Nationals vice president of international scouting Johnny DiPuglia gets some variation of the same question all the time these days: where did you find this guy?
'This guy' would be Juan Soto, the 20-year-old phenom currently lighting it up on Major League Baseball's biggest stage. Less than 17 months removed from his big league debut, Soto has been the star of the postseason for Washington so far. He had the go-ahead RBI knock against the Brewers in the NL Wild Card game and then two homers in the NLDS against the Dodgers.
"It's like watching your eight-year-old son win the Little League World Series," DiPuglia told NBC Sports Washington.
Coming from the Dominican Republic, Soto wasn't drafted by the Nationals, he was signed as an international free agent. And because his rise was so swift, to most people he came out of nowhere. Soto essentially went from obscurity to MLB stardom in a span of a year-and-a-half.
DiPuglia's job is to project the future and determine which players have major league DNA and which ones do not. He saw MLB potential in Soto the first time he scouted him at an international tournament in Fort Lauderdale, FL, back when Soto was 15.
The Nationals have a time-tested system of scouting and cross-checking. DiPuglia cut his teeth as a scout with the St. Louis Cardinals and then through the front office in Boston where he and the Red Sox won the 2004 and 2007 World Series titles.
He believes in what he sees with his own eyes. Soto was on his radar and he had to see for himself.
So, he made the drive over to Ft. Lauderdale from his home in the Miami area and gave Soto a look.
"We don't complicate ourselves with all this anayltic stuff that's out now," DiPuglia said. "We go out in the field, we beat the bushes and we watch games. "
DiPuglia saw that Soto had a big league skillset, but he can't say he knew he would be this good, this quickly. That realization came over the next few years, when his peers in the scouting community approached him in envy.
"[I knew] when I started hearing comments from scouts in other organizations and from player development people in our organization," DiPuglia said.
"[Nationals field coordinator] Tommy Shields is a guy that I talk to quite a bit. He loved the kid. He kept telling me 'this kid is gonna be special.' I had an inkling that he was, but you keep hearing it from [people]."
What stood out to DiPuglia in the coming years, and what raised his expectations for what he would become, was how quickly Soto displayed improvement. Each time he saw him at the Single- and Double-A levels, Soto had taken steps in a matter of months that require years for most players.
"I kept seeing the maturation process speed up. This kid was just unbelievable at the plate," DiPuglia said.
Even DiPuglia couldn't have predicted Soto would be here now, dominating big league pitchers only five years after he first saw him play. He's only 20, yet he already has two big league seasons with a .900-plus OPS under his belt. In 2019, he hit .282/.401/.548 with 34 homers, 110 RBI, 108 walks and 110 runs.
That's just not what 20-year-olds usually do.
"He's a different animal. I always say he's your dog that plays checkers. How many dogs do you see that play checkers? He's that kind of player," DiPuglia said.
Soto is emblematic of the Nationals' renaissance in international scouting. The organization had to start over in Latin America after a controversy involving former front office executives drew the FBI's attention in 2009.
It took years for the Nats to begin finding players in Latin America like Soto, the type of scouting discoveries that can alter a franchise. Victor Robles is another feather in their cap, as he has emerged already as one of the best defensive outfielders in the game at only 22 years old.
Soto and Robles have changed the tenor of the Nationals' clubhouse by adding youth and a dose of the Latin game. DiPuglia believes the team's addition of veteran Latin players has helped them flourish.
"I think having a good Latin leadership in the clubhouse [has helped]. [Nats GM] Mike [Rizzo] bringing in Gerardo Parra this year and [Asdrubal] Cabrera; that gave him the added information to take it to the next level. These guys really help him in different situations and what's going to happen," DiPuglia explained.
"I go into the Nationals clubhouse and I'm hearing merengue playing and salsa playing and then after the game, seeing all these guys dancing. I'm seeing [Stephen] Strasburg dancing salsa, [Max] Scherzer dancing merengue. It's unbelievable... before, when you would go in there and speak Spanish, people would look at you like a UFO. Now, you have to know some words of Spanish just to fit in. I think it's wonderful."
Soto has already helped the Nationals go further in the playoffs than any team in club history. They have advanced deeper in the MLB postseason than any D.C. baseball team since 1933.
Not bad for a 20-year-old.
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