Late last season, the Nationals started Juan Soto in right field for the first six times in his young Major League career. Then in January, the club signed free-agent left fielder Kyle Schwarber, which seemed to make the transition official. At this point, Soto is projected as Washington’s starting right fielder.
One interesting implication of that: Soto now shares a position with Mookie Betts.
That created a quandary for the panelists participating in MLB Network’s “Top 10 players Right Now” series, which aired its final episode, on right fielders on Wednesday night. “The Shredder” determined, through its cold calculations, that Betts is the No. 1 right fielder for 2021. But some of the panelists, including MLB.com’s Sarah Langs and Mike Petriello, disagreed.
This was a topic that merited further debate, even if there is clearly no wrong answer. So MLB.com convened a roundtable of reporters to discuss who should reign supreme.
Andrew Simon (@AndrewSimonMLB, moderator): Mike and Sarah -- you both participated in the Top 10 Right Now series and ultimately picked Soto over Betts as your No. 1 right fielder. Did you agonize over that call? Go back and forth? Or was it clear cut?
Mike Petriello (@mike_petriello, MLB.com analyst): I feel like I should have agonized over it but ... I didn't? Actually, we should probably start with this: They're both incredible. I fully expect they'll both be in Cooperstown some day. (Ronald Acuña Jr., too, for that matter.) So I really don't want any of this to be "I don't think Betts is great," because my god, the man is great. He's clearly superior on defense and on the bases. But I can also say "Juan Soto is Ted Williams" with a straight face, so there's that.
Sarah Langs (@SlangsOnSports, MLB.com reporter): I agonized, but more over the idea of putting Betts second than over who actually was No. 1. The moment I began to think about it, I was pretty sure I’d make Soto No. 1, but the idea of Mookie Betts No. 2 was stressful. He’s such a great all-around player, they’re both probably future Hall of Famers, and if we could have a tie, perhaps this would be it, but I couldn’t put the best hitter in the game -- Juan Soto -- anywhere other than first at his position. I just didn’t want to come off as thinking that Mookie Betts isn’t outstanding. He is!
David Adler (@_dadler, MLB.com reporter): If Juan Soto is Ted Williams, Mookie Betts is Willie Mays. Give me Willie Mays Betts.
Simon: David -- you didn’t make an official Top 10 right fielders list, but if you had, you would pick Mookie first? Easy call?
Adler: Not an easy call. Because like Mike and Sarah, I think Soto is the best hitter on the planet right now. (I hope Mike Trout forgives me). But Betts is also one of the best hitters on the planet. And he's the best defensive right fielder on the planet. And he's an electric baserunner. He's a complete player in a way Soto isn't. I don't think Soto is so much of a better hitter than Betts that it makes up for Mookie being a much more complete player.
Soto is the best hitter. Betts is the best right fielder.
Petriello: I like to think of Betts as a guy where the numbers don't quite capture all the things he does -- like the argument people like to make for Yadier Molina -- except the numbers also love him. And I can't really argue with most of what David said, except I don't think Soto is a good hitter, or a great hitter. I think he's got a real chance to go down in history as one of the best who ever lived. He's already off to one of the best starts in the history of the game at this age. You don't get there by accident.
Simon: Let's look at what the stats say. Even if you set aside 2018, when Mookie had his best MVP-winning season and Soto didn't debut in the Majors until May, Betts has the all-around advantage over the past two years based on FanGraphs' WAR (even though Soto is the superior hitter by park-adjusted wRC+)
Soto: 156 wRC+, 7.3 fWAR
Betts: 138 wRC+, 9.6 fWAR
Langs: That’s very fair with the defense, and I definitely don’t disagree. Honestly, when we do these lists (or at least, when I do), sometimes defense has to be discounted (Marcell Ozuna as the No. 4 left fielder now, with Soto gone from the position, for instance). I know that when I approach it, I’m looking at the player -- however I consider him -- and the position is basically just the context/list that they are on. If it were best “for right field” or something like that, I probably would have to put Betts first. But the offensive gap from Soto to Betts is there, and it really stood out.
Adler: It's weird, because if you told me to pick one hitter to take an at-bat with the World Series on the line, I would take Soto. He's one of the toughest at-bats I've ever seen. The pitcher basically never beats him. But if you told me to pick one player to go win me the World Series, start to finish, I would take Betts. Because of how he changes the game in every way -- even beyond the numbers, like Mike said.
