Every so often it’s fun to review the preseason FanGraphs staff predictions. We predict standings, but we also predict awards, and, clicking and scrolling down to the National League Rookie of the Year predictions, you can see a lot of love for Ronald Acuna Jr. And, you know, he’s a 20-year-old with a 119 wRC+. Very good! Acuna Jr. ran away with the predictions. There were three votes apiece for Lewis Brinson, Victor Robles, and Scott Kingery. And then there were single votes for J.P. Crawford, Ryan McMahon, Alex Reyes, and Nick Senzel. There were zero votes for Juan Soto. In fairness, there were also zero votes for, say, Brian Anderson and Harrison Bader, but this is a Soto article, so that’s where I’m going to focus.
I wouldn’t consider this a case of staff stupidity. Late last October, Soto turned 19 years old. Injuries limited him in 2017 to just 32 games, all in the very low minors. He came into the season as the FanGraphs No. 50 overall prospect. He was ranked No. 56 by Baseball America. When Soto reached the majors, he did it at nearly record speed. His ascent was as much about major-league injuries as it was about his own performance. Soto wasn’t supposed to arrive as quickly as he has.
There are 240 players who have batted at least 250 times this season. The leader among them in wRC+ is Mike Trout, at 190. In second place, we find Mookie Betts. After Betts, there’s Jose Ramirez. After Ramirez, there’s J.D. Martinez. And after Martinez, there’s Juan Soto. There’s 19-year-old Juan Soto, with a wRC+ of 161. This is a season that hasn’t at all gone the Nationals’ way, but even with that being said, the sudden emergence of Soto has changed the organization’s longer-term outlook. And the shorter-term outlook, too.
Remember, before the year, Soto was our No. 50 prospect. In our recent trade-value series, Soto ranked at No. 19 among all players at any level with any team. For those of you who’ve watched the Nationals on a regular basis, I’m not telling you anything you don’t already know, but what makes Soto so special is the way he commands both the bat and the plate. He’s in his first year in the majors. For that matter, he’s also in his first year in Double-A, and his first year in High-A. (He skipped over Triple-A entirely.) Let’s take a look at some major-league percentile rankings.
Soto, at this writing, has 46 walks and 49 strikeouts. He’s running an inarguably elite walk rate. While he’s been doing that, he’s also managed a better-than-average strikeout rate, so Soto’s K-BB% is elite as well. And this isn’t just about the approach — Soto’s isolated power shows he’s regularly hit the ball hard, and when you hit the ball hard while controlling the zone, you’re going to flourish in the box. For another plot, here are major-league ISOs, and major-league K-BB% rates. Soto is the point in yellow.
Just over there to Soto’s left, you see Alex Bregman. Immediately to Soto’s right, you see Manny Machado. There’s really no other way around this, and Soto’s sample of data is continuing to increase by the day. It’s clear that Soto is a powerful hitter. It’s clear that Soto is an uncommonly disciplined hitter, especially for someone so young. You can’t meet those criteria and not be amazing. Soto is a kid, but he’s a kid who’s better at his job than almost anyone else in the industry.
There are 300 players who have batted at least 100 times in two-strike counts. Soto has baseball’s eighth-highest two-strike walk rate, and the 12th-highest two-strike wRC+. Meanwhile, there are 200 players who have hit the ball the other way at least 50 times, and out of that group, Soto has baseball’s single-highest opposite-field wRC+. Soto is polished, and he doesn’t even seem to have a platoon split. He’s one of those players who’s too good to be true, but for the fact that he is true, and he isn’t slowing down.
It’s so easy to just compare Soto against the rest of the major leagues. That’s what we generally do with major-league players, but in Soto’s case, it’s incredible he’s even where he is at all. Over the course of baseball history, going back to 1900, fewer than three dozen teenagers have gotten the chance to bat in the majors at least 250 times in a year. Here’s how those player-seasons rank at the plate:
And in the interest of being thorough, here’s how that table looks when you fold in Soto’s rest-of-season projection from his player page:
|Juan Soto (proj)||2018||19||466||151|
The way the word is usually used, you could say Soto is on “pace” for a 161 wRC+. That’s where he is at present. More accurately, Soto has a 161 wRC+, and he’s projected to post a 136 wRC+, so he’s on “pace” to finish with a 151 wRC+. Maybe you think the projections are too low on Soto. Maybe you disagree about the definition of what “pace” means in this context. It doesn’t really matter. Either way, what Soto is doing is extraordinary. Baseball has never seen a teenager like this. Not in terms of major-league results.
Here’s Soto hitting a first-pitch double against Matt Harvey over the weekend:
That’s where you get to see part of what Soto is. He’s selectively aggressive, especially against fastballs, and especially against fastballs up. It’s a powerful and level swing, and Soto nearly goes yard. Just as significant, from later on, here’s Soto drawing a full-count walk:
That would’ve been an easy breaking ball to chase, at 90 miles per hour, just below the zone. Soto walks, turning away from the plate with confidence. Soto has one of the lower low-pitch swing rates in baseball, in particular against non-fastballs. You can also see something mechanical in these videos. Against the first pitch, Soto stands up straighter. With two strikes, Soto widens his stance, dipping lower, and you can also see him choking up. Soto is a teenager with a two-strike approach. With two strikes, Soto has a 16% walk rate and a 32% strikeout rate. Joey Votto is at 19% and 32%. Mike Trout is at 19% and 37%. If Soto is anything, he might be a little too passive sometimes, but there’s no question he knows how to recognize spin out of the hand, and that’s one of the elements that makes him so dangerous in any situation.
If I could offer any criticism at all, I’d point out that, of Soto’s 13 home runs, he’s hit 12 against fastballs. He’s a fastball hunter, and pitchers have picked up on that, throwing him fastballs just around 50% of the time. Soto has a tendency to roll over on softer stuff, when he chooses to swing at it. The quality of contact against heaters is terrific. The quality of contact against other pitches, less so. It’s one area at the plate where Soto is something short of perfect. I can’t just point out the good things.
But, overwhelmingly, the things here are good. Soto ranks fifth in all of baseball in wRC+. He is 19 years old. His major-league slash line is .310/.424/.556; his career minor-league slash line is .362/.434/.609. I don’t know how much more room there is for Soto to improve, given how fantastic he’s been, but he’s basically establishing that his own career floor is something like Shin-Soo Choo without the big platoon split. And Soto can grow into more power than that. He might already even have it. The Nationals know they’re coming up on a challenging offseason, in which they might lose a big chunk of their upper-tier talent. Upper-tier talent is going to remain, no matter what happens down the stretch in 2018. The NL is only just learning of the Nationals’ newest terror.
Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.