(reprinted from the Washington City Paper Oct. 4, 2021)
By Byron Kerr
While the Washington Nationals endured a mediocre season that ended Sunday with the franchise in a rebuilding mode, Juan Soto managed to put together an MVP worthy year. In almost every offensive statistical category that matters, Soto led or was close to the top, and remained consistent for nearly six months, despite not having a lineup for most of that time that could protect him. Soto is only 22 years old, and completed just his third full season of at least 116 games, yet in each season Soto compiled All-Star worthy numbers. Last year, during the COVID-19 shortened 2020 campaign, he hit .351 to win his first National League Batting title.
In many ways, Soto is just getting started.
"I think with time you might see a little bit more power, maybe getting close to that 40 home run-type power,” Johnny DiPugilia, the Nationals' vice president and assistant general manager of international operations, tells City Paper. “Obviously, Josh Bell has helped him, but imagine if he still had Trea Turner and Kyle Schwarber in the lineup."
This season, as the Nationals sold off most of their assets, Soto boasted an MLB leading 145 walks, and was on base at least four times in 26 games, a feat reserved for the likes of Barry Bonds, Lou Gehrig, and Babe Ruth. Soto is often compared to Bonds in regards to plate discipline and he has an ability to remain patient even though he rarely sees a pitch to hit.
"What you are seeing at 22 years old you see what Barry Bonds was doing when he was elite as a 28 year old,” DiPuglia says. “The way he recognizes pitches, Barry had that type of ability. His eyesight must be incredible, ability to recognize spin. He is probably really astute on release points and the ability to react on a pitch at that level with such high velocity and regressed velocity from off speed pitches is amazing."
DiPuglia was one of the few to see Soto first when he was a young teenager in the Dominican Republic and at a tryout in South Florida. The Nats signed him in July of 2015. Soto was not crushing the ball back then, but DiPuglia saw the beginnings of Soto’s control at the plate and his keen ability to wait out a pitcher and find the pitch to hit.
"That is why we signed him because he didn't have any other outstanding tools,” DiPuglia says. “The only tool that he really had was the knowledge of the strike zone and the ability to hit the ball to all fields ... He didn't have the light tower power like a lot of these other kids like the Blue Jays' Vladimir Guerrero Jr., the Indians' Franmil Reyes, [or the] Marlins' Lewin Díaz. But pure hitter stroke, line-to-line, barrel awareness, and balance at the plate with off speed pitches, that's the reason why we signed him."
DiPuglia remembers that Soto was 6-foot-1, 175 pounds when the Nats first signed him. Now he plays at 6-foot-2 and 224 pounds. DiPuglia believes Soto will get bigger.
"He's going to end up being a pretty big guy,” he says. “He's already a lot larger than when we signed him. He's going to be every bit of 6-2, probably 235, 240 pounds, down the road when he gets older."
That maturity and patience at the plate is “God given” according to DiPuglia: “Nobody else gives you that. You are born with that. We refined it when we got him. Obviously, it's not a perfect product but when you have that type of lower half balance and plate recognition, you are born with that. It's not something you can go buy at Walmart."
But Soto’s early coach in the Dominican Republic says he ingrained that type of batter’s box discipline in his players at a young age. Rafael Zapata, or Pape, coached Soto for a Dominican youth baseball academy. From the age of eight to 15, Pape saw a kid with special tools: “He was very disciplined and loved to play baseball. I liked his responsibility with the game,” Zapata says in Spanish.
The style and maturity Soto displays off the field can be seen on the field too.
"I've always said that he conducted himself like a marine, like a green beret,” DiPuglia says. “He's always been an ultimate professional. He's very courteous to everybody that he talks to. His off the field mannerisms are great. He's not a guy to go out and party and all that.
DiPuglia credits Soto’s mom, Belkis Pacheco, for keeping her son focused on the right path.
"I recognize his traits from his mother,” DiPuglia says. “His mother handles herself with a quiet swagger. She is very good with their money, his money. She is very loving towards the kid. She cooks for him. She's always there for him."
This season, Soto was one of the few bright spots for the club that finished 65-97, the Nats' worst record since 2010. In order for the club to get back to the postseason, the team must now surround Soto with players that can get it done on the field like they did in 2019.
Despite playing for a team that was all but done in July, Soto continued to lead by example.
"He comes to play every day and he wants to help us win,” Nationals manager Davey Martinez said last month. He is showing his teammates that, hey, we come every day to win baseball games. He wants to go out there and do that, show his teammates that he wants to do that. I love the kid. He is awesome. Everything he does has been good. He's going to get better. He works on all aspects of the game and it’s really fun to watch him."
Martinez believes his young star deserves that MVP honor this season: "He doesn't give at-bats away and he works good counts and he stays on the ball. He comes ready to play every day ... The numbers he has put up are unbelievable."
Even if Soto does not win the MVP accolade this time around, he is destined to be in the conversation every year for season awards with this type of consistent play. DiPuglia believes that consistency stems from Soto’s “quiet arrogance”, not cockiness.
"I signed a lot of guys that are in the big leagues and a lot of them are smart asses, you know? He is not a smart ass,” DiPuglia says. “He is a very humble, respectful guy. He's going to get a lot of money. But I don't think that will change him either."
The Nats still have time with Soto. He does not become a free agent until 2025. It would be wise for the organization to find a way to keep him for as long as it can. Soto is only getting better.