Extending Juan Soto… All the Way to Cooperstown

With Fernando Tatis Jr. landing a massive, jaw-dropping contract extension last month, all eyes are now on the game’s other 22-year-old phenom and his next step. Juan Soto has hit at an historical level during his three seasons in the majors, landing himself on leaderboards among legends like Williams, Foxx, Hornsby, Cobb, and Trout. Reportedly, the Nationals intend to offer him a long-term extension, one that could in theory make him the game’s next $400 million man — a contract befitting a player who has already taken significant strides towards Cooperstown.

That may seem like hyperbole, but it’s not. Though Soto has played only one full 162-game season from among his three, the statistical history of players who have done what he’s done at such a young age overwhelmingly suggests a Hall of Fame-level career, and the projections based on his performance… well, we’ll get to those.

The Dominican-born Soto reached the majors on May 20, 2018, still more than five months shy of his 20th birthday. The next day, in his second major league plate appearance, he homered off the Padres’ Robbie Erlin, and he hasn’t stopped hitting, though he did his best to warp the space-time continuum by homering in the June 18 leg of a suspended game that began on May 15. Soto completed his rookie season with 22 homers and a .292/.406/.517 (146 wRC+) line, then followed up with a 34-homer, .282/.401/.548 (142 wRC+) full-season showing. In the pandemic-shortened season, he became not only the youngest player to win a batting title but also the youngest to win the slash-stat triple crown, hitting .351/.490/.695 (201 wRC+) with 13 homers.

Through his three seasons, Soto owns a 152 wRC+, the fifth-highest mark over that span behind Mike Trout (180), Christian Yelich (161), Alex Bregman (158), and Mookie Betts (157). That’s impressive enough, but what’s more impressive is the age-based comparison. Using OPS+ rather than wRC+ because I’m heading into the realm of my Hall of Fame work, here’s an updated version of the table I put together for my recent piece on Tatis:

Top Hitters Thru Age-21 Seasons Since 1901… and What Came After
Rk Player Years PA BA OBP SLG OPS+ PA After 21 OPS+ After 21
1 Mike Trout* 2011-2013 1490 .314 .404 .544 166 4024 179
2 Ted Williams+ 1939-1940 1338 .336 .439 .601 161 8454 196
3 Albert Pujols* 2001 676 .329 .403 .610 157 11718 145
4 Jimmie Foxx+ 1925-1929 1302 .342 .436 .579 157 8375 164
5 Rogers Hornsby+ 1915-1917 1200 .316 .372 .455 155 8281 178
6 Fernando Tatis Jr.* 2019-2020 629 .301 .374 .582 154
7 Ty Cobb+ 1905-1908 1836 .324 .362 .440 153 11267 170
8 Juan Soto* 2018-2020 1349 .295 .415 .557 151
9 Hal Trosky Sr. 1933-1934 732 .327 .385 .590 148 5018 127
10 Mel Ott+ 1926-1930 2064 .331 .428 .558 146 9284 157
11 Mickey Mantle+ 1951-1953 1552 .295 .384 .497 145 8358 177
12 Eddie Mathews+ 1952-1953 1274 .274 .366 .541 145 8827 143
13 Frank Robinson+ 1956-1957 1345 .307 .378 .543 139 10399 156
14 Ken Griffey Jr.+ 1989-1991 1805 .299 .367 .479 135 9499 136
15 Tris Speaker+ 1907-1909 755 .290 .341 .406 134 11265 159
SOURCE: Baseball-Reference
Minimum 600 plate appearances. “After 21” = after age-21 season. + = Hall of Famer. * = Active.

If you saw the earlier version of the table, you already know that’s some ridiculous company, with everybody besides Tatis and Soto already in the Hall of Fame or clearly on the way save for Trosky, a slugging first baseman whose career was derailed by persistent migraines. The part I added since the Tatis piece, the part that made me gasp and go, “holy ****!” over and over again while I assembled this, is what came after age 21. Ten of those 13 players who got off to outstanding starts actually improved from that point, and not by a little. The average member of the group jumped from a 149 OPS+ through his age-21 season to a 160 OPS+ over his next 8,828 plate appearances. The exceptions were Pujols, Trosky (for reasons already mentioned), and Mathews, the last of whom would have counted as moving in the right direction had I used wRC+ instead of OPS+.

