Juan Soto wasn’t supposed to be this good, this fast. In fact, many prospect evaluators at the beginning of 2018 expected him to have barely reached MLB at this point given his age and unproven skill set.
When the Nationals called Soto up last May, they did so out of necessity. Adam Eaton was out with a severe bone bruise on his left ankle, Brian Goodwin was sidelined with a wrist contusion and Howie Kendrick had just ruptured his Achilles. Top prospect Victor Robles was dealing with elbow soreness.
Washington promoted Soto straight from Double-A, hoping his strong minor league numbers would translate to big league success – but not expecting instant production. General manager Mike Rizzo told reporters “the injury factor accelerated our timetable for him.”
Instead of toiling as an unpolished teenager thrust into a role for which he wasn’t ready, Soto, now 19, almost immediately became one of the best-hitting players for his age in MLB history, more disciplined at the plate than many Hall of Fame players were when they debuted. And a year later, the outfielder has formed a potent middle-of-the-order tandem with third baseman Anthony Rendon, giving the Nationals confidence they’ll be just fine after letting Bryce Harper walk in free agency this past offseason.
Washington entered Saturday two games up in the first NL wild card spot and tied for the best record in baseball over its past 10 contests.
Soto’s career walk rate (16 percent) is unprecedented, setting him apart from contemporary and historic figures. It’s not only the best-ever mark for someone 20 or younger, but also more than two percentage points better than second place, occupied by John McGraw.
Then there’s his power, which further separates him from his peers. He’s the third player ever to surpass 50 home runs by age 20, and he still has a month left in the season (Mel Ott holds the record at 61). His slugging percentage has jumped from .517 to .557 from his rookie year. Overall, he has tallied 29 home runs and 84 RBIs in 117 games this year to go along with 12 stolen bases.
Harper was not that productive offensively at that age, and he isn’t even as productive right now, despite playing under a new $330 million contract in the prime of his career. In his first two seasons, Harper slashed .272/.353/.481. Soto is slashing .291/.404/.537 – better than Harper in his first two years and better than the Phillies star right now.
Of course, Soto’s defensive position and limited abilities in the field has and perhaps will always hold back his overall value to some extent. Corner outfielders are less coveted compared to center fielders or middle-infielders, and that has held back Soto’s wins-over-replacement tally compared to other early-20s stars such as center fielder Ronald Acuna Jr. and shortstop/third baseman Alex Bregman.
Even so, he has been worth 7.3 bWAR to this point, tied for 100th all-time for players in their first two seasons. When sorted by players his age, he jumps to sixth all-time.
There are signs Soto can become at least an average left fielder eventually, which would bolster his year-to-year productivity. He’s middle-of-the pack in sprint speed, according to Statcast, and is in the 74th percentile for outfielder jump, an estimate of how well a player reacts to balls off the bat. Both Baseball Reference and FanGraphs rate him as a better fielder in 2019 than he was as a rookie.
Washington is plenty satisfied with what it’s getting from Soto, and it has reason to be excited for what is to come. The team is likely to reach the postseason this year after missing out in 2018, and its left fielder, who won’t become a free agent until 2025, has been a key part of its success.
So while fellow NL East stars such as Acuna and Pete Alonso may receive more attention, Soto is right up there with them in terms of overall value now and moving forward.
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