The Best Outfielder in Washington Nationals History
NBC Sports Washington
We have long awaited for a sports figure in Washington DC like Juan Soto to capture our hearts. In hockey, we have Alexander Ovechkin, but for the Washington Nationals, Washington Wizards, and Washington Redskins, we have never seen anyone like Juan Soto. Sure, we have seen some flashes like Bryce Harper's 2015 season, a very solid five-year stretch from John Wall from 2014-2018, and Robert Griffin III's magical rookie season in 2012, but Juan Soto is proving to us every day that he is a staple on the Washington Nationals that is not fading away anytime soon. He is the face of the franchise and the face of the Nationals 2019 World Series title run. Alex Ovechkin brought the first Washington Capitals title to DC in franchise history in 2018, but he is now 34 years old and even though he is still an elite player his best days are behind him. This clearly leads to the next man up to take over as the face of Washington DC sports. His name is Juan Soto a 21-year-old left fielder out of Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic.
Juan Soto was born to Juan Soto Sr and Belkis Pacheco on October 25, 1998. He has an older sister and a younger brother. His father was a salesman while also playing as a catcher in a local men's league. He encouraged his son from a very young age to become a baseball player. Soto always played above his age level and was known around the Dominican for his elite bat speed. He always loved to hit, and he was known for the big smile that he still carries around to this day. Soto was looked at in 2015 as a 16-year-old by a Nationals scout, and after arriving to watch Soto play in a doubleheader he witnessed Soto pitch three solid innings in the first game. He then witnessed Soto collect three hits in the second game and he took notice. More scouts were sent to watch Soto play in the Dominican and Nationals General Manager Mike Rizzo eventually took a trip down there to watch Soto play himself. The White Sox were the only other team seriously pursuing Soto, but the Arizona Diamondbacks made a late run to snatch up the phenom. With other teams taking notice, the Nationals gave Soto a $1.5 million-dollar signing bonus which at the time was a club record. Rizzo fell in love with Soto's intelligence and clean-cut persona, and he also took notice of Soto's baseball IQ.
Photo Via MLB.com
Juan Soto as a 16-year-old International Free Agent in 2015.
His first season with the Nationals organization came in 2015 as a 17-year-old. In the low minors, Soto batted .368 with a .973 OPS in 51 games while being named the Most Valuable Player in the Gulf Coast League. This put him on the radar throughout the Nationals organization and some rumblings arose talking about Soto potentially being better than top prospect Victor Robles. Going into the 2017 season Soto was in prime position to become one of the organization's top prospects. He then got injured sliding into home plate after a strong start to the season and he missed most of 2017. Soto entered 2018 in Minor League camp for Spring Training, but the Nationals brought him over to Major League camp to take part in five games. He played in only one game, but Rizzo made sure that he would be in attendance to watch the Childish Bambino play. The game was against the Miami Marlins, and their young left-handed starting pitcher named Caleb Smith. Smith has become one of the best starters for the miserable Miami Marlins team, and through 249 1/3 career innings as a big leaguer, he has compiled 274 strikeouts and a .227 batting average against him. Soto did not disappoint against the left-handed Smith collecting two hits which included a very long home run.
"I'm glad I was there." Mike Rizzo said.
Soto began the 2018 season in low Single-A. After dominating the competition in sixteen games as a 19-year-old he was promoted to high Single-A. In high Single-A, Soto dominated once again having an OPS of 1.256 and seven home runs in fifteen games. The Nationals decided that Soto had proven that he was a man amongst boys in Single-A and called him up to Double-A after only 31 total games. Double-A is known as an extremely high developmental level league where many young top prospects are placed there to polish their flaws and improve their high skill level. Soto was only 19 years old and the Nationals envisioned that Double-A would be the best place for him. This new assignment for Soto only lasted eight games. He continued to bash home runs and he had an OPS of .981. He would have likely stayed at Double-A if the Nationals had not been dealt with multiple injuries in their outfield, but the ballclub needed a spark. The fifth-best prospect in baseball and the top prospect on the Washington Nationals Victor Robles had been injured in Triple-A a few weeks before, so Soto was the next logical choice to receive the call. It seemed to be very premature to most people around the game especially with Soto only receiving 453 careers at-bats in the Minor Leagues, but Mike Rizzo had shown in the past that he was not afraid to call up young top prospects. Rizzo called up two other prospects at the age of 19. With the Arizona Diamondbacks he called up Justin Upton as a 19-year-old in 2007, and he called up 19-year-old Bryce Harper to the Washington Nationals in 2012. Both of these players established themselves as solid players right off the bat. Soto was looking to do the same, and he was immediately called on to make a big impact on a struggling Nationals ballclub.