(Note that if I raise the bar to 800 PA through the age-21 season, two of the three players who declined from 22 onward miss the cutoff and disappear from the subset of exceptions, while the next three guys who would appear in the table — Sherry Magee, Giancarlo Stanton, and Arky Vaughan — follow the pattern of improvement, climbing from a base of 131–133 OPS+ to greater heights. My reason for not going this route, however, is to capture the equivalent of a season worth of performance through age 21.)

All of which is to say that this Soto kid isn’t messing around, and the historical precedents suggest we haven’t even seen his peak. For what that might look like, I asked Dan Szymborski to provide a ZiPS projection for however many years it would take for him to descend to replacement level. Fasten your seatbelts and behold:

ZiPS Projections – Juan Soto
Year BA OBP SLG AB R H HR RBI BB SO SB OPS+ DR WAR
2021 .305 .420 .595 528 122 161 37 141 105 107 19 160 -2 6.3
2022 .312 .435 .628 516 127 161 40 148 112 104 16 172 -3 7.0
2023 .311 .441 .647 515 131 160 43 153 120 108 17 178 -3 7.5
2024 .307 .441 .638 511 131 157 42 151 123 110 17 176 -3 7.4
2025 .306 .446 .645 504 132 154 43 152 128 111 17 179 -4 7.5
2026 .304 .446 .650 500 132 152 44 153 128 112 16 180 -4 7.5
2027 .300 .443 .648 486 128 146 43 148 125 110 16 179 -4 7.1
2028 .297 .440 .625 472 122 140 39 137 121 104 16 173 -5 6.5
2029 .297 .439 .620 455 116 135 37 131 115 95 14 172 -5 6.1
2030 .294 .434 .606 439 108 129 34 122 108 89 13 167 -6 5.5
2031 .294 .425 .568 405 84 119 26 92 93 74 12 156 -6 4.6
2032 .290 .417 .543 372 74 108 22 80 81 64 9 148 -7 3.6
2033 .286 .406 .507 343 64 98 18 67 69 56 7 136 -7 2.5
2034 .281 .393 .473 317 54 89 14 57 58 48 5 125 -8 1.6
2035 .274 .378 .442 292 46 80 11 47 48 41 4 113 -9 0.7
Ages 22-36 .299 .430 .600 6655 1571 1989 493 1779 1534 1333 198 165 -76 81.4
Thru Age 21 .295 .415 .557 1110 226 328 69 217 228 259 23 151 -15 9.7
Total Thru 36 .298 .428 .593 7765 1797 2317 562 1996 1762 1592 221 163 -91 91.1

That projection, which takes Soto from his age-22 through age-36 seasons, is so atmospheric that you can see the curvature of the earth, not to mention the point at which dollars-per-WAR projections break down. Soto projects to provide 28.2 WAR over his four remaining seasons prior to free agency (he’s a Super Two, entering 2021 with 2.134 years of service time), for which he won’t be paid full value, and then 53.2 WAR for the 11 years after that.

Taking an oversimplified approach to illustrate my point, if we assume Soto’s pre-arb salaries increase annually by $6.5 million from 2021 (he’s making $8.5 million) to 2024 ($28 million, $1 million more than the arb-period record set by Betts in 2018), he projects to make $73 million for the four-year period, or $2.59 million per win. Figure a flat $8 million per win thereafter, with no worrying about inflation, that’s $425.6 million, totaling $498.6 million for those two estimates — call it half a billion dollars worth of performance. Separately, the ZiPS model comes in at $488 million, using $7 million per win for his arbitration years and discounted heavily, and then $8 million per win.

Soto isn’t going to be guaranteed half a billion dollars in his next contract, because Trout, who averaged 9.1 WAR for seven years before getting his extension, didn’t get half a billion dollars. Trout was older, but he also had a higher established level of performance and projected to produce 67.7 WAR over the life of his 12-year, $426.5-million deal for ages 27–39. As Craig Edwards wrote in connection with that deal two years ago, he’ll cost something like $4–5 million per win over that span if he lives up to the projection.

(In an aside, Dan pointed out to me that after Trout’s earth-shaking 2012 rookie season, he projected to produce 63.1 WAR from 2013 to ’19, whereas he delivered 62.4. We at FanGraphs promise to crack the whip so he can reduce that one-run-per-year error to zero.)

