For years, the best player in baseball has been Mike Trout. He had back-to-back 10 wins above replacement seasons in 2012 and 2013 before turning 22 and has not looked back. Now, there is a new kid on the block. The 22-year-old phenom Juan Soto has made a name for himself since debuting in 2018. I already established that Soto is the best young star in baseball earlier on in the year, and he just keeps getting better. Soto is not just baseball’s best young star or best right fielder, he is baseball’s best active player.
Juan Soto hurried through the minors, making his major league debut after starting the 2018 season in A ball. He played just eight games in AA before skipping AAA outright and playing 116 games at the major league level. In his inaugural big league campaign, as a 19-year-old, Soto put up a 146 wRC+ and 3.7 fWAR. His 146 wRC+ ranked ninth in baseball among players with as many plate appearances as him.
Soto backed up his great start in 2019 with a 142 wRC+ and 4.9 fWAR, which is the worst season of his career to date. Although he may not have had his best season at the plate or with the glove, Soto added a World Series ring to his resume. In the 2019 playoffs, Soto hit five home runs in 75 plate appearances, including his infamous bat drop at first base in game six of the World Series. Overall, he had a .373 OBP and 132 wRC+ in the playoffs.
In 2020, Soto put up one of the best offensive seasons of the 21st century. His 201 wRC+, .490 OBP, .635 SLG, and .478 wOBA were all the best marks since Barry Bonds in 2004, and his .474 xwOBA is the greatest mark of all time. Soto’s average launch angle went down from 12.6 degrees to 4.2 degrees, while his barrel percentage ticked up to 17.5.
This season, Soto is having the best season of his career. At the all-star break, it was undoubtedly the worst. Soto’s second half has been nothing short of incredible, as he is now being walked in over a quarter of his PAs, partly due to the departure of Trea Turner and Kyle Schwarber from the Nationals lineup. In the first half, Soto had a 128 wRC+ and .407 OBP, while in the second half Soto has a 220 wRC+ and .545 OBP.
Altogether, Soto has put up a .470 OBP, 170 wRC+, 6.5 fWAR, and 7.3 rWAR so far in 2021. His defense is underrated by UZR, as he’s positive in DRS and one of the best defensive outfielders in baseball according to OAA. He has been a similar hitter to Bryce Harper in 2021, with much more value defensively. Soto should win his first MVP in 2021, but his team’s lack of success may hurt him.
Soto vs Trout
For the purpose of this article, Juan Soto and Mike Trout will be considered the two best players in baseball. Many baseball fans react too quickly when ranking top players, and many fans react too slowly. The objective here is to find a fair middle ground. What makes that so difficult is that Mike Trout has only played 36 games in 2021.
On the offensive side, Soto and Trout are the two best hitters in baseball. They attack pitchers with different approaches, but they both put up a wRC+ above 170. Soto slugs less than Trout, but he gets on base more due to his impeccable plate discipline. Since the start of 2020, Soto has a wRC+ of 177, while Trout has a 175 wRC+ since the beginning of 2019.
Steamer projects Trout at a 158 wRC+, while Soto’s projected at a 177 wRC+. These are for the rest of the 2021 season, but the small sample size doesn’t affect the projection. Trout’s on-base skills are great, but Soto’s are the best we’ve seen since Barry Bonds. On the bases, Soto has a -3.6 BsR since 2020, while Trout has 10.0 since the start of 2019.
On defense, Soto edges Trout despite Trout playing a more valuable defensive position. Trout is no longer the defender he once was early on in his career, as he is now just a 0 OAA defender since 2019. In the same span, Soto has 10 OAA, but he plays a less valuable position.
Given the similar offensive production and Soto’s clear edge on defense, Soto could be the best player based on true talent. On top of that, Trout has struggled with injuries throughout his career, while Soto has only missed games for COVID-19 reasons. All in all, Soto has accumulated 9.1 fWAR since the start of 2020, which is 2nd to Jose Ramirez in all of baseball.
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