Major League Baseball’s youth movement is in full effect. The league is featuring more young superstars than ever before, and across all leagues, none of those stars shines more brightly, on or off the field, than Washington Nationals right fielder Juan Soto. Soto is the rare young player with an extraordinary feel at the plate and his own signature dance move. It’s no wonder he’s earned the nickname, “Childish Bambino.”
Born in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic, Juan Soto grew up watching his father play catcher in a local men’s league. Soto signed with the Nationals in 2015, at the age of 16. The very next year, playing in the rookie-level Gulf Coast League, the left-hander hit .368 and won a host of awards. He was the 2016 Gulf Coast League Most Valuable Player, and he was named a Baseball American Rookie All-Star, a GCL Post-Season All-Star, and an MiLB.com Organization All-Star.
Then came 2017. Promoted to the Single A Hagerstown Suns, Soto hit .351, but only played in 32 games due to a fractured ankle and surgery to his left hand. For most players, a season like that constitutes a significant setback in their development, but not Soto.
Despite his lost 2017, Soto made a rocket-fueled ascent through the minor league system of the Nationals. After batting .362 and hitting 14 home runs in just 39 games across three levels, Soto arrived in the big leagues as a midseason call-up in 2018.
Even as a fresh-faced 19-year-old, Soto had the powerful 6’2”, 224 pound frame of a slugger, as the home run balls he sent deep into the Washington DC sky could surely attest. As you might expect, he wasted no time getting started, crushing a 422-foot home run in his first major league at-bat. It made him the first teenager to hit a major league home run since Bryce Harper, another 19-year-old Washington right fielder did it in 2012.
Soto never had time to become the future of the Nationals. He became their present way too quickly for that.
Soto finished his rookie season with a .292 batting average and 22 home runs in just 116 games. Despite winning Rookie of the Month honors three times, he finished second to Ronald Acuña Jr. in the National League Rookie of the Year voting. He also began drawing comparisons to some guy named Ted Williams.
World Series Champion
After a rookie season that seemed too good to be true, Soto spent 2019 making believers out of everyone. As a 20-year-old, he hit 34 home runs and batted .282. He was in the top ten in the National League in on base percentage, runs, walks, and RBI. He finished in the top 10 in the National League MVP race. Oh, and he also led the Nationals to their first ever World Series championship.
The team was loaded with stars, with Soto in the outfield, Trea Turner and Anthony Rendon in the infield, and Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg and Patrick Corbin on the mound. After stumbling to a 19-31 start, the Nationals turned their season around and managed to squeak into the National League wild card game against the Milwaukee Brewers. Down 3-1 in the bottom of the eighth inning, the Nationals loaded the bases against Brewers star reliever Josh Hader. Soto came to the plate and, just as he had all season long, delivered. He roped a single into right field and an outfield misplay allowed all three runners to score.
The Nationals squeezed past the Los Angeles Dodgers in the National League Divisional Series, with Soto hitting a game tying home run in the sixth inning of the deciding game five. The Nationals went on to sweep the St. Louis Cardinals in the National League Championship Series, setting a World Series matchup with the Houston Astros.
Fanatics has plenty of collectibles and sports memorabilia from the tense, back and forth 2019 World Series. It went the full seven games, with the home team losing every single time. Soto hit .333 in the Series, with three home runs, tied for most with Houston third baseman Alex Bregman. The most memorable was a monstrous opposite field blast off of ace Gerrit Cole in game one. It soared over the left field stands and wall, and landed on the train tracks at Houston’s Minute Maid Park. Surprising no one, Soto led the Series outright in walks with five.
The Soto Shuffle
Soto’s superpower is one that you wouldn’t necessarily suspect from a younger player: patience. He knows the strike zone better than anyone in the game, and he won’t swing at any pitch that he can’t crush.
Soto has finished in the top four in walks in all three of his full major league seasons. He led the league in walk-to-strikeout ratio in 2020 and 2021, and he leads again this year. In 2020, he won the National League batting title while also leading the league in on base percentage. He finished with 145 walks in his age 22 season, second all time to, you guessed it, the legendary Ted Williams. It’s no wonder the DC fans want to dress like him.
If you’re skeptical that something as simple as not swinging at bad pitches can be revolutionary, you’re not completely wrong. Soto’s control of the strike zone extends far beyond the numbers.
When he takes a close pitch, he performs a routine that has become so iconic that it has its own nickname: the Soto Shuffle. He gets even lower in his stance, leaning out toward the pitcher as he aggressively smooths the dirt in the batters box with his cleat.
The show of dominance started harmlessly enough. It began on a rainy day in the low A level of the minor leagues. Soto was just trying to clear some of the mud from his spikes and from the batters box, but he liked the way it felt and the way it made pitchers feel.
A pitcher throwing a ball and a batter declining to swing is often the least interesting part of a baseball game. When Juan Soto is up at the plate, he manages to turn it into an event.
Soto finished second in the 2021 National League MVP voting, but despite his dominance on the field and his brashness in the batters box, he’s known throughout the league as one of the most friendly players in the game.
Laughter tends to follow wherever he goes, and he is already viewed as one of the faces of Major League Baseball. You can see his officially licensed sports apparel with his name on it in ballparks throughout the nation.
When the Nationals had their first Juan Soto bobblehead giveaway in 2019, Soto only requested one change for the proposed design: he wanted to make sure his tiny likeness was smiling.
When former teammates Max Scherzer and Trea Turner made the 2021 National League wild card game with the Dodgers, Soto made sure to cheer them on, sitting in the front row and wearing a Turner jersey.
Just this season in a game against the Braves, Ronald Acuña Jr. lost a chain while on the basepaths. Cameras captured Acuña laughing as Soto ribbed him about the broken jewelry from his position in right field, and Soto jokes with reporters after the game that Acuña needed a better jeweler.
What Does the Future Hold?
Soto has had a slow start in 2022, but only if you’re judging him by Juan Soto standards. For Soto, a slow start still means a batting line 32% better than league average. It still means leading the National League with 55 walks. It means being in the top ten in the National League in home runs, on base percentage, and strikeout percentage. Soto’s one of a kind batting eye means that even when the hits aren’t falling, he can still contribute by getting on base.
The future doesn’t hold too many questions about Juan Soto’s play. He is always going to hit. The bigger question is whether he will continue to hit in Washington DC. Soto is still on his rookie contract, and he will be a free agent after the 2024 season.
The Nationals entered a rebuilding phase after their 2019 World Series championship. They are having a down year after trading stars Max Scherzer, Trea Turner, and Kyle Schwarber for prospects who can help them build for the future.
Earlier this season, rumors that the Nationals might consider trading Soto as well began to float around the league, but in June the team made it clear that they want to hold onto him. Juan Soto is the kind of generational talent that they want to build around. From the field to the clubhouse to the community, they want Juan Soto around.
And just in case Juan Soto, now a seasoned veteran at the advanced age of 23, is too old for you, just wait. His younger brother, Elian, is set to sign as an international free agent with the Nationals in 2023. He will be 16.