In an effort to keep up with their parent club, the Hagerstown Suns of the Low-A South Atlantic League have gotten off to a blistering start; going 19-12 through 31 games on the back of their high powered-offense. One of the driving forces behind Hagerstown’s success has been Dominican outfielder Juan Soto, who has caught the eye of scouts across the baseball world. The young outfielder has recently made his way onto national top 100 prospect lists, and despite his distance from the majors, could very well be the best hitter in the Nationals farm system.
Soto was signed out of the Dominican Republic in 2015 for $1.5 million as a corner outfielder with a good feel to hit and some power projection. In 2016, due to his advanced skillset and size, Soto was sent directly to the GCL to make his professional debut like many other top international prospects. Over 183 PA’s in Florida, Soto gave his best Vladimir Guerrero impression on his way to a .361/.410/.550 line, 5 home runs, and a promotion to Auburn (where he continued to punish pitchers). The young Dominican’s startling professional debut reinforced what scouts already saw in Soto — namely, an advanced approach at the plate and a nascent ability to hit baseballs very, very hard. The only thing keeping Soto off of prospect charts going into 2017 was his limited defensive upside and distance from the majors. Soto possesses a rare control of the zone for such a young player, and due to his age there’s still some physical projection left which gives the outfielder a potential superstar profile.
So far in 2017, the talented Soto has continued his dominance as a professional. Until going on the disabled list on May 4, Juan Soto had been the bedrock of the league-leading Hagerstown offense, hitting a ridiculous .360/.427/.523 with three home runs. So far in the young season Soto has found himself among the SAL leaders in batting average, OBP, slugging percentage, and OPS and isn’t showing any signs of slowing down. Perhaps Soto’s most impressive feat thus far has been his improved plate discipline, which has highlighted the feel for hitting that makes Soto so intriguing as a prospect. Through 96 plate appearances Soto is making contact at an elite level, striking out only 8.3% of the time while walking at an above-average 10.4% clip. For any hitter at any level this would be an amazing start, but what makes Soto’s dominance even more spectacular is the fact that he’s doing all of this at the age of 18 — a full 3 years younger than the average Sally league player.
Considering that at 18 most normal people are busy trying to not embarrass themselves at prom, this is an impressive feat in and of itself; but even within the world of professional baseball this performance stands out. Soto is part of a record-breaking class of players 18 years or younger playing in full season ball, with 17 hitters currently on pace to receive over 200 PA’s for a Low-A club (which would be 7 players higher than the current record). However unlike many of the other Low-A hitters his age, Soto isn’t just holding his own: He’s dominating the competition. In fact the only other hitter his age competing with Soto so far is fellow super-prospect Vladimir Guerrero Jr., who is putting up an excellent .310/.435./.529 line, with every other player far behind. Small sample size aside, these performances can’t be ignored and have led major league scouts to reevaluate the already highly touted prospects.
With Soto sticking out from the crowd so much, I began wondering just how precedented his performance is in recent history, and what this could mean for the young Dominican’s future. Putting performance aside for now, from 2007-2016 75 batters aged 18 or younger have collected at least 200 PA’s at the Low-A level. I chose 200 PA’s as a benchmark because it is a large enough sample to drown out any small sample size noise, but small enough to catch players that were promoted quickly, or promoted to the level mid-season. Back to the data; of the 75 hitters under the age of 19 who competed in Low-A from 2007-2016, 41 have made it to the big leagues. Of course, that includes players who were there in the past few years and are not yet major-league ready. If you count back from 2013, 56 batters under the age of 19 have played in Low-A, with 41 of said players making the MLB. Looking at the statistics, Soto’s mere presence in Hagerstown gives us a pretty good indication of his absolute floor before even looking at Soto himself.
What the above statistics fail to tell you is the quality of major leaguer the aforementioned players have become. Without further ado, here’s just a few players who had over 200 PA’s at the age of 18.
The list goes on (trust me, look it up). Each of these players were able to hold their own (or better) in Low-A at the age of 18 and all of them have gone on to have successful careers in the MLB. Even players such as Domingo Santana and Jurickson Profar, who fit into this category and performed well at Low-A, had a long ride as top prospects and have contributed at the major league level. Of course for every Mike Trout and Bryce Harper there is a Chris Marrero or Engel Beltre, but there are few better stand outs and many worse washouts to be found among other groupings of prospects. If Soto’s floor is someone like Chris Marrero and ceiling is a perennial All-Star, than the Nationals have found themselves a blue chip prospect.
While Soto’s start has been very encouraging, it is obviously unlikely to keep up at its current pace. Soto’s BABIP and GB% are just too high to maintain his current batting average; add in an ankle injury and Soto is looking at a statistical decline heading into the summer. Soto could prove me wrong, but even if he doesn’t, Nationals fans have more than enough reasons to be hopeful about the Dominican outfielder. Soto possesses the rare combination of advanced hitting skills and physical profile that make elite prospects. So far in 2017 (and his career) Soto has shown an elite ability to make contact, and with further physical maturity, the quality of contact will only further improve.
As we have seen, playing in the South Atlantic League at the age of 18 is an accomplishment in and of itself. Many of those who have come before Soto have gone on to become perennial All-Stars, and even those who never lived up to their potential have become major leaguers more often than not. Saying Soto will become a future All-Star simply because of a hot start in Low-A would be foolish, but the track record of players who have been in Soto’s unique position combined with Soto’s own elite talent give Nationals fans one more reason to keep a close eye on the talented outfielder from Santo Domingo.Tags: Juan Soto, Nationals, Nats, Washington Nationals