The Nationals are headed home to Washington with a shocking 2-0 lead in the World Series. The lead isn’t shocking just because the Nats, a perpetual early-round postseason out, won two games on the road against the heavily favored Astros and the AL’s two best starting pitchers. It’s also because of how they’ve done so: a tenacious 5-4 Game 1 win in which Washington took Houston’s best shot—Gerrit Cole—and parried it, followed by a 12-3 rout in Game 2.
In both contests—and throughout the postseason—the Nats have played with panache. They’ve marauded, swashbuckled, snuggled, pantomimed, danced, and shark-clapped down the path to victory like their internal monologues are all soundtracked by the Heavy’s “How You Like Me Now?”
And the jauntiest man on this jaunty ballclub is outfielder Juan Soto, who turns 21 years old on Friday. Soto recorded the game-winning hit in Washington’s 4-3 wild-card victory over the Brewers, the game-tying home run off Clayton Kershaw in Game 5 of the NLDS, and three of Washington’s five RBIs in Game 1 of the World Series, including an opposite-field home run that he sent to the Minute Maid Park train tracks.
Oh my goodness...— FOX Sports: MLB (@MLBONFOX) October 23, 2019
20-year-old Juan Soto with a SHOT off of Cole to tie this game up!! pic.twitter.com/XJz2loVNR8
Without a doubt, Soto has emerged as the breakout star of this postseason. And while every playoff series has its heroes, the breakout postseason star is a baseball convention that goes beyond momentary heroism. Sometimes the definitive player of a postseason is a beloved veteran who finally gets a ring, or a hitherto unknown athlete who pops up and plays the best ball of his life for three weeks before fading back into obscurity. But sometimes, playoff heroism is merely the first sign of things to come, as a young ballplayer takes a dip into the deep end of the pool and finds out the water suits him just fine. In those cases, that first great postseason is not the defining moment of the player’s career, but rather the point when the baseball world first appreciates his full potential.
Andruw Jones, Francisco Rodríguez, and Miguel Cabrera all did this as unknown rookies (in 1996, 2002, and 2003, respectively), while Cole Hamels and Javy Báez, who were already recognized big league contributors, broke out in 2008 and 2016. In all cases, these guys were well known to local partisans and hardcore baseball nerds, but by no means household names. For players of sufficient talent, though, a couple of key moments on the national stage is all it takes to go from unknown on September 30 to full-blown celebrity by Thanksgiving.
The path from breakout postseason to stardom is not always linear—Hamels had the worst season of his career in 2009 after winning NLCS and World Series MVP honors the year before, and it took Báez until 2018 to become a legitimate MVP contender—but part of the appeal of these players is that their best is yet to come. Because Soto is just turning 21 and has already recorded two full above-average MLB seasons, he combines accomplishment and promise in a way few postseason heroes can. He has 266 regular-season MLB games and 1,153 plate appearances under his belt, which is more than either Bryce Harper or Mike Trout had at his age, and he’s done more than just show up. In that time, Soto’s been worth 4.1 wins above average, and he’s fifth in OBP among the 114 players with at least 1,000 plate appearances in that span. And yet, to a certain extent, he’s flown under the radar.
Some of that anonymity comes from playing in the shadow of others. The Nationals are built around their starting rotation of Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg, and Patrick Corbin, leaving relatively little oxygen for their position players. Even then, Soto’s had to compete for attention with Harper (in 2018) and Anthony Rendon. And because Soto went from his first minor league game to the majors in just 23 months—which is an absurdly short developmental timeline—he didn’t have a chance to build up the kind of cult prospect following afforded to Harper or even current teammate Víctor Robles.
Despite having made the playoffs five times in the past eight seasons, the Nationals as a team are still fighting for media attention in a division that includes the defending-champion Braves, the free-spending Phillies, and the Mets, who might not always be in the news for good reasons, but are always in the news regardless. For Soto, part of that divisional context means he will always be compared to Braves outfielder Ronald Acuña Jr., who beat Soto to last year’s NL Rookie of the Year award in a walk, even though Soto hit .292/.406/.517 as a teenager.
Through their first two seasons, Acuña’s been the better overall regular-season player, though not by much. But more importantly, he’s been more exciting. Acuña is an electrifying athlete, a prolific base stealer, and an excitable, jubilant figure on the diamond. Soto is by no means boring, but next to a character like Acuña he suffers—or suffered, considering the events of the past month—for that comparison.
Soto runs fine, but is a subpar defensive outfielder, and he hits for plenty of power, though Acuña has outhomered him each of the past two years. But when I compared the two last year, I said I’d rather have Soto in the long run because his batting eye is unprecedented for a player his age. That’s no exaggeration: Soto has batted at least 450 times in both of his big league seasons, and both times he’s finished with a walk rate of 15 percent or better; since 1901, only two players age 20 or younger—Mel Ott and Ted Williams—have done that even once.
That makes it tough to project his career, because it’s not like you can go around comparing players to Ted Williams. But at the same time, what were the most discerning hitters of the 21st century doing at Soto’s age? Joey Votto was three years from his MLB debut, Barry Bonds was two months into his pro career, and Jason Giambi was still in college. Soto, meanwhile, is out here hitting home runs in the World Series and eyeballing the best pitchers in the game. It sounds ridiculous to map out Soto’s future on those grounds, but maybe he’s actually bound for a ridiculous future.
Soto is not only walking at a historic rate, he might be the first ballplayer to turn the act of taking a pitch—i.e., standing around and watching the ball—into a kinetic, theatrical process. He ran afoul of Cardinals righty Miles Mikolas in the NLCS for the Soto Shuffle, in which he reset between pitches by swaying in and out of his stance, sometimes grabbing his junk or waggling his tongue at the pitcher for a bit of added seasoning.
The patented Juan Soto take. pic.twitter.com/MBqXP4morf— Rob Friedman (@PitchingNinja) October 12, 2019
It may seem silly to ascribe much meaning to those kinds of moves, but by playing up each action—or inaction—Soto turns each pitch into a main event. And when Soto delivers, he’s not shy about expressing pride in his work, by pounding his chest, ripping off an impromptu dance routine, or bringing his dad in for a postgame hug. Whether he’s coming out of his shell more than ever or he’s just doing it in front of more people than ever—or a combination of the two—Soto is not just this postseason’s breakout player, but also its breakout personality.
American baseball culture is in the process of rejecting the ostentatious self-abnegation of traditionalists, which sometimes results in bat flips or celebratory routines—and discourse around same—that seem a little too calculated and try a little too hard. Soto seems to understand that he’s putting on a show on the biggest stage his profession can offer, but the joy he takes in his success seems spontaneous and genuine, rather than part of a branding campaign.
Soto’s accomplishments these past few weeks are worth celebrating because of their importance and their difficulty, and it’s also invigorating as an observer to see a player like Soto treat these moments with both the gravity and the excitement they’re due. We’re looking at the birth of a superstar not just because Soto is poised to hit 35 home runs and walk 100 times every year from now until the seas reclaim the earth, but because he seems as excited about that future as his fans are.