Juan Soto is one of the best players in baseball, but he still seems to be overlooked in conversations regarding Major League Baseball’s young future. Soto is often not mentioned alongside Ronald Acuña Jr., Fernando Tatis Jr., Vladimir Guerrero Jr., and Shohei Ohtani, but he is still the best young star that baseball has to offer.
Soto, So Far
Soto burst onto the scene as a 19-year-old in 2018 with a 146 wRC+ in 494 PAs after playing only eight games above High-A ball. He followed up with an even better 2019 season. In 150 games, Soto slashed .282/.401/.548 with 34 home runs, .394 wOBA, .407 xwOBA, 142 wRC+, and 4.9 fWAR. In the playoffs, Soto had a .378 wOBA and 132 wRC+ while helping lead the Nationals to the World Series title.
In 2020, Soto had the best season of his career, so far, as he finished the season with a .490 OBP, .695 SLG, .478 wOBA, and 201 wRC+, all the best marks since Barry Bonds‘s incredible 2004 season. His .475 xwOBA was also the best mark since the stat has been tracked (2015).
If you only look at raw results, Soto’s first half of 2021 was not the best performance of his career, but his numbers on the year are already up to par. Soto’s barrel rate was down, despite his launch angle being down just one degree and his exit velocities being higher than ever. He is hitting more ground balls and fewer fly balls than ever. Since the all-star break, however, all he has done is homer, going yard five times in six games.
All in all, Soto’s career numbers through his age-22 season are incredible. He has slashed .297/.417/.508 with a .403 wOBA, .406 xwOBA, 151 wRC+, and 14.3 fWAR. Soto’s 151 wRC+ through age 22 ranks eighth all-time, trailing only legends like “Shoeless” Joe Jackson, Ted Williams, and Mike Trout.
Soto in the Field
The most underrated aspect of Juan Soto’s game is his glove. As a prospect, he was not seen as a great defender and many fans still believe this to be the case. In his rookie year in 2018, Soto was a poor defender, as he had a -4 DRS, -6 OAA, -0.7 ARM, and -4.2 UZR.
Soto’s defense has been inconsistent, but overall, he grades as a well-above-average defender in the corner outfield. In 2019 and 2021, Soto has been one of the league’s best defenders in the outfield. This season, he ranks in the 94th percentile with 6 OAA. In 2019, Soto’s arm held him back, as he had 6 OAA but a -3.2 ARM rating. In 2021, his arm has been ever-so-slightly above average, so he has been one of the league’s truly elite defensive corner outfielders.
Where Does Soto Stack Up?
Comparing Soto to his peers is incredibly difficult, as he can not only be compared to the likes of Mookie Betts and Ronald Acuna Jr., but also Ted Williams and Mickey Mantle. And that is only when considering outfielders. To call him the best young player in baseball, let us compare him to the rest of MLB’s young stars.
This new, electrifying era of baseball has been brought upon by a few of the most talented players the sport has ever seen, including Fernando Tatis Jr. and Shohei Ohtani.
Among young players, Soto’s plate discipline is what separates him from the pack. Since 2020, Soto has walked in 18.9% of his plate appearances, and struck out in just 14.9%.
Soto vs Ohtani
Shohei Ohtani is the hardest comparison to make, but he is 27 years old to the 22-year-old Soto. This year, it has been Ohtani, and it has not been particularly close. Ohtani is both a top three hitter and a well-above-average pitcher. One problem with comparing Ohtani to other players is that being a designated hitter hurts his value and diminishes the added value of being a pitcher. At the plate, since 2019, Juan Soto has a 154 wRC+ and 10.6 fWAR (1216 PA) to Ohtani’s 134 wRC+ and 5.7 fWAR (966 PA).
Ohtani is also a pitcher, but injuries have kept him off the mound until 2021. This season, Ohtani has thrown 73.0 innings and has a 3.21 ERA, 3.36 FIP, and 3.84 SIERA. He has some of the best stuff in baseball, including a top two splitter in the sport. Yet his walk problem has persisted, despite harnessing his control a bit recently. In his past ten starts, Ohtani has a 3.48 ERA, 3.13 FIP, and 3.52 SIERA with just a 7.7 BB%.
Ohtani’s biggest problem being compared to Soto is age. Where do we draw the line between a young star and a regular superstar? Ohtani is the same age as Astros third baseman Alex Bregman, who is never considered a “young star” by the general MLB fanbase. It could be because Bregman’s best years may be behind him, as he has not quite lived up to his MVP-caliber 2018 and 2019 seasons.
Soto vs Acuña Jr.
This debate has been a huge one between baseball fans since these two made their MLB debuts in 2018. Acuña Jr. took home the 2018 Rookie of the Year Award due to an advantage in volume, but they have been very close their whole careers. Acuña Jr. leads Soto in career WAR (15.9 to 14.3), but that is due to more plate appearances and the positional adjustment. Acuña Jr. is no longer a center fielder, so he no longer has that advantage.