Also funny because they both just won their teams the World Series (Soto in 2019, Betts in '20).
Simon: Right. Last year's postseason was the perfect example. Betts had his moments at the plate, but wasn't necessarily at the top of the game in that sense. But the stuff he did on the bases (scoring from third on grounders) and in the field (great catches, including home run robberies) is stuff that not many other players can do. You can't make too much of a few games, of course, but that seemed like the argument for Mookie in a nutshell. He's a baseball genius in every possible way.
Adler: Yeah, they did it in their own signature ways -- Soto just kept hitting home runs off Justin Verlander and Gerrit Cole; Betts made that awesome aggressive baserunning play to score from third, robbed home runs and hit a little, too.
Langs: And that’s the performance, in the postseason and specifically the World Series, that sparked the "Trout vs. Betts" convo.
Petriello: Right, this is really all a matter of taste. Do you want the very good hitter who is also good at everything? Or do you want the guy who is 22 and on track to do things with the bat no one else has ever done? You can't be wrong, really. I just prefer the guy who just turned 22 and posted a .490 OBP last year. And I know that's a small sample thing, and I don't really expect him to put up a .490 OBP over a full year ... except maybe I do? Nothing he does would surprise me.
Adler: If there's one thing that makes me into a metaphorical "hearts for eyes" emoji, it's Juan Soto's hitting line
Petriello: Big over. Give me a 170.
Adler: I'm taking the over in a second
Langs: The ZiPS projection for Soto has his No. 1 comp as Ted Williams, as Mike alluded to above. I will gladly take the over.
Simon: Both of those systems, by the way, have Betts and Soto essentially tied in WAR (within one or two tenths of a win). So clearly, it's fair to call this a tossup
Langs: That’s notable to me because that means Soto’s offense is making up for the defensive gap there is between them, since that all factors into WAR.
Adler: Something I think is interesting though is, how will Soto translate to right field? Will he take a hit in WAR because his defense doesn't hold up as well there? Reading the ball in left field is not the same as reading it in right field. Soto doesn't seem like a great defensive outfielder -- I know his numbers were good in 2019 and bad in 2020, but he definitely isn't a highlight machine like Mookie. And you need a better arm in right. Mookie definitely has the bigger arm.
I know you have to guess when you're making these lists, but the question is still who's the best right fielder, and I have a lot fewer questions about one of those right fielders.
Petriello: He does have a decent amount of right-field experience in the Minors, though. Like in 2018 when he came up, he was mostly playing right in the Minors. I think he's a better defender than 2020 would have it seem, though clearly not on Mookie's level there.
Langs: He’s also been vocal about wanting to work on his defense, since his first big league offseason ('18 into '19). If anything, I’d imagine there’s a level of comfort returning to the position that was his until he got to the Nats and Bryce Harper was occupying the position.
But yes, definitely not in Mookie’s defensive echelon.
Simon: That's an interesting dynamic to me. I know we've discussed the Ted Williams comp, but the recent player Soto really reminds me of is a young Albert Pujols, with the way he absolutely controls at-bats and hits any pitch in any location
One thing about Pujols though is that he was a surprisingly good baserunner and defensive player in the first half of his career. And versatile. It'll be fun to see if Soto can become more well-rounded over the next few years
Petriello: I know we're talking about just 2021 here, but I also view Soto's skillset as the type that should age extremely gracefully. I mean, he's so young that "an aging Soto" is in like 2034, but barring serious injury, I see no reason he isn't doing what he just did for the next decade-and-a-half.
Adler: He's an absolutely complete hitter. Just elite in every aspect of hitting. He's going to be a great hitter forever.
Langs: And he’s been so good since pretty much the moment he arrived. I remember hearing analysts raving about his plate discipline in like, his third week in the Majors. The starting point was already so high, in terms of his ability.
Adler: Also he does the Soto Shuffle. Bonus points for plate discipline + swag.
Petriello: I guess the only way I can put it is like this: Mookie Betts is so tremendously, amazingly, incredibly good, that it's almost impossible to think about how good you'd have to be to be above him. And yet: Juan Soto.
Langs: I love that wording, Mike, because that’s the point here, to me. These players are just both so incredible and the fact that we get to watch them both, at the same time, is just amazing -- for us, for the sport, for everyone.
Adler: Or, one might say, how impossibly good do you have to be to be a better baseball player than the best hitter in the world? And yet: Mookie Betts.
Petriello: Always the contrarian, David.