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Who Needs Bryce Harper When You’ve Got Juan Soto?

How do you survive the loss of Bryce Harper, a player billed as a once-in-a-generation talent? You develop an even better once-in-a-generation talent. (So maybe that’s “twice-in-a-generation”?) The Washington Nationals might have done just that.

For many, Tuesday’s National League Wild Card game was likely their first exposure to Washington wunderkind Juan Soto, who introduced himself with a game-winning hit.1 But the Nationals’ 20-year-old star has already established himself as one of the best players in the game.

Soto has been historically good through his first two seasons in the major leagues. One MLB scout told me recently that there can be only one comp for Soto through his first two years in the majors: Ted Williams.

Hyperbole? Perhaps. We don’t know for sure how the rest of Soto’s career will unfold. But look at Soto’s production compared to other players’ through their age 20 seasons and you can see where the scout is coming from.

In the history of the major leagues, covering all years from 1871 through 2019 via the Baseball-Reference.com database, there have been only eight seasons in which a player 20 years old or younger has recorded better than a .400 on-base percentage (an elite rate of avoiding outs).2 Soto has authored two of those eight seasons.

Few players as young as Soto have gotten on base so much

Batters whose on-base percentage was at least .400 over the course of a season, before or during their age-20 season

Player Year Age OBP
John McGraw 1893 20 0.454
Mel Ott 1929 20 0.449
Ted Williams 1939 20 0.436
Al Kaline 1955 20 0.421
Jimmie Foxx 1928 20 0.416
Alex Rodriguez 1996 20 0.414
Juan Soto 2018 19 0.406
Juan Soto 2019 20 0.401

Among those who played in at least 100 games per season.

Source: Baseball-Reference.com

As for overall performance, only nine other players have accrued more wins above replacement through their age-20 season (Soto has posted 7.6 WAR so far). Harper, though his performance and trajectory has cooled in recent seasons, is one of them; the other names include the likes of Ty Cobb, Mickey Mantle, Alex Rodriguez and Ken Griffey Jr., a group composed almost entirely of Hall of Famers and elite talents.

What makes Soto, who signed with the Nationals in 2016 as a 17-year-old out of the Dominican Republic, so effective? His ability to combine patience and power at the plate, along with his quality of contact, is extraordinary for such a young player.

Consider that among players who have a slugging percentage over .500 this season, Soto has the eighth lowest out-of-zone swing rate.3 Not only does Soto have considerable power, he also has an uncanny feel for the strike zone. Pitchers cannot get him to chase.

What’s more, he rarely whiffs when he swings, and he rarely makes weak contact — he has the 15th-lowest infield pop-up rate this season among qualified hitters. It’s nearly the perfect blend of hitting skills, and he’s doing it all at an age when most players are still in A-ball. (Soto spent just 122 games in the minors before his debut last season.)

In all, Soto has helped Nationals fans forget about Harper, whose Phillies did not make the playoffs this season. While Harper was a good player in Washington — and a great player in 2015 when he won the NL MVP — he perhaps never lived up to the lofty expectations fueled by his pedigree and early performance. He didn’t become the NL’s Mike Trout. But the Nats could still get that; Soto has a chance to become a face-of-the-franchise — perhaps eventually a face-of-the-game — talent.

Footnotes

  1. A fielding error on the play by Milwaukee’s Trent Grisham allowed the winning run to score.

  2. Counting only players who participated in at least 100 games that season.

  3. Those above him are Alex Bregman (Astros), George Springer (Astros), Carlos Santana (Indians), Mike Trout (Angels), Marcus Semien (A’s), Max Muncy (Dodgers) and Mookie Betts (Red Sox) — nearly all of them All-Stars or former MVPs.

Travis Sawchik is a sportswriter for FiveThirtyEight.

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