You would be smiling too if you were Juan Soto who celebrates his 20th birthday today. He cashed his first lotto ticket when he signed a $1.5 million international free agent deal at the age of 16 with the Washington Nationals. That type of money puts you in the wealthiest 1% of Dominicans. In Soto’s case, that money will look like pocket change when his career earnings exceed a fraction of a billion dollars. He was only rated as the 22nd best international free agent back in 2015 when he signed with a low percentage chance of future success. Check back in a few more years to see how the 21 players ahead of him in those rankings do in their careers. Most of those players signed in international free agency will never sniff a major league field.
Signing 16-year-olds is risky business. For Soto, it’s all about RISP-y business. On May 21st, Soto had 2 runners-in-scoring-position (RISP) and crushed a 3-run home run for his first career hit. That was the first glimpse of greatness, and record setting at the time. Soto would go on to shatter numerous teenage baseball records surpassing legends from Mel Ott to Ken Griffey Jr.
Juan Soto's first MLB start.
Juan Soto's first MLB hit.
Juan Soto's first MLB HR.
Juan Soto's first MLB RBI … and second MLB RBI … and third MLB RBI. pic.twitter.com/WZROZwD89c
— Washington Nationals (@Nationals) May 21, 2018
Today on his birthday, we can look back to his historic season, and that $1.5 million he made looks like a bargain now to the Nationals who are only obligated under the collective bargaining agreement to pay him league minimum of $555,000 in 2019. Soto will earn more than that in off-the-field money signing autographs, making appearances, and wearing logo’d accoutrement as a traveling billboard. For Soto, he said it himself, “Just keep doing Juan Soto things.”
For a teenager, Soto showed remarkable patience and took his walks which led to a record for OBP (on-base percentage) and Soto’s .923 OPS broke Mel Ott’s record .921 OPS which stood for 90 years dating back to 1928.
If you are into advanced Sabermetrics, Soto dominated in advanced stats. He set records for the highest OPS+ (142), wOBA (.392) and wRC+ (145) among teenagers in MLB history which will add to the debate of who is the greatest hitting teenager in MLB history. The next debate is who is the 2018 Rookie of the Year? thanks
For next season, Soto just needs to replicate what he did in the month of June for an entire season. That would put him on a 41 home run pace while batting .317 with a .440 OBP.
The only negatives on Soto start with the most obvious with his defense rated at a -4.2 UZR, but if there is any good news — his defense improved in August and September. Soto also must improve against changeups and sliders in which he only hits .215 and .217 respectively. Another negative in small sample size was Soto’s RISP batting average at .215, but if 7 of those balls in play found holes that .215 would have been .280. Okay, that is fancy math, but expect that Soto will improve in RISP spots as his BABIP was an unlucky .271. You would have to nitpick to find anything else negative with this phenom. The lulls he had seemed to be very consistent with a player who showed signs of physical exhaustion.
Maybe the best indication that a day-off for Soto mattered was his stat from mid-June forward where he batted .378 in 53 at-bats after a day-off. From June 13th forward, the days off that Soto received came via days the team did not play and from rain-outs. The only game he did not appear in after June 12th was the second half of a doubleheader on September 8th.
Most players want to play everyday, and Trea Turner did it for the entire season. Bryce Harper only missed three games. But there is a price to pay in the fatigue factor when your body is running a marathon and you only trained for a fraction of it. Still, the results were historically significant. Soto played in 111-games in his rookie season and still hit 22 home runs which was the second most ever by a teenager tying him with Harper who accomplished that in 2012 in 139 games. Tony Conigliaro still holds the teenage rookie home run record set in 1964 in the same 111-games like Soto.
Based on WAR value, Soto’s Fangraphs’ WAR of +3.7 adjusted to a full season of 675 PA’s would give a full-season valuation of +5.1 for Soto. With better defense, he could be tops on the Nationals in value. For a 20-year-old, he should come into West Palm Beach in February knowing his stay in “big league camp” is permanent going forward. For Soto’s friend and teammate, Victor Robles, we will wait and see on what the two-thirds of what Bryce Harper called the “Dream Team” outfield could look like in 2019.
“It’s pretty exciting [to have Soto and Robles in Washington],” manager Dave Martinez said. “Everyone fell in love with Soto because he’s done so well. He’s been incredible. You know, Victor Robles is an unbelievable athlete, and I think he’s going to do just as good. I’m looking forward to getting [them] out there.”
The big question the off-season is whether Harper will join the 20-somethings for what could be the best outfield in the Majors. For the birthday boy Juan Soto, he just said he’s “chilling” today. Feliz cumpleaños mi amigo!