In a partial answer to the question Kevin Goldstein recently posed, Soto should be the game’s first $400 million player on merit — or the next one, depending upon the semantics used in discussing Trout’s total $426.5 million package. He’s a Scott Boras client, however, which not only decreases the odds of his accepting a pre-free agency offer but also increases the likelihood of a more complicated contract offer that includes opt outs and (this being the Nationals) deferred money. When Stephen Strasburg, another Boras client, agreed to a seven-year $175 million extension in May 2016, that deal included $70 million of interest-free deferrals, lowering the present-day value to $162 million, as well as opt-outs after 2019 and ’20 that accelerated the payment schedule of the deferrals. He exercised the 2019 opt-out after banking $65 million for the first three years and then re-signed for seven years and $245 million, taking the 10-year haul to $310 million, unadjusted for deferrals.

I don’t want to dwell on dollars, deferrals, and discount rates, though. We’ll save the remainder of that discussion for when Soto either formally receives an extension offer or agrees to one. I want to return to the historic, Hall of Fame-related implications of his projection.

Though our projected Soto wouldn’t be anywhere close to 3,000 hits by the end of his age-36 season, he’d almost assuredly have clinched a spot in Cooperstown. Through 2035, he projects to hit 562 home runs (which would rank 15th today), to walk 1,762 times (seventh today), and to rank sixth all-time in slugging percentage, in a virtual tie for eighth in on-base percentage, and 11th in OPS+. He’d be fifth all-time among left fielders in career WAR (91.1), peak WAR (50.5), and JAWS (70.8), trailing only Barry Bonds, Ted Williams, Rickey Henderson, and Carl Yastrzemski.

Unless he had declined even more drastically than the projection above suggests, Soto would probably stick around even longer, perhaps to chase 600 home runs at the expense of his rate stats. But if he were to walk away at that point, his career would line up alarmingly well with that of Foxx (who played through his age-37 season after making just 15 appearances over the previous two years), with elements of Mantle (who limped away after his age-36 season) thrown in, but hopefully without the pair’s career-limiting combination of injuries and booze:

Soto Projected Through Age 36 Versus…
Player PA H HR SB BA OBP SLG OPS+ WAR
Mantle 9910 2415 536 153 .298 .421 .557 172 110.2
Foxx 9677 2646 534 87 .325 .428 .609 163 93.1
Soto (Proj.) 9527 2317 562 221 .298 .428 .593 163 91.1
SOURCE: Baseball-Reference

Admittedly, it’s more Jimmie than Mickey, whose batting average and stolen base totals bear a more superficial resemblance to Soto’s projections, but whose ability to stick in center field for 14 of his 18 seasons puts him miles ahead in value. If Soto is the second coming of Double X, then we are in for a treat.

The wild card here, beyond the possibility of injuries derailing Soto, is defense. Through 306 games and 2,646.2 defensive innings — two seasons worth of time — he’s 7.6 runs below average according to UZR, and 15 below average according to DRS. The ZiPS projection, which blends DRS and UZR, is far more forgiving than my own mental math, because the doom-and-gloom scenario I can’t chase away is that of a player who’s a few runs per year less valuable in the near term, and a full-time DH by the time he’s 30. Towards that end, I put this together:

A Juan Soto Designated Hitter Scenario
Year Age DR ZiPS Pos Adj dWAR WAR ZiPS DR Jay Pos Adj dWAR WAR Jay
2021 22 -2 -7 -0.9 6.3 -6 -7 -1.3 5.9
2022 23 -3 -7 -1.0 7.0 -7 -7 -1.4 6.6
2023 24 -3 -7 -1.0 7.5 -7 -7 -1.4 7.1
2024 25 -3 -7 -1.0 7.4 -8 -7 -1.5 6.9
2025 26 -4 -7 -1.1 7.5 -9 -7 -1.6 7.0
2026 27 -4 -7 -1.1 7.5 -9 -7 -1.6 7.0
2027 28 -4 -7 -1.1 7.1 -9 -7 -1.6 6.6
2028 29 -5 -7 -1.2 6.5 0 -15 -1.5 6.2
2029 30 -5 -7 -1.2 6.1 0 -15 -1.5 5.8
2030 31 -6 -7 -1.3 5.5 0 -15 -1.5 5.3
2031 32 -6 -7 -1.3 4.6 0 -15 -1.5 4.4
2032 33 -7 -7 -1.4 3.6 0 -15 -1.5 3.5
2033 34 -7 -7 -1.4 2.5 0 -15 -1.5 2.4
2034 35 -8 -7 -1.5 1.6 0 -15 -1.5 1.6
2035 36 -9 -7 -1.6 0.7 0 -15 -1.5 0.8
ages 22-36 -76 -105 -18.1 81.4 -55 -169 -22.4 77.1
ages 19-21 -15 -12 -2.9 9.7 -15 -12 -2.9 9.7
Total thru 36 -91 -117 -21 91.1 -70 -181 -25.3 86.8
Scenario assumes Soto will be four runs worse than ZiPS projection through age 24 (based on current prorated average of DRS and UZR), five runs worse for ages 25-28, and then a DH thereafter, using Baseball-Reference’s per-150-game positional adjustments for left field (-7 runs) and DH (-15 runs).

