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Soto-Acuña debate is the new ‘Trout or Harper?'

@castrovince
September 6, 2019

At the risk of sullying any potential future job applications in the sports-talk radio world or missing an opportunity for a hot-take headline, let me just state from the start that I’m not especially interested in doing that thing where we pit the 21-year-old Ronald Acuña Jr. and the 20-year-old

At the risk of sullying any potential future job applications in the sports-talk radio world or missing an opportunity for a hot-take headline, let me just state from the start that I’m not especially interested in doing that thing where we pit the 21-year-old Ronald Acuña Jr. and the 20-year-old Juan Soto against each other, and decide which guy we’d rather launch a franchise with.

Rather, on a weekend like this -- with these two preternaturally productive outfielders already pitted against each other on the field in a Braves-Nationals rivalry that could potentially spill over into October -- I’d rather just celebrate them.

We used to play the debate game with Mike Trout and Bryce Harper back in the day, and oh, how foolish we were. Trout lapped Harper and everybody else.

But even though the contest did not prove close, Harper and Trout did both arrive before the legal drinking age and they quickly made their mark among the best in the game. When two such talents emerge simultaneously, that’s special stuff.

That’s happened again with Acuña and Soto, who debuted within a month of each other in 2018 (Acuña on April 25, Soto on May 15). While the game is loaded with young stars -- and Fernando Tatis Jr., though currently injured, joins these two in the rare realm of south-of-22 superstars -- the similar debut dates, shared division and likeliness of occupying the same outfield in many an All-Star Game makes the mental pairing natural.

It's fair and fun to put Acuña and Soto in the same sentence -- one that ends with an exclamation mark. In this 2019 season, they are on track to become the first pair of players younger than 22 to qualify for the batting title with an OPS+ of 120 or higher (20 percent better than MLB average or better) since Ken Griffey Jr. and Juan Gonzalez in 1991. And because Soto has a Baseball Reference-calculated Wins Above Replacement mark of 5.0 and Acuña is at 4.8, they are, in all likelihood, going to end up on this short list of pairs of players under 22 to share a 5-WAR season:

Donie Bush (6.5) and Tris Speaker (6.3), 1909
Jimmie Foxx (7.9) and Mel Ott (7.4), 1929
Eddie Mathews (8.3) and Mickey Mantle (5.8), 1953
Al Kaline (8.2) and Hank Aaron (6.3), 1955
Frank Robinson (6.6) and Kaline (6.5), 1956
Trout (10.5) and Harper (5.2), 2012
Trout (9.0) and Machado (6.7), 2013

As a means of further understanding what we’re watching, let’s put each of these players’ early outputs into statistical perspective:

The Acuña File
Acuña has slumped the better part of the last few weeks, but, prior to that, he appeared to be on the periphery of the National League MVP Award race. So let’s not hold the 2018 NL Rookie of the Year Award winner's first funk in the big leagues against him. Instead, let’s look at the bigger picture:

Acuña already became the second-youngest player to have a 30-30 (30 homers, 30 steals) season, trailing only Trout, who did it in his age-20 year. While the home-run environment affects our assessment of the 30 homers, only four other players have 30 steals this season (and none have 30 homers).

With a home run and a steal on Thursday, giving him 37 homers and an NL-best 34 steals, Acuña still has a chance to become the fifth player to join the 40-40 club, which currently includes Jose Canseco, Alex Rodriguez, Barry Bonds and Alfonso Soriano.

At minimum, it appears, Acuña, who has 93 RBIs, will have just the fifth season with at least 40 homers, 35 steals and 100 RBIs, joining the 40-40 years of A-Rod (1998), Bonds (1996) and Canseco (1988), and Bonds’ 1997 season (40 homers, 37 steals, 101 RBIs).

Over the last two seasons, Acuña’s 1.042 OPS and 9.5 runs created per 27 outs from the leadoff spot are second only to reigning American League MVP Award winner Mookie Betts (1.083, 10.7) in that role.

With an 8.9 career Baseball Reference-calculated Wins Above Replacement, as of this writing, Acuña will become just the 22nd modern-era player to compile at least 9 WAR prior to his age-22 season. Thirteen of the previous 21 are in the Hall of Fame, and four others -- Trout (20.1), Machado (10.6), Carlos Correa (10.4) and Harper (9.9) -- are still active.

Acuña has been worth 13 defensive runs saved in the outfield since 2018, putting him ninth among all Major League outfielders with at least 2,000 defensive innings in that span.

If defensive numbers aren’t your thing, then just look at this:

The Soto File
Though he’s improved in both areas, Soto doesn’t make the defensive or baserunning impact of an Acuña or Tatis. Still, his offensive profile alone puts him on a very early Cooperstown trajectory. Consider:

With a 144 career OPS+, Soto ranks alongside Hall of Famers Ty Cobb (145), Mantle (144) and Ott (144) at the top of the career OPS+ leaderboard among those with at least 1,000 plate appearances prior to their age-21 season.

Soto is on track to become just the fourth player aged 20 or younger to have a season with an on-base percentage of at least .400 (.406) and a slugging percentage of at least .580 (.581). The others are Ott (1929), Ted Williams (1939) and A-Rod (1996).

Ott (63) is the only player to have compiled more Batting Runs than Soto (63) through his age-20 season. Batting Runs is the main offensive component in the WAR calculation.

Soto’s 7.89 Win Probability Added mark – a measure of how much his contributions have affected team wins – is ninth in the Majors since the start of 2018, trailing only Christian Yelich (12.80), Betts (10.17), Alex Bregman (9.72), Trout (9.63), Freddie Freeman (9.2), Harper (8.48), Anthony Rendon (8.39) and Paul Goldschmidt (8.13).

How many players in baseball history have had at least 50 homers alongside an OBP of at least .400 over the course of their first two seasons? Just four: Chuck Klein, Williams, Aaron Judge and Soto (54 homers, .406 OBP). How many did that before turning 21? Just Soto.

Forget the sophomore slump. Soto has actually improved on his electric 2018 by upping his hard-hit (from 42.2 to 47.3) and barrel (from 9.89 to 12.8) percentages while keeping his walk rate (15.1%) in the top 4 percent of MLB.

Only Trout (19.2), Harper (17.0), Carlos Santana (16.3) and Max Muncy (15.9) have a higher walk rate than Soto (15.5) over the last two seasons.

Anthony Castrovince has been a reporter for MLB.com since 2004. Read his columns and follow him on Twitter at @Castrovince.