Despite this being a Braves blog, I – with no hesitation – must say I love Juan Soto. The fact that, in his first game of the year back in April, Soto was facing the Rome Braves is astounding. He hit a homer off Kyle Muller, who ranked #13 on the Walk-Off Walk Midseason Top 50 Prospects. In his final at-bat that day, lefty Thomas Burrows (#34th) struck him out.
Just over a month after that game, Soto was in the majors. That’s absurd. He homered against the Yankees’ Chad Green that day to break up a 3-3 tie. And with that, the lefty slugger began a scorched Earth campaign against the major leagues. He’s bashed another 19 home runs, reached base at a .421 clip, and in a season of massive disappointment for the Nationals, Soto has given them hope that should they lose Bryce Harper, not all will be lost.
Oh, and Nationals fans would like me to point out that he’s just 19. I won’t speak for what you were doing at the age of nineteen, but I certainly wasn’t putting up a weighted On-Base Average around .400 against major league pitching. In fact, still waiting to get a chance to face a major league pitcher to show the world what I can do. Any. Day. Now.
What Juan Soto is doing is nearly unprecedented. He’s joined Tony Conigliaro (1964) and the aforementioned Harper (2012) as the only players to hit twenty home runs as a teenager. And no teenager – not John McGraw, Mickey Mantle, Mel Ott, or Ty Cobb – had an OBP over .400 while playing in the majors before the age of 20. Soto is ridiculously good right now.
Such a shame that he plays in the same league as Ronald Acuña Jr. Otherwise, Soto would be able to add a Rookie of the Year to his trophy case.
As much as I love Soto, he’s simply not Acuña Jr. Like Soto, the latter began the year in the minors, though he was in Triple-A. That’s less impressive, but the only reason he didn’t face major league pitching last year or when this season started was for service time reasons. In addition, Acuña Jr missed time with an injury. Despite that, with nearly an equal amount of plate appearances, Acuña Jr. has not only caught Soto in many categories, he’s breezed by.
Once again, this isn’t to say that Soto is not a deserving candidate. And before I continue, I can hear other fans saying “what about our guy?” Apologies to Cardinals fans because Harrison Bader has been very good and I see you, Brian Anderson, in Miami. But neither one of you, nor Walker Buehler in Los Angeles, are in this discussion. It’s limited to Soto and Acuña Jr. It’s easy, especially if you watch an exorbitant amount of one over the other, to want “your guy” to win, but objectively, this does belong to Acuña Jr. and it’s not just limited to the stats.
Though, statistically, since we are on the subject, Acuña Jr. has passed Soto in fWAR. Maybe you prefer the Baseball-Reference version and in that, Acuña Jr. is crushing Soto by 1.5 bWAR. If you like offensive analytics, both are very close to one another in wOBA, wRC+, and Soto holds a big league in WPA. If you are the more traditional stats type, Acuña Jr. has opened a good lead in home runs and steals while Soto holds the edge in RBI and walks.
But there are two things that really separate Acuña Jr. from Soto.
1) Defense – While Acuña Jr.’s defensive metrics in left field have been a bit quirky, he long had the reputation as a talented outfielder. There is no reason to believe that scouting report is inaccurate. Consider his Defensive Runs Saved of 7. DRS is a way of quantifying the idea of “RBI in his glove.” Seven is a respectable number for a guy learning new ballparks and ranks just outside the Top 10. Juan Soto, who only plays left field while Acuña Jr. has moved to center field and even right field this season, can’t compare. He has a -5 DRS and his defensive metrics simply lag behind Acuña Jr. in every way.
Another popular metric is from Statcast called Outs Above Average. Ender Inciarte ranks in a dead heat for first place with Bader. Acuña Jr. is ranked 36th. Out of 250. Soto? Ranked 228th. While both hitters post similar offensive numbers, Acuña Jr. doesn’t hurt his team in the field. That’s a big deal.
2) Context – But if you weren’t completely convinced about defense ending this discussion, try this on for size. In the second half, the Braves have struggled at times. Dansby Swanson has a love-hate relationship with a .300 OBP, Nick Markakis‘s power left him, and Ozzie Albies has yet to see a high fastball he didn’t want to swing at. Even Freddie Freeman has looked, in a word, off.
Meanwhile, the bullpen has wavered far too often while the rotation outside of Mike Foltynewicz has been prone to short outings and ineffective pitching. And sure, there are some individuals that have performed well during this stretch (Johan Camargo, for one), but throughout the second half, the Braves have simply not looked as good as they did entering the All-Star Break. It briefly led to them losing their stranglehold on the division.
The Braves are now riding high with a rapidly increasing division lead and several players contributing, but for a while, the only guy who seemed to step up was Acuña Jr. Moved to the leadoff spot where Inciarte and Albies had struggled at times, Acuña Jr. was not just a table setter – he cleared the table quite often. As the Braves went through the motions, their 20-year-old wunderkind carried the team. He did so much that some believe that the real debate is whether or not Acuña Jr. should be the National League MVP.
Juan Soto is a great player. A special player. Having the two of these players in the same division should be fun to watch for years to come. And in many years, Soto is the clear Rookie of the Year.
But not in 2018.
Not with Ronald Acuña Jr. doing his thing.