As the per-150-game midpoint of Soto’s DRS-UZR average is about six runs, I began by subtracting an additional four runs off of Soto’s next three seasons, accelerated the decline to five runs across the next four, and turned him into a DH thereafter, capping his defensive WAR (defensive runs plus B-Ref’s positional adjustments, either -7 runs for left field or -15 runs for DH) and then docking his forecasts accordingly. As illustrated, the cost here is about five wins over the course of his career through his age-36 season, which still yields 86.8 career WAR, 41.2 peak WAR and 64.0 JAWS — still fifth in the rankings but much closer to the fifth-ranked Pete Rose (62.3, and yes, this is the position where he slots based upon where he had top value) than Yaz (78.2). Obviously, that’s still a clear Hall of Famer unless Soto is dumb enough to bet on baseball.

It’s downright dizzying to consider a player at these heights, or to peer so far into the future that questions of one’s own mortality start to encroach (I’ll be 71 at our projected Soto’s induction in 2041, no doubt yelling at clouds). Yet based on the weight of the historical precedents, that’s where the 22-year-old slugger appears headed, and as I said in connection to Tatis, the fun of it is that we actually get to watch and enjoy his talents.





Brooklyn-based Jay Jaffe is a senior writer for FanGraphs, the author of The Cooperstown Casebook (Thomas Dunne Books, 2017) and the creator of the JAWS (Jaffe WAR Score) metric for Hall of Fame analysis. He founded the Futility Infielder website (2001), was a columnist for Baseball Prospectus (2005-2012) and a contributing writer for Sports Illustrated (2012-2018). He has been a recurring guest on MLB Network and a member of the BBWAA since 2011. Follow him on Twitter @jay_jaffe.

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Charles Balter
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Charles Balter

Juan Soto has played two seasons, not three. He played 70% of a season in 2018 and played in 29% of a season last year.

Like Tatis, Jr., Soto has entered the game where there’s a juiced ball contributing to a spike in offensive production. I fear a lot of projection models aren’t quite taking this into account.

Lunch Angle
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Lunch Angle

WAR and the + stats are relative to the performance of everyone in baseball, which is why the projections don’t have to account for factors like whether there’s a juiced ball.

rhdx
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rhdx

Technically, a juiced ball doesn’t have to affect all players equally. Stanton doesn’t hit many wall-scraper home runs, so a juiced ball might not affect his totals much. Other players seem to have warning track power and a tiny bit extra turns fly ball outs into homeruns. Not arguing this is Soto at all, but it is at least a consideration.

scottsjunk1981
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scottsjunk1981

That would also be true about park effects, which would be an interesting line of analysis, even if I’m skeptical that there is enough heterogeneity among plausible batted ball profiles for this to make a noticeable difference in a player’s overall performance/value.

nevinbrown
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nevinbrown

Go back under the bridge you came from troll

Bigperm8645
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Bigperm8645

SO weird there are so many downvotes. He said nothing rude, and guy below corrected. It isn’t a crazy thought to have. Jeezus

Easyenough
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Easyenough

I think the comment seems trollish because the article is based on plate appearances, so the “seasons” comment is irrelevant. Indisputably, however, he has played in three seasons. Making the seasons comment more irrelevant, Soto had about 1400 plate appearances before age 21, exactly like the players he is being compared to.

Finally, Soto’s value is not as a pull crazy home run hitter. He hits to all fields and hits line drives. If anything, I would bet a juiced ball actually hurts his WRC+, because other hitting styles benefit more.