Soto made his Major League debut on May 20, 2018, and he became the youngest player in the Major Leagues. He struck out in his first at-bat as a pinch hitter but started in left field the next day against the San Diego Padres at Nationals Park. I had the blessing to be at this game, and after his first at-bat, I knew this kid who is less than two years older than me was going to be a very special player. Soto hit a 3-run opposite-field home run on the first pitch he saw against the left-handed starting pitcher, and the ball traveled 422 feet. He finished the game going 2-4 with the 3-run home run and 2 runs scored. Soto continued to perform at an extremely high level and never slowed down. He never had long cold stretches and he always found a way to get on base. He achieved his first multi-home run game in his career against the New York Yankees in New York on June 13th of 2018, and he became the Nationals everyday cleanup hitter a week later. Soto finished the year second in the Rookie of the Year voting to Ronal Acuña Jr when he batted .292 with 22 home runs, a .923 OPS, and only 99 strikeouts compared to 79 walks in 116 games. He struggled with the glove, but he improved over the season especially for not having much experience in left field. Soto entered 2019 as one of the games brightest young stars, but he simply said his goal for the 2019 season was to "make the team."
Not only did Soto make the team, the baseball world quickly realized that Soto's rookie season was no fluke. Anthony Rendon and Juan Soto became the best 3 and 4 hitter duo in the Major Leagues even though Soto did not get off to a blazing start. Soto batted .248 through the first month of the season but then went on to bat .380 in May. He never had a month where his OPS was below .835 and at the end of the regular season, his OPS was .949 which ranked him amongst the most elite in baseball. He batted .282 with 34 home runs, 12 stolen bases, and a 4.8 FWar in 150 games. He had the best FWar amongst qualified left fielders in 2019, and he is undoubtedly the best left fielder in all of Major League Baseball. He improved mightily with the glove in left field, and he was nominated for a Gold Glove at the end of the season. This was a remarkable season for the 20-year-old second-year player, but his historic season was just getting started.
We have seen it time and time again. A talented Washington Nationals squad being eliminated in the first round of the playoffs. This broken record seemed like it was going to repeat itself after entering the 8th inning of the National League Wild Card Game down 3-1 against the Milwaukee Brewers with back to back National League Reliever of the Year award winner Josh Hader entering the game. The bases were loaded with two outs as Juan Soto entered the batter's box. Soto previously was 0-3 with 2 strikeouts. Over Josh Hader's career, left-handed hitters batted .120 against him with more than half of the at-bats resulting in a strikeout. After Soto fouled back the first-pitch fastball against Hader, he watched a slider go by to even the count at 1-1. After staring down Hader and doing the classic Soto Shuffle it is no surprise what happened next. He ripped a single into right field which scored three runs after an error by right fielder Trent Grisham. Daniel Hudson closed the game out the next inning and the Nationals were off to Los Angeles to battle the 106-win Dodgers. After a solid series against the Los Angeles Dodgers Soto and the Nationals found themselves down 3-1 going into the 8th inning with arguable the greatest left-handed pitcher of all time Clayton Kershaw on the mound. After Anthony Rendon hit a homerun Soto found himself in another clutch situation with Washington's back against the wall. Soto did not let the moment consume him, and he hit a first-pitch fastball 449 feet into the cool fall night. It was the longest home run of his career and it could not have come in a bigger moment. The Nationals went on to win the game after a grand slam by postseason hero Howie Kendrick in the 10th inning off Joe Kelly. The Nationals swept the Cardinals 4-0 and entered the World Series in Houston against the second-best pitcher in the game, Gerrit Cole. Soto went 2-3 against the right-hander with a solo opposite-field home run which landed on the train tracks in Minute Made Park. He later hit a double off the left-field wall on a 3-2 count which drove in two runs. He finished Game 1 going 3-4 with 3 RBIs, a run scored, and a home run in the 5-4 victory. He hit three home runs in the World Series with another one coming off of Cole in Game 5 and a home run off of Justin Verlander in Game 6. Soto asserted his greatness and proved that he could play when the lights shined the brightest. He ended the postseason batting .277 with 5 home runs and a .927 OPS. He performed the best in the most important situations, and he was very reliable in left field with his much-improved glove.
There have been many players to wear the Nationals uniform, but no player has been as good as Soto through his first two seasons in the league. In seven seasons with the Nationals, Bryce Harper batted .279 with 184 home runs and a .900 OPS. He had an unbelievable season in 2015 when he was the unanimous National League MVP, but he followed up that season with a subpar 2016. He only batted .243 with 24 home runs and his FWar dropped from 9.3 in 2015 to 2.9 in 2016. When compared to Juan Soto through their first two seasons, Soto has a higher batting average, a higher slugging percentage, higher OPS, more home runs, more RBIs, more doubles, more walks, more runs scored, and a slightly better FWar then Harper. Harper has also performed very poorly for most of his career in the playoffs, and in Soto's 2019 postseason he totaled Harper's career playoff home run total at 5 with 11 fewer at-bats. Soto is the brightest young star in all of Major League Baseball and at 21 years old he is a top 10 player in the world. Even though he has only played in two Major League seasons, he has left his mark and become the best outfielder to ever play for the Washington Nationals.