Real or not? Juan Soto may be best of baseball’s great rookie class

MLB


Several years ago, I was at the winter meetings interviewing Davey Johnson, then manager of the Washington Nationals. Bryce Harper had just finished his first season in the minors, hitting .318 at Class A and .256 in 37 games at Double-A. He had turned 19 that offseason.

Asked about Harper, Johnson said, “This kid is ready for the majors.” He went on to explain how back in 1984 as manager of the Mets, he had lobbied for teenager Dwight Gooden to make the club, jumping from Class A.

Harper didn’t make the team out of spring training in 2012, the way Gooden did, but he played only 21 games at Triple-A before the Nationals called him up. He went on to make the All-Star team and win Rookie of the Year honors.

The point here: You can rush the special ones to the majors. Juan Soto, like his Nationals teammate, is a special player and at 19 years and 231 days old, he’s proving he’s not only ready for the majors, but ready to be an impact player.

On Wednesday night at Yankee Stadium, the phenom slugged two home runs, one to left field off a righty, and one to right field off a lefty. The second one went far, a 436-foot blast with an exit velocity of 111.2 mph:

Soto has only 20 games and 76 plate appearances in the majors. He’s hitting .344/.447/.641 with five home runs and four doubles. Yes, it’s a very small sample size, but this much is already clear: This kid is going to be a big star.

What’s remarkable about Soto’s start is his lack of minor league experience. He had just 512 plate appearances in the minors, just 35 above Class A. Kind of similar to another player who reached the majors at 19 like Harper and Soto: Ken Griffey Jr., who needed just 552 PAs in the minors and 17 games at Double-A. (And who also homered twice at Yankee Stadium as a teenager.)

Heck, Soto played only 32 games last season because of injury. Soto was so good in 39 minor league games to start the season, however, hitting .362 with power, that the Nationals were willing to give him a chance when injuries created an opening.

One of the impressive things so far is that he has drawn 12 walks and has only 11 strikeouts (one walk was intentional). Of players with at least 50 plate appearances, he’s one of only 18 with a walk-to-strikeout ratio of 1:1 or better. That’s extraordinary for somebody with so little experience. Remember that walk and strikeouts rates are two of the stats that stabilize most quickly.

He’s young. Pitchers might find some holes to exploit. He’s already at a professional high in games played in a season, so fatigue and endurance might be an issue as he adapts to an entire season. When that first slump arrives, he’ll have to learn to make the mental adjustments.

It has been an exciting year for rookies: Shohei Ohtani, Gleyber Torres, Ronald Acuna Jr., Miguel Andujar. Soto doesn’t have the speed or range in the outfield of Acuna, he doesn’t play a key up-the-middle position like Torres, and he certainly doesn’t pitch.

I still might take him over the others.

Mariners sweep Angels in dramatic fashion: Mitch Haniger stepped up in the bottom of the ninth with one out against Angels reliever Oliver Drake:

As a longtime Mariners fan going back to the days of Julio Cruz and Ruppert Jones, this tidbit blows me away: This was Haniger’s second walk-off home run in June; Griffey hit only one with the Mariners. Sounds impossible, but the mind plays funny tricks with memories and Griffey didn’t actually hit the 15 walk-off home runs that I distinctly remember.

Anyway, it gets to one reason the Mariners keep winning those close games: They’ve been super clutch, Haniger in particular. He has 16 home runs and ranks second in the majors to J.D. Martinez with 52 RBIs, but the impressive part has been his performance in high-leverage situations. Entering the day, Haniger was hitting .327/.424/.633 in high-leverage situations via Baseball-Reference.com, and he ranked 10th in the majors in win probability added. Eleven of his 16 home runs have come in the seventh inning or later, including five in high-leverage situations (only Eddie Rosario with five and Martinez with six have that many).

Those five home runs:

April 13: Down 3-2 to the A’s in the seventh, hits three-run homer off Chris Hatcher. Mariners win 7-4.

April 22: Down 5-2 to the Rangers in the seventh, hits two-run shot off Matt Bush. Mariners lose 7-4.

May 20: Down 2-0 to the Tigers in ninth, ties score with two-run homer off Shane Greene. Mariners win in 11.

June 1: Hits walk-off homer in bottom of 13th off Matt Andriese to beat the Rays.

June 13: Hits walk-off homer to beat the Angels.

Furthermore, Haniger hit a tying home run in the eighth against the Rangers on April 20, although that one only shows up as a medium-leverage situation (seems like a higher-leverage moment than down three runs). The Mariners then scored four in the ninth to win 6-2.

It’s not just Haniger, however. Check out the top five teams in OPS in high-leverage situations entering Wednesday compared to their overall OPS:

Red Sox: .846 (plus 60 points)

Yankees: .843 (plus 51 points)

Mariners: .838 (plus 86 points)

Braves: .831 (plus 73 points)

Indians: .790 (plus 33 points)

(It’s a big drop from the Indians to the Pirates at .755.)

So it’s that “clutch” hitting that helps explain why the Mariners are 20 games over .500 despite a run differential of just plus-27 runs.

Marlins sweep Giants: Tough series in Miami so far for the Giants:

Monday: Madison Bumgarner gets ejected and they blow a 5-4 lead when the Marlins score three in the seventh, with J.T. Realmuto hitting the go-ahead home run off Sam Dyson.

Tuesday: Trevor Richards earns his first major league win as he and three relievers hold the Giants to three hits.

Wednesday: The Marlins win 5-4 with runs in the eighth and ninth. Brian Anderson walked leading off the eighth against Dyson and scored the tying run, then knocked in the winning run with a sacrifice fly.

The series finale is Thursday before the Giants head to Dodger Stadium for the weekend. They have one of the biggest home/road splits in the majors: 19-11 at home, 14-24 on the road. After the Dodgers series, they have a nice 10-game homestand against the Marlins, Padres and Rockies. Time to make a run.

Evan Gattis, RBI machine: Gattis had five RBIs on Tuesday. He had five RBIs on Wednesday. Sounds pretty cool? It is! He’s the first player in Astros history with at least five RBIs in back-to-back games. A quick search on Baseball-Reference reveals this is only the 34th time since 1908 a player has had at least five RBIs in consecutive games. The last to do it was Maikel Franco on June 22-23, 2015, when he hit three home runs in two games as a rookie at Yankee Stadium and everyone immediately predicted he’d turn into a big star.

And, yes, Griffey was one of the previous 33 to do it, with the Mariners in 1999. (You have to give me some props here: Working Ken Griffey Jr. into three separate notes is a pretty awesome achievement in its own right.)

No player has ever had three straight five-RBI games.

And finally … A dog, a ball and a video:

And … of course I can link Griffey to this item. Here’s a story about him and his beloved Rottweiler, Akiba.





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