the plate, talks to himself and is more animated, more visibly competitive — though not actually disrespectful — than almost any hitter. He’s battling, dueling, making it personal, and it shows.
“We talk a lot about it,” Martinez said of the Nats’ staff. “Juan’s keeping engaged. He’s not showing anybody up. We talked to him about it. Just back it down a little bit.”
There is a list of players who put up elite numbers as rookies at 19 or 20, then drifted back into the pack, such as Jason Heyward and Bob Horner . . . and, well, there’s also . . . let me think . . . okay, there was Dick Hoblitzell around World War I. And a few others.
Go on, take that bet if you want. But there’s a century of history that leads to one conclusion: Juan Soto much more likely will stay the same or get better than get worse. Shuffle on that.
For more by Thomas Boswell, visit washingtonpost.com/boswell.