NEW YORK — Bryce Harper had barely scrawled his name on his $330 million, 13-year deal with the Phillies when Nationals outfielder Juan Soto began to hear from fans: You need to be Bryce Harper now.
Do I? Soto wondered. Harper was the first pick in the 2010 draft, a former National League Rookie of the Year, a former NL MVP. His 2015 season—10.0 WAR—was the best by a player in Washington’s franchise history. He was among the most famous men in the game, and he was now the recipient of the largest free-agent deal in North American sports. Soto was 20 and attending his first major league spring training. He was still figuring out where the bathroom was. No, he decided. Be Juan Soto.
Good choice. Juan Soto has been better than Bryce Harper this year. In fact, Soto’s 2019 has a chance to be better than any year Harper ever had, with the exception of that 10.0-WAR season. Soto has reached base in 40.2% of his plate appearances this season. He has hit 25 home runs. (Harper this year: .372, 22.) The 65–55 Nationals currently hold the first wild-card spot by 1 1/2 games.
Soto made his debut last May after injuries wiped out the Nationals’ outfield depth. Since then he has recorded a wRC+—weighted runs created plus, which adjusts offensive performance for ballpark and era—of 144. That’s the best ever for someone so young with so many plate appearances. Mickey Mantle’s wRC+ through his age-20 season was 142. Ty Cobb’s was 141. Ken Griffey Jr.’s was 120.
“I just think about what I was doing at 19, 20 years old,” says 30-year-old Washington rightfielder Adam Eaton. “I was, like, toilet-papering people’s houses. I wasn’t hitting 95[-mph fastballs] in the show and traveling the United States and facing scrutiny. It’s impressive.”
Opposing pitchers have taken notice. When the Giants discussed the Nationals’ lineup before the teams met last week, they focused especially on two hitters: 29-year-old All-Star and perennial MVP candidate Anthony Rendon and Soto.
Soto possesses strong hands and a short swing, but perhaps his most impressive quality is his mature understanding of the strike zone: He has walked in 15.9% of his plate appearances this season, seventh best in the game. Even Joey Votto, with his legendary eye, has only walked 11.8% of the time. So how do you beat the phenom?
“I’m probably the wrong guy to ask!” says San Francisco righty Jeff Samardzija, laughing: Soto has homered, singled and walked twice in their five matchups. “You definitely have to get in on his hands just to keep him from being so comfortable to pull, but that doesn’t really help you too much either, because he’s so good [to the opposite field] too.”
Soto’s defense has come along more slowly. Eaton, playing rightfield alongside Soto and 22-year-old Victor Robles, has taken it upon himself to work with the younger players. On most teams, the outfielders stroll in silence or bantering lightly off the field between innings. For the first four months of the season, Eaton would quiz his protégés as they returned to the dugout: What did you see there? Why did we do that? What could we have done differently? “It’s cool to get them to try to speed-read a little bit,” he says. Over the last few weeks, they’ve begun pointing things out to him.
Soto had success immediately upon arriving in the big leagues last year—which worried his manager. Davey Martinez warned his coaches to keep an eye on the kid; if he began to scuffle, someone might have to remind him that everyone struggles. But Soto never did. Still, when the Harper news broke this spring, Martinez felt compelled to check in. Soto may be the best 20-year-old hitter ever, but he is still the boy who gasps at Benihana when the chef builds the onion volcano. Now he was suddenly the player for whom the organization felt comfortable letting Harper leave.
So Martinez reminded him, “Don’t think you have to carry us.” But Soto waved him off. He realized when he was a teenager growing up in Santo Domingo that he was different. After Washington signed him for $1.5 million in 2015 and sent him to its Dominican academy with his 16-year-old peers, he spent two hours per day studying English. He refuses to use an interpreter to conduct his interviews with the media. Teammates say he follows a strict diet and eschews alcohol. He has been preparing for stardom his whole life.
Last year, the Nationals promoted Soto from High A to Double A in May. He scrambled to find housing in Harrisburg; teammates offered him a floor and an air mattress.
“The guys are telling me, ‘You gotta get your own bed, because when players sleep in air beds, they go down [statistically],’” he says. “I say, ‘I not gonna be here for a long time, so don’t worry about it.’ A week later, they call me up.”
He grins, thinking of the apartment near Nationals Park where he lives alone. “Now,” he says, “I sleep in a real bed.”
Being Juan Soto, as it turns out, is pretty good. And if the Nats make the playoffs, says Martinez, they will celebrate like Juan Soto: with grape juice.