“Juan-ce” in a Generation: Where does Juan Soto rank among past 19-year-old phenoms?

In recent years, the Nationals have been blessed with young home-grown talent. Bryce Harper, Stephen Strasburg, Trea Turner and Anthony Rendon all made early and impressive debuts for the club and have since cemented themselves as franchise cornerstones. This season, Juan Soto has emerged as the latest in that line. After dominating three levels of the Nationals farm system in 2018, Soto took his first MLB swing on May 20 resulting in an inauspicious pinch-hit strikeout. His next game? He crushed Padres pitching for a home run and three RBI. He hasn’t stopped since. As of July 29, he has slashed .310/.418/.567, hammered 13 home runs, posted a mark of 162 wRC+ and accumulated 2.1 WAR in only 249 plate appearances.

His rapid ascendance seems unprecedented not only for a National, but for any 19-year-old position player in MLB history. At 19, Soto certainly isn’t the youngest player to make his MLB debut (that record belongs to Joe Nuxhall at age 15 in 1944 during World War II). However, it is a rare occurrence with only 296 players arriving in the big leagues at age 19 and only 311 logging at least one PA since 1920. Moreover, only 38 of those 311 players logged more than 150 PA (the rough equivalent of 50 games) during their age 19 season.

There are many accomplished names among those listed, including Robin Yount, Rusty Staub, Al Kaline, Ken Griffey, Jr., Mel Ott, Mickey Mantle, Bobby Doerr, Ivan Rodriguez, Adrian Beltre, Alex Rodriguez, Manny Machado and Bryce Harper.

As Soto has continued his scorching start, many fans have wondered where he stacks up. Given the small sample sizes available, it’s difficult to draw a direct comparison. At best, we can compare specific statistics across individual players to create a broader comparison. To expand the sample, I’m including both 19-year-old AND 20-year old seasons focusing on players who posted at least 150 PA at age 19 or 20 regardless of position.

Power: Many fans have marveled at Soto’s prodigious power. So far, Soto has slugged 13 home runs in only 249 PA. That pace places him in the upper echelon of 19 and 20-year olds in baseball history).

*(Statistics as of 7/30/2018)

Hitting: In an era of swing-for-the-fences hitters, it’s rare to see a combination of raw power and plate discipline. Juan Soto has shown he can succeed at both sides of hitting. With a natural knack for getting on base and a keen eye, Soto has demonstrated elite ability.

*(Statistics as of 7/30/2018)

The numbers seemingly bear out that Soto’s season is approaching near Hall of Fame status. However, projections must be tempered. There is always room for regression and some statistics suggest it should be expected.

Currently, Soto’s BABIP (or “batting average on balls in play”) stands at .345 while the league average settles at .299. Typically, the higher the BABIP, the more room for regression. Any regression in BABIP usually coincides with fewer hits as less balls escape the infield or land beyond a defender.

That said, Soto’s ability to slug can keep his BABIP on the higher end of the spectrum as well as his adeptness to hit to the opposite field and beat any shift. However, Soto may not be able to sustain his power streak either. At the moment, he ranks 109th in average exit velocity (about league average). This is evidenced by dips in both his slugging percentage and wOBA (weighted on-base average) over the course of his season.

Additionally, his plate discipline may be waning as the league adjusts to him. Over the course of the season, his K% has fluctuated wildly and has been on the higher end the last 30 games, but that could also be partially attributed to his extreme workload and other factors. That concern is elevated when looking at his ability to hit breaking balls. His batting averages against sliders and changeups are .152 and .233 respectively. There is room for improvement there.

Despite some struggles, there are also several signs suggesting sustained success. Soto has demonstrated a remarkable ability to “hit to all fields.” His Pull%, Center% and Oppo% are nearly even at 36.6%, 34.5%, and 28% respectively. That skill is confirmed by his Swing%, Contact% and O-Swing%, all of which are roughly the same. Additionally, contrary to popular belief surrounding left-handed hitters, Soto crushes left-handed pitching at a .370 clip and hits an equally impressive .288 vs. right-handers.

If Soto maintain this level of production, he is easily on pace for one of the greatest 19 or 20-year-old seasons in MLB history and is poised to join a pantheon of legends. Although there are a handful of concerns, Soto has demonstrated an advanced understanding of the strike zone and developed power – both are skill sets that take many major leaguers years to grasp. With no discernible weaknesses in his game, Soto is potentially set-up to be the next great Washington National.

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