Recently, the Braves lost their young superstar to an injury, but for the purpose of the comparison, we will ignore this unfortunate development Although many Acuña Jr. was off to an incredible start to the 2021 season, Soto’s season has been very comparable. Acuña Jr. has a .414 wOBA, .425 xwOBA, 159 wRC+, and 4.3 WAR on the year, and Soto has a .398 wOBA, .424 xwOBA, 149 wRC+, and 3.3 WAR.
Acuña Jr. has better results, but Soto’s batted ball data is right there with Acuña Jr.’s, despite entirely different approaches at the plate. Soto averages a launch angle of 5.2 degrees, while Acuña Jr. tries to lift the ball more, averaging a launch angle of 18.2 degrees. Soto’s incredible plate discipline distances him from Acuña Jr., despite Acuña Jr.’s lead in LD% and FB%.
Since Acuña no longer has the positional adjustment on his side, Soto is now clearly the better defender between the two. Soto has 10 OAA as a corner outfielder since 2019, compared to Acuña Jr.’s 2 OAA in RF and 1 OAA total. Acuña Jr. has a much better ARM, but Soto’s is improving, as Acuña only leads by 3.0 ARM this season. On the bases, Acuña Jr. is much better than Soto, but overall, Juan Soto is still the better player and more promising star than Ronald Acuña Jr.
Soto vs Guerrero Jr.
Vladimir Guerrero Jr. has been the best hitter in baseball in 2021, but he has only shown his true potential for half a season. Offensively, using any sample size larger than just 2021, Soto beats Guerrero Jr. Soto’s 2020 season was better than Guerrero Jr.’s 2021 so far, but Guerrero Jr. has played far more games. Since 2019, Guerrero Jr. has a 136 wRC+ and 5.6 fWAR, carried by his 193 wRC+ and 5.0 WAR in 2021.
Guerrero Jr. had one major flaw entering 2021, and he seems to have figured it out. Even if he can sustain his production as one of the best hitters in baseball, Juan Soto will be right there with him. Guerrero leads Soto by just six points in xwOBA despite leading in wRC+ by over 40 points. Moving forward, Soto projects as a better hitter according to Steamer (159 wRC+ to 156), but both are very disciplined hitters who attack their pitches and hit the ball as hard as anyone.
Soto adds more value defensively and on the bases, as Soto has 10 OAA since 2019, while Guerrero has -1 as a 1B (-19 at 3B). Also, corner outfielders have more defensive positional adjustment value than first baseman, although both are very low. On the bases, Soto has -0.4 BsR, while Vladdy has -8.3 BsR.
Soto vs Tatis Jr.
To save the toughest argument for last, let us compare Fernando Tatis Jr. to Juan Soto. If any of these players deserve to be ranked higher than Soto among MLB players, it us Tatis Jr., who is now the consensus best shortstop in baseball. Since 2020, Soto has a 167 wRC+, while Tatis Jr. has a 160 wRC+. Since 2019, Soto has a 154 wRC+ and Tatis Jr. has a 156, but Tatis Jr. only played half of the 2019 season. At the plate, the edge goes to Soto, especially because of how he projects as a hitter based on his plate discipline and batted ball data.
Fernando Tatis Jr. has a 168 wRC+ so far in 2021, but he is only projected as a 141 wRC+ hitter for the rest of his season. Soto has a 149 wRC+ so far in 2021 (while being one of baseball’s unluckiest hitters), but he is projected to be a 159 wRC+ for the rest of the season. Of course, my entire argument is not made off projections, but Soto’s incredible plate discipline is rare for a player at his age. Tatis Jr. strikes out more than Soto and walks significantly less. They both hit the ball incredibly hard, but if Soto can start to lift the ball more, he will easily become the best hitter in baseball.
Defensively, the comparison is tough, because Tatis Jr. has a massive positive positional adjustment (shortstop) while Soto has a massive negative one (right field). Despite this, Soto has a better DEF than Tatis Jr. this season, so an argument can be made that Soto is the better defender. Tatis Jr. was awful defensively in 2019, elite in 2020, and is below average once again in 2021. His defensive numbers are trending upward this season, as Tatis is now up to -1 OAA so far this season. On the basepaths, the clear edge goes to Tatis Jr., who leads Soto by about 13 runs since 2019.
Juan Soto and Fernando Tatis Jr. are two of baseball’s most promising young talents and are both top 10 players in baseball right now. Soto has the edge at the plate, while they are close in the field, and Tatis Jr. holds the edge on the bases. The two superstars are very close in value, but moving forward, I will take Juan Soto, for the plate discipline, defense, and incredible power, as well as limited injury concern, over San Diego’s superstar shortstop.
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