Washington Nationals fans of the 21st century are gold-plated, certified, blue-ribbon firsthand experts in only one area of baseball. They can’t testify to the relative merits of fabulous World Series games. Give it time — plenty of time. But when it comes to evaluating, enjoying, debating and understanding the career progressions of young phenoms who might become legends, they already have far more experience than is usually packed into just 15 seasons.
Right now, in his past 50 games, Juan Soto, age 20 , has hit .354. With the Nationals down to their last out Saturday in Philadelphia, his two-run homer turned a loss into a victory. He hit a 443-foot home run three-quarters of the way up the right-center field bleachers Tuesday night in Baltimore, along with an RBI single, in an 8-1 Nationals win. What’s odd is that Soto does not look red hot. Mostly, he just looks normal. We’ve been here before, wondering how special a young Nats player will be. In fact, we’ve been here many times.
Of all players through age 20 , Soto entered Tuesday No. 1, tied with Mel Ott, in weighted runs created plus (144), one of the favorite stats of the analytics movement. In weighted on-base average, the core stat from which FanGraphs derives its wins above replacement rankings, Soto’s .393 was fourth after Ott (.433), Alex Rodriguez (.402) and Mickey Mantle (.399).
Washington fans have come to know, and love, this predicament of wondering, “How high?” In fact, Washington has enjoyed such projection uncertainty — a condition also referred to as “hope” — more times than seems possible for one city in so short a time. Maybe that’s part of the city’s reward for 33 years without baseball.
From the arrival of Ryan Zimmerman, at age 20, late in 2005, Nats fans have been saying, “What have we here?” By the time Zimmerman was 25, he ranked in the top 40 players in history in WAR at that age. A Hall of Famer? That’s always unlikely but, if everything fell in place, maybe, somehow. It didn’t. But the first Face of the Franchise still has 1,002 RBI and a permanent place in local memories.
Since then, the Nats have welcomed, and fantasized about the futures of, Stephen Strasburg, who struck out 14 in his debut at 21; Bryce Harper, who was rookie of the year at 19 and MVP at 22; and Trea Turner , who hit .342 as a rookie and put up half-season stats worthy of prime Tim Raines, who’s in Cooperstown . All-star Anthony Rendon has kept improving until he may be the highest-priced free agent of the 2019 offseason.
Washington has watched homegrown Ian Desmond and Jordan Zimmermann play themselves into career salaries of more than $120 million, although in other towns. It has seen Lucas Giolito arrive as the top-ranked pitcher in the minors, then flop briefly, get traded and reemerge as a 2019 all-star with the Chicago White Sox.
Right now, rookie center fielder Victor Robles, one of the fastest players in the sport, has been one of MLB’s hottest hitters (.950 on-base-plus-slugging percentage over the previous 30 days entering Tuesday). Is he finding his footing and turning a nice first year into a fine one? Carter Kieboom, 21, is shredding the hitter-friendly Pacific Coast League. His ETA, after a brief stint with the big league club this season: 2020.
If the fans in any town should know better than to predict Hall of Fame careers for young players, it’s Nats fans. Even Harper, now a Philadelphia Phillie, is starting to look like “only” a possible Hall of Famer, not a highly probable one.
So we need to chill on Soto, though it’s very difficult. Will he get hurt, the way a broken wrist and finger, both from fastballs, knocked big chunks out of Turner’s 2017 and 2019 seasons?
Will he have a career-changing injury, such as Strasburg’s blown elbow in his ninth MLB start, that forces him to re-create himself with somewhat less talent?
Will he grind his body down, playing through injuries, to help the Nats in National League East races as Zimmerman did for years with his shoulder and heel?
Perhaps most important, will he work at his craft diligently and get inexorably better with time — the way the Orioles’ Eddie Murray began his career with seven straight seasons that were each slightly better than the previous one? Or will he be brilliant but streaky like Harper and learn the league less than it learns him?
Baseball is jammed with young talent, especially hitters. Among the top 35 players in OPS, six are 24 or younger: Home Run Derby winner Pete Alonso of the New York Mets, Soto, Rafael Devers of the Boston Red Sox, Yoan Moncada of the White Sox, Ronald Acuna Jr. of the Atlanta Braves and Gleyber Torres of the New York Yankees.
What jumps at me is the extreme youth of Soto and Acuna. By 22 or 23, the list of players who have blasted to prominence leaps in every era. But it’s rare to be a star hitter at 19 or 20, then maintaining or improving that level, as Soto and Acuna are now in their second season. That’s usually a hallmark of superb careers.
What if the past two months is foreshadowing of the next stage in Soto’s development — with his average, on-base percentage and slugging percentage all rising sharply? He’s a student — of everything — whether it’s speaking English or improving in left field, where he has gone from scary novice to semi-respectable.
“Ceilings” fascinate us. We know the odds are always against those ceilings being reached. But what fan, or player, isn’t mesmerized by them?
How many hitters who arrived after World War II have hit over .320 with 400 homers? Plenty, right? No, none. The last to do both were Stan Musial and Ted Williams.
How many since World War II have hit .315 with 400 homers? Two: Vlad Guerrero Sr. (.318, 449 homers) and Miguel Cabrera (.316, 470 homers). If you want a dream ceiling for a combo hitter-slugger, that might be the area.
In this season of phony jack-rabbit balls and silly-sad home run totals, Soto’s useful 17 homers don’t stand out much. He’s an all-fields hitter with high walks who is (exactly) as good against lefties as righties. Although he has light-tower power, he’s not a high-strikeout, launch-angle slugger. Soto’s style may age well.
In the past, MLB has always corrected its excesses even if it had to lower the mound, change the strike zone or juice the ball. When MLB fixes its current Ball Crisis, a lot of 2019’s inflated stats will pop. Soto’s won’t change much.
So far, none of the Nats’ youngsters — excellent though they’ve been — has hit the absolute max ceiling that some imagined. What a bunch of flops! The homegrown Nats in this column will pass $1 billion in salary when Rendon signs.
When we watch Soto, we cross our fingers for him. Few fan bases know more than Washington’s how hard it is to go from projections and dreams to illustrious long careers. For 15 years, a steady stream of these players has arrived, bringing daily gifts, six months at a time, that entertain us for years.
Try to predict the future, including Soto’s, if you must. I seldom resist. But if you’re a fan who loves a daily dose of watching elite careers as they develop, then know when you’ve gotten lucky.
It truly doesn’t get much better than this.