The Nationals’ outfielder is doing things that teenagers just shouldn’t do.
The list of teenagers who have hit at least one home run is an impressive one. Limiting the list to those with just a single home run, you get Johnny Bench, Juan Gonzalez, Brooks Robinson, Vada Pinson, and Curt Flood. There have been 116 teenagers in baseball history to hit at least one home run. Juan Soto is one of them. Not all of these teenagers became stars. Not all of them forged long careers. But a lot of them did.
If you want to stop right there, this is probably the most important thing you need to know about Soto right now. Just by being a teenager in the majors, he’s putting himself in a rare group, and he’s likelier to succeed than an older rookie. This is Baseball 101, but this is still worth repeating at every opportunity.
Except Soto doesn’t just have a single home run. Now that he’s traveled through time to hit a dinger, he has six of them. Now instead of a group of 116, he’s tied for 14th on the all-time teenager home run list, moving ahead of Al Kaline, Alex Rodriguez, and Mike Trout. This isn’t to say that he’ll be a Hall of Famer, should-be Hall of Famer, or will-be Hall of Famer, It’s just a note that he could be BETTER THAN ALL THREE OF THEM PUT TOGETHER AND YOU WILL BOW BEF
Wait, no, sorry, sorry, got carried away. It’s just fun to list some of the names in the club that Soto has already joined. No matter how good Soto gets, we probably aren’t going to get a ton of chances to write “better than Mike Trout” about anything, so take those chances when they come. Very few teenagers have hit as many home runs as Soto, and the ones who have at least six in the last 50 years go like this:
- Bryce Harper
- Ken Griffey, Jr.
- Robin Yount
- Manny Machado
- Adrian Beltre
- César Cedeño
- Juan Soto
That is to say, two perennial All-Stars with a better chance at the Hall of Fame than any of their peers, one future Hall of Famer, two actual Hall of Famers, and one of the more curious declines of the past half-century.
Soto is more than dingers, though. He’s hitting for average. He’s taking walks. At some point between his 18th and 19th birthday, he matriculated at the University of Plate Discipline and Doogied his way through all four years. If you take all of the teenagers with more than 50 plate appearances in baseball history and sort them by walks per plate appearance, you get a lot of anomalies. The top hit is a pitcher named Willie McGill from the 1800s, and the second hit was a catcher who hit .182 and then left the majors to play in the Pacific Coast League. The third-best BB/PA belonged to Tony La Russa, who somehow got a quarter of his career plate appearances when he was 18 and hit .250/.346/.318 before disappearing for four seasons.
Then there’s Juan Soto. As you can tell from this list, there isn’t a ton we can tell about a prospect’s future from a walk rate that’s accrued over 50 to 100 plate appearances. Maybe this means Soto will be a Hall of Fame manager. But the point is that it’s rare for a teenager to exhibit this kind of patience, even in a small sample. The strike-zone fairy does not usually visit teenagers. Take a moment and ask yourself when the first time Soto saw a 90-mph fastball was. Four years ago? Sooner? In the majors he’s hitting against 97 with movement and location, and he’s thriving.
That’s the secret word, the one that should get you to scream like you’re in Pee Wee’s Clubhouse whenever someone says it in connection with Soto. He’s thriving. When you put the rare power for a teenager together with the patience, you have a player who isn’t just doin’ okay. He’s not just holding his head above water. He’s thriving.
Which brings us to a list of teenagers who didn’t just do okay, but thrived. These are the teenagers who a) had an OPS over 800 in b) 100 plate appearances or more:
- Tony Conigliaro
- Bryce Harper
- Jimmie Foxx
- Mel Ott
- Cap Anson
- Whitey Lockman
- Oyster Burns
There always has to be one normie in the bunch, and Lockman is the one this time. He had a long, productive career for the Giants on both coasts, but he was just a one-time All-Star. Oyster Burns played in the 19th century, so he probably doesn’t count, but I sure like typing “Oyster Burns.” The rest are/were all Hall of Fame talents in one way or another, although it’s only fair to note that Anson was a virulent racist, even for his time, and his punishment is to be mocked as an insecure weenie for the rest of history.
Fine, I get it. Here’s what you need to know:
Juan Soto has already shown more power than most teenagers.
He has already shown more patience than most teenagers.
He is thriving in a way that is unusual for teenagers, to the point where he currently has the highest OPS for any teenager in history.
Add it up, and you have a special player worth watching.
There’s a word back there, though, that is extremely important. It’s the word “currently.” Baseball is a harsh roommate, and pitchers and advance scouts like to remind teenagers that baseball is hard. When Ken Griffey, Jr. came up as a 19-year-old, he set the league aflame, hitting .325/.388/.494 in April, with eight walks in 86 plate appearances and three home runs. For most of the rest of the season, he held his head above water, but he stumbled to a 615 OPS after coming off the DL in August. His numbers were Soto-esque, but then baseball got in the way. It’s more than likely that the league will adjust to Soto. There should be growing pains. There almost have to be.
But this is what we’re looking for, what we’re watching. Is this teenager hitting for power? That’s rare. Is he exhibiting control of the strike zone? That’s rare. Is he thriving? That’s extremely rare. If, by the end of the season, we can check off all of these boxes, we just might be watching the start of something extremely special.
And if he stumbles, remember that most of the other teenagers did, too, including some Hall of Famers.
We’re not even 100 PAs into Soto’s career, but our assertion is this: He’s pretty danged special. If you want to disagree, the onus is on you to provide evidence. Otherwise, our case looks pretty good, and we should probably start appreciating this teenager even more than we’ve already been doing.
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