Recently I started playing a computer game with a group of friends called Out of the Park Baseball (OOTPB). At one point during our long nights of passionate management somebody decided they wanted to trade for Washington Nationals superstar Juan Soto. They did not realize the wormhole they had opened up because what started out with one of us, ended up being an hours long saga of putting together trade packages for Soto knowing they were going to be rejected. Trying to trade for Soto ended up being a sport within itself. Offers involved superstars like Giancarlo Stanton and Ozzie Albies, even top-prospects like Mackenzie Gore or Nate Pearson were tried, but to no avail, even Mike Trout wasn’t enough for the Nationals slugger.
He was the game’s most valuable player.
While that might sound egregious or blasphemous to some, if you think about how productive Soto has been and the fact that he’s still only 22-years-old, meaning he’s an established star at an age when players like Aaron Judge and Kris Bryant were still in the minors, it makes a lot of sense.
If the Dominican born superstar continues upon the path he’s already laid out for himself, when his time comes to leave the game, he may leave it as one of its greatest hitters.
Soto debuted in the MLB at the young age of 19, something not done very often nowadays and an honor usually reserved for exceptional talents like Trout, Bryce Harper and Felix Hernadez. Soto immediately showed his exceptional power belting 22 home runs in 116 games and an on-base percentage above .400.
Soto built off of this in 2019, finishing top-10 in the league in RBIs with 110 and hit 34 home runs, in the process starting the argument for him to be named the premier young bat in baseball. The franchise that had lost longtime superstar Bryce Harper to a division rival that offseason started to realize they may have had an offensive upgrade waiting in the wings.
If the Washington faithful did not know it at that point, they were sure about to find out. The 2019 postseason gave Soto a few moments that he and his teammates will remember fondly for the rest of their lives.
It started in the Wild Card game. The bases were loaded in the bottom of the eight inning and a young star blossomed in front of the eyes of the world. Soto, in the biggest at-bat of his career ripped a single into right field that should have tied the game, but an error by outfielder Trent Grisham —who would go on to win a Gold Glove award in 2020— gave the Nationals an extra run and Soto a three-RBI, game-winning single to send Washington into the Divisional Series.
If you thought it stopped there, well the baseball gods were clearly on Soto’s side and gave him another moment for fans to clinch onto.
In the top of the eighth inning in Game 5 of the Divisional Series and the score showing the Nationals down 3-2 and fighting for a chance to end the series that night in Los Angeles against the Dodgers, Soto stepped up to the plate to face arguably the most dominant pitcher of his lifetime: Clayton Kershaw.
Kershaw, a guaranteed hall of famer, three-time Cy Young winner and eight-time All-Star made his MLB debut when Soto was nine. Despite his extreme youth and lack of experience, Soto once again showed up big, launching a shot into the Los Angeles sky that eventually landed on the opposite side of the fence and tied the game.
Soto scored on a Howie Kendrick Grand Slam in the 10th inning and the Nationals on the back of Soto’s timely heroics and two of the games best starting pitchers found themselves one step closer to a World Series ring.
The Nationals comfortably swept the Cardinals in the NLCS and quickly found themselves facing the 2017 World Series Champions, who are now known as baseball’s greatest villains, the Houston Astros.
In Game 1 of his first World Series Soto etched his name into the scoresheet with a bomb off of Astros ace Gerrit Cole.
At a mere 20-years-old, Soto ended up doing what Harper never could, leading the Nationals to the promise land, giving the team its first championship. Soto did not win World Series MVP, that was awarded to pitcher Stephen Strasburg, but the slugger who was barely out of his teenage years did have a great argument for the award. The outfielder hit three homers, drove in seven runs and had a batting average of .333. Soto’s heroics ended up earning him a share of The Babe Ruth Award for the best postseason with Strasburg.
The 2019 postseason gave a glimmer of Soto’s potential, but the 2020 season showed how good of a hitter the 22-year-old really is.
Sure, everything I’m about to write might be put with an asterisk, and maybe it should be, as it’s a lot easier to have high averages in 47 games than 162, or 149 considering Soto missed 13 of 60 games in the 2020 season, but that doesn’t mean he wasn’t exceptional.
Soto, at only 21-years-old won the National League batting title with a .351 average, besting MVP winner Freddie Freeman by .10 points. More impressive than that was Soto’s on-base percentage of .490, which not only led the league, but is the greatest on-base percentage in a single season by someone not named Barry Bonds in the 21st Century and the 31st highest single-season on-base percentage ever.
Yes, this was in only 47 games, but the fact that Soto is there at all should speak for itself.
Soto hit 13 home runs and 37 RBIs in the 2020 season. Assuming Soto played 149 games and kept the same RBI pace and home run pace, Soto’s age-21 season would have finished with 41 home runs, 117 RBIs and 18 stolen bases. Compare this to the age-21 seasons of Mike Trout and Ken Griffey Jr., arguably two of the 10 most talented players to ever step foot on the diamond and it wows you.
Trout was the more threatening base-runner with 33 stolen bases, but his 27 home runs and 97 RBIs pale in comparison to Soto’s 41 bombs and 117 RBIs. Griffey was already baseball’s next superstar by 1991, making his second All-Star game appearance that season, and continuing his rise that eventually landed him in the Hall of Fame. But he only smacked 22 balls over the fence in 1991 and drove in 100 runs, and even stole fewer bases than Solo’s simulated season, stealing 16 bases in comparison to Soto’s 18.
Griffey did not surpass Soto’s simulated total of 41 home runs or his age-20 total of 34 home runs until he was 23 and hit 45 homers.
To really encapsulate the point I am trying to make, I’d point to the statistic of OPS+ which takes into consideration external factors when calculating OPS (on-base+slugging percentage), like the ballpark that each player played in and league factors which put the different time periods into context. Some experts consider OPS+ the best stat for measuring and comparing players from different eras and it seems to be the best stat to prove Soto’s greatness.
The average hitter will have an OPS+ of 100, being above the 100 barrier means you are an above average hitter in most contexts. Soto’s 2020 season gave him an OPS+ of 212, which ranks 26th all-time. Neither Trout or Griffey have ever exceeded 200. Griffey’s career-high was 155, which he experienced in 1991 and Trout came extremely close to the 200 mark when he earned an OPS+ of 198 in 2018.
Of course Trout’s career is far from over and Griffey has already been immortalized in Cooperstown and his heroics still live on to this day.
Both players are significantly more valuable than Soto with their glove, but they would both find themselves in the Hall of Fame with their bat alone and if Soto keeps up his pace and unlike Griffey, avoids the injury bug, he will find himself in their company as once in a lifetime talents that we tell stories about to the next generation by the time his career is over.