June 23, 2024

As a kid, Yankees star Juan Soto never got tired of hitting. He still hasn’t


NEW YORK — Before Juan Soto developed into a three-time All-Star and an American League MVP contender, he dreamed of being on the mound. He thought of 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 laughed. “If I gotta 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 changeup 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 the majors as a southpaw rather than a corner outfielder. But shortly after his tryout with the Braves, his little league coach, Rafael Zapata, told Soto his future should be in the outfield. If that didn’t work, they could always return to refining his pitching mechanics.

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

Soto is in the middle of his best full season yet. He’s second across MLB in OPS and wRC+ behind his Yankees teammate, Aaron Judge. His .319 batting average entering Wednesday’s game led the American League. He’s a lock to make his fourth All-Star game.

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

His dad, Juan Jose Soto, Sr., introduced him to baseball. When Soto was six months old, his dad brought him to a Dominican winter ball game. By the time he was walking, Soto held any object resembling a bat in his hand. His dad would throw him bottle caps, crumpled paper balls and eventually rocks to hit. To this day, Soto credits hitting everything other than baseballs as one of the reasons why 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. “(My dad) used to tell me I would never get tired of swinging. 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 would pay off for Soto, who turned 21 during the 2019 World Series that he helped the Nationals win over the Houston Astros. To this day, Yankees ace Gerrit Cole 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’s not the homers that bother 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.

“That put it over the edge,” Cole said in April. “The one home run in Nationals (Park) was a solo. We were up. The one at home was an opposite-field homer. But the double, I threw a backdoor slider 3-2 right on the f—ing edge. He just drilled it off the wall with two outs and runners on the corners. The double was the one that really moved the momentum in that game.”

Soto’s legend grew further 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 of 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 gonna 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 doesn’t matter. He always trusts that he’s going to come through. There’s the old adage that pitchers have the advantage over the hitter because they’re the ones who know what pitch is coming and which location they’re trying to attack.

Soto doesn’t believe in that line of thinking.

“I would say nobody has the advantage in that battle,” Soto said. “You just gotta 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.”

That happened this past weekend in San Francisco with the Yankees trailing against the Giants in the ninth inning on Sunday. Giants closer Camilo Doval threw Soto a 98 mph cutter that the Yankees outfielder crushed for a two-run home run.

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

“Barry Bonds,” Boone said matter of factly. “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 Marcus Stroman has been asked in recent years who the best hitter in the sport is, he’s always had the same answer: Juan Soto. It’s 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 they face 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. I legit think that and he’s f—ing 25 years old. I truly believe he’ll go down as one of the best hitters of all time.”

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 showdown with Judge, it begged the question: Does he consider himself one of the game’s best?

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

(Top photo of Juan Soto: Thearon W. Henderson / Getty Images)





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