Juan Soto is even better than you think he is

February 21st, 2020

A year after finishing second for the National League Rookie of the Year Award in 2018, was similarly special a season ago.

Soto slugged .548, hit 34 homers, drove in 110 runs and, oh yeah, he won a World Series title during a series in which he turned 21. He hit five postseason homers, the most by any player in a single postseason before turning 22. Soto had a 142 wRC+, which was tied for 11th highest among qualified hitters. (For the purposes of this article, we're going to rely on FanGraphs' WAR and on wRC+, which controls for ballpark and era, with a wRC+ of 100 being league average.)

There’s so much to like about Soto’s approach and hitting profile. His 47.8 percent hard-hit rate and 91.3 mph average exit velocity in 2019 were both higher than in '18 and were 89th percentile or better, too. And Soto takes his walks: his 16.4 percent walk rate was sixth among qualified hitters. His walk rate is just the tip of the iceberg with his incredible plate discipline, especially at such a young age. Soto had a 20.3 percent chase rate last season, which was the 14th lowest of 146 players to see at least 1,000 out-of-zone pitches. He knows how to be selective.

What’s on tap for 2020? Potentially a lot more. Soto said on Monday that he's staying hungry entering the season: “I’m going to fight for my place. I’m going to keep working hard, keep playing baseball the right way because it’s a lot of new players, a lot of new outfielders and you don’t want to get comfortable on this team. You want to keep going. I come here to play for one spot, and that’s why I’m here.”

It isn't just Soto's own words that indicate he'll continue to be great. Dan Szymborski’s ZiPS projections on FanGraphs forecast him to be even better in 2020. He’s projected to have 5.7 WAR by that system this season. That is, as Szymborski notes an “MVP-region projection.”

Here are the only other position players projected to have at least 5.5 WAR with that system:

Each of those players has finished at least top five or better for an MVP Award in recent years. Trout, Bellinger and Betts are MVP Award winners -- the first two are reigning recipients -- and Bregman finished second in American League voting last year.

This is the echelon we should consider Soto to be in -- now and moving forward.

Who he would join
But it isn’t just about the class Soto is in amongst his peers. These projections put him in elite company historically, too.

There have been 28 individual seasons by position players in Major League history where a player had a WAR north of 5.7 in his 21-year-old season or younger. The instances in the last 45 seasons should give Nationals fans plenty to be excited about. The last time a player did this was in 2012 and '13, when Trout did so, putting up consecutive 10+ WAR seasons as a youngster. Before that, it was in '01. And before that? 1998 with Andruw Jones, '96 with Alex Rodriguez, '91 with Ken Griffey Jr. and '80 with Rickey Henderson.

That’s two future Hall of Famers (Trout and Pujols), two Hall of Famers (Griffey and Henderson), one who’s yet to be on the ballot (Rodriguez) and another who has gotten consideration in recent years (Jones) -- all of whom put up seasons like Soto is projected for at his age or younger.

It isn’t just about 2020 for Soto. As Szymborski notes, ZiPS now projects more production for the rest of his career than for the rest of Trout’s. Yes, much of that is due to Trout’s age -- 28, compared to Soto’s 21. But the only players who have surpassed him in projections for the rest of their careers are Soto and Ronald Acuña Jr., so it’s still an elite group even with that caveat.

Other projection systems
Of course, these are just forecasts and projections. They account for past performance and overall trends with aging, but they still aren’t guaranteed to be right. That’s why they play the game.

FanGraphs’ Steamer projections have Soto’s 2020 looking very similar to his '19: 4.9 WAR and a 145 wRC+, after 4.8 WAR and a 142 wRC+ this past season. And his Depth Charts projection, which considers both Steamer and ZiPS, predicts 5.1 WAR and a 145 wRC+.

The only players with a higher projected wRC+, per Steamer, are Trout (173), Bregman (150) and Bellinger (147). Soto is tied on that list with a 145 projected wRC+ with 2018 NL MVP Award winner .

Soto’s forecasted wOBA from Depth Charts’ projections is .399, second only to Trout’s .427. In other words, pretty much every projection system has Soto solidly in the NL MVP Award conversation, by one metric or another.

And even if Soto were to have a season a bit closer to those projections, as opposed to ZiPS’, he’d still be on a historic track. The only players to have multiple qualified seasons with a 140 or higher wRC+ before their age-22 seasons are Mel Ott (3), Trout, Mickey Mantle, Ty Cobb, Rogers Hornsby and Ted Williams. Each of those players’ outstanding starts to their young careers resulted in a Cooperstown plaque, except for Trout, who’s still active but by all measures seems headed there, too.

The Nationals’ title defense, and their attempt to be the first team to repeat as champs since the 1998-2000 Yankees, was already going to be a lot of fun to watch. Soto’s October elevated him into the superstar range. And with these projections, there’s even more reason to be excited for what he’ll bring to the field in 2020 and for years to come.