Soto never needed the confidence boost.
“That,” Juan Sr. said, “was always in him.”
The Nationals signed Soto for $1.5 million in July 2015, a franchise record on the international market. Injuries limited him to 83 games through his first two seasons of professional baseball, so he used the downtime to become a fluent English speaker. After the 2017 season, he returned home to Santo Domingo and trained with purpose, then zipped through the Nationals’ minor league system the following spring, graduating from both Class A levels in five weeks.
Soto arrived at the Nationals’ Double-A affiliate in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, on May 10. The clubhouse was overrun, and one of the catchers was forced to share half his locker with Soto.
“Don’t worry,” Soto told him, “I won’t be here long. This isn’t my league.”
Nine days later, Nationals president of baseball operations Mike Rizzo sat in Dave Martinez’s office after his postgame media session. Martinez, then in his second month as a major league manager, lamented the injuries that were beginning to pile up, the latest a torn Achilles tendon suffered by Howie Kendrick.
“We’re bringing up Soto,” Rizzo said.
Martinez was incredulous.
“We’re bringing up Soto,” Rizzo repeated. “He’s gonna have to learn to play sooner or later.”
Soto homered in the first at-bat of his first start and batted .346 through the first 16 games of his rookie season. By the end of it, he owned a .292/.406/.517 slash line with 22 home runs in 494 plate appearances, setting a record for weighted runs above average among teenagers. Martinez was awed by Soto’s plate discipline and poise, but was also impressed by his diligence.
2019 MLB Playoffs
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Soto’s second-year numbers — .282/.401/.548 with 34 homers in 659 plate appearances this season — only improved. When the postseason began, he held the record for most walks before age 21 and trailed only Mel Ott for the most home runs. Then came the game-winning hit off Josh Hader in the eighth inning of the NL wild-card game, and the game-tying home run off Clayton Kershaw on the decisive night of the NL Division Series.
“He likes the big moments,” Martinez said. “The 50,000 fans, the big lights — it doesn’t bother him a bit.”
Soto expanded his strike zone often in the minor leagues and was told to home in on one pitch, in one location, until he got into two-strike counts. Soto has adopted that mindset in the major leagues, a strategy that works only when hitters possess a firm grasp of opponents’ tendencies. Nationals starter Max Scherzer has taken note of the way Soto interprets data, a rarity for his age.
“When you’re young and trying to solidify yourself, you’re trying to solidify yourself in the baseball standards,” Scherzer said. “But to be able to take on the data is a whole different ballgame. And the fact that you can do both, especially when you’re young, that really is a testament to how smart he is.”
Soto’s flamboyant mannerisms appeared in alternating games.
They annoyed Mikolas in Game 1 and seemed to irritate Jack Flaherty in Game 3, but they were nonexistent in Games 2 and 4. The between-pitch routine, Soto said, “fuels my confidence.” But he has learned to pick his spots with it. The tighter the situation, the more likely it is to make an appearance.
“I just think it’s a fight, just the pitcher and me,” Soto said. “I forget about everybody that’s around me — I just think of the pitcher and me.”
Soto on WS berth: ‘My heart is jumping’
Juan Soto talks to Pedro Gomez after the Nationals reach the World Series.