‘Magical’ Soto never becomes tired of hitting

New York Yankees right fielder Juan Soto (22) watches from the top step of the dugout as third baseman DJ LeMahieu (26) bats during the ninth inning against the Los Angeles Dodgers on June 7 at Yankee Stadium in Bronx, New York. (Brad Penner/USA TODAY Sports)

NEW YORK — Before Juan Soto developed into a three-time All-Star, he dreamed of being on the mound. He pictured himself pitching in a clinching World Series game and winning Cy Young awards.

When he was a 14-year-old in the Dominican Republic, two years before the Washington Nationals signed him to a $1.5 million international free-agent contract, he tried out for the Atlanta Braves as a pitcher. It did not go well.


“My scouting report was really bad,” Soto said. “If I got to tell you my scouting report: ‘He has great command. He doesn’t have a lot of strength. His fastball is 83 to 86.’ I had friends who were throwing 92 to 95 at 14. I wasn’t too strong, but I had a good change-up and a decent curveball. It was too slow, but I had really good command.”

At the time, Soto thought he had a better chance of making it to MLB as a left-handed pitcher rather than a corner outfielder. But shortly after his tryout with Atlanta, his youth baseball coach told him his future should be in the outfield. If that did not work, they could always return to refining his pitching mechanics.

“We tried it,” Soto said. “It worked. And now here we are.”

Soto is having his best full season yet. He is second across MLB in on-base plus slugging percentage and weighted runs created plus, behind his New York Yankees teammate Aaron Judge. His .315 batting average after the weekend games was second in the American League, behind Bobby Witt Jr. of the Kansas City Royals. He is a lock to make his fourth All-Star Game.

But Soto’s path to this point started well before that ill-fated tryout with Atlanta.

His father, also named Juan, introduced him to baseball. When Soto was 6 months old, his father took him to a game in Dominican winter ball. By the time he was walking, Soto held any object resembling a bat in his hand. His father would throw him bottle caps, crumpled paper balls and eventually rocks to hit. To this day, Soto credits hitting everything other than baseballs as a reason his eyesight at the plate is so advanced. If he can hit a bottle cap, he can hit a baseball.

“That tells you how much I’ve loved this game since I was a little kid,” Soto said. Referring to his father, he said: “He would tell me I would find something and take it like a bat and just start hitting, hitting and more hitting. I never got tired of it.”

The lifetime of batting practice paid off for Soto, who turned 21 during the 2019 World Series, in which the Nationals beat the Houston Astros. To this day, Yankees pitcher Gerrit Cole, who was with the Astros then, grows animated talking about one particular at-bat Soto had against him that October. Soto was 4 for 6 with two home runs against Cole in that series, but it was not the homers that bothered Cole the most. In the fifth inning of Game 1, Soto laced a two-run double off the wall that gave Washington a 5-2 lead.

Cole said the pitch he hit was a backdoor slider on the edge of the plate on a 3-2 count. “He just drilled it off the wall with two outs and runners on the corners,” Cole said. “The double was the one that really moved the momentum in that game.”

Soto’s legend grew in Game 6. Astros starter Justin Verlander, who won the Cy Young Award that season, threw a 2-1 fastball up and in that he and catcher Robinson Chirinos thought was a strike. Soto shook his head no, turned to Chirinos and barked, “Ball!’ The next pitch — another fastball up and in — Soto sent 413 feet over the right-field wall.

Earlier in the game, Astros third baseman Alex Bregman hit a home run and carried his bat to first base before dropping it. That moment was etched in Soto’s head before he stepped in the box against Verlander. So when he blasted his home run, Soto held his bat to his side before he dropped it near the first-base bag.

“I was just thinking like: ‘Wow, that’s pretty cool. I want to do the same thing,’” Soto said. “Verlander is making great pitches. He’s coming at me up and in. He wanted the calls; they were balls, definitely, you can see it. I was feeding off his frustration and Chirinos’ frustration. They weren’t getting the calls they thought they should. At that point, I was really thinking I was going to get a pitch to hit because he’s really frustrated. He’s going to try to attack. He doesn’t want to walk me because walks in playoff games are always bad, and I have Howie Kendrick hitting right behind me. So I just prepared myself for that pitch, and I didn’t miss it.”

Every time Soto steps to the plate, the opponent or score does not matter.

He always trusts that he is going to come through. There is an adage that pitchers have the advantage over the hitter because they are the ones who know what pitch is coming and which location they are trying to attack.

Soto does not believe that.

“I would say nobody has the advantage in that battle,” Soto said. “You just got to see who wants it more. They have the ball. They can throw whatever they want, but I have a really big stick. I can carry that ball a long way, so for me, it’s just a battle.”

The combination of calmness, confidence and swagger the 25-year-old possesses when he is in the batter’s box reminds Yankees manager Aaron Boone of a former San Francisco Giant.

“Barry Bonds,” Boone said. “But Juan is unique in his own right. There’s a theatrical element to it. There’s a battle, fight element to it. He gives you that at-bat that you want to have, that you want to bottle up. I want our team to be about the way he is.”

“It’s hard to compare. Like Bonds, I mean, he got one pitch a weekend and hit it in the drink. It was kind of otherworldly, but to watch Juan whether he’s 0-2 or ahead in the count, you’re like, ‘All right, this is going to 2-2 or 3-2,’ and then it’s going to be this theatrical thing that unfolds. A lot of times it ends with him doing something magical. It’s just fun to watch him take an at-bat and the intensity of the at-bat. The theater and the reaction to a strike or a ball with him is like nothing that I’ve seen.”

Whenever Yankees pitcher Marcus Stroman has been asked in recent years who the best hitter in the sport is, he has had the same answer: Soto. It is deeper than Soto’s ability to put the ball in play or draw a walk. Stroman cited the amount of stress a pitcher has when he faces him because he knows the strike zone better than the umpires.

“I think he’s a once-in-a-generation player,” Stroman said. “I think he’ll go down as arguably one of the best to ever do this.”

The work Soto puts in behind the scenes is what impresses Judge the most. When the Yankees were in Minnesota last month, Soto was on the field well before batting practice began because he thought his swing felt off in the two games before the series began.

“You can’t really compare him to anybody else,” Judge said. “He’s always working on his craft. He was in there every single day hitting early. Even when we came back from the road trip, he hit early on the field, and I’m like: ‘Man, you’re hitting .320. You’re the last guy that needs to be hitting early on the field.’ It shows you just the type of perfectionist he is and how he wants to always improve and always be on top of his game. That kind of rubs off on everybody else in the room.”

With Boone comparing him to Bonds, Stroman calling him the game’s best hitter and Soto headed for a potential MVP Award showdown with Judge, it raises a question: Does he consider himself one of the game’s best?

“I will say I’m part of the group,” Soto said.

“There’s so many guys, but every guy in the big leagues has got to feel like they are the best hitter on the planet whenever they step in that box. If you ever doubt yourself, you’re an easy out. I think that has to be your mindset. That’s how I feel every time I step in that box.”

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