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20-Year-Old Nationals Phenom Juan Soto Is What Bryce Harper Was Supposed to Be

Zachary D. Rymer@zachrymerMLB Lead WriterAugust 27, 2019

WASHINGTON, DC - AUGUST 17: Juan Soto #22 of the Washington Nationals hits a two-run home run against the Milwaukee Brewers during the third inning at Nationals Park on August 17, 2019 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Scott Taetsch/Getty Images)
Scott Taetsch/Getty Images

The Washington Nationals should have few regrets over how Bryce Harper turned out. All he did in his seven seasons with them was nab six All-Star nods, a Rookie of the Year and an MVP.

Still, they might lament that Harper didn't have a little more Juan Soto in him.

It's early yet, but Soto has thus far been one of the best young hitters in Major League Baseball history. He debuted in 2018 with 22 home runs and a .292/.406/.517 slash line as a mere 19-year-old, which netted him the best OPS+ (an adjusted version of OPS) ever by a teenager. With a .290/.402/.553 slash line and 29 homers in 2019, the left fielder clearly hasn't lost anything since turning 20 in October.

The left fielder has been especially hot amid Washington's 54-26 stretch since May 24, and he joined some special company when he hit his 50th career homer on August 18:

ESPN Stats & Info @ESPNStatsInfo

Juan Soto (@Nationals) is the 3rd player in MLB history to hit 50 home runs before turning 21 years old, joining Mel Ott (61) and Tony Conigliaro (56). https://t.co/qjMLcRG8si

Speaking of special company, Soto's 141 career OPS+ puts him in truly rarefied air among all hitters who've logged at least 1,000 plate appearances between their age-19 and age-20 seasons:

  • 1. Ty Cobb: 145
  • T2. Mickey Mantle: 144
  • T2: Mel Ott: 144
  • 4. Juan Soto: 141

As of right now, the most accomplished young hitters ever are three all-time greats and then Soto. A few more guys slot in ahead of him if the bar for entry is reset to 500 plate appearances, but they're additional all-timers named Ted Williams, Mike Trout, Frank Robinson, Jimmie Foxx and Rogers Hornsby.

This should answer questions anyone might have had about whether Soto was ready for the spotlight in Washington after Harper jumped ship to the Philadelphia Phillies on a 13-year, $330 million contract. He obviously is, and he looks even more capable of earning his keep in it than Harper was.

DENVER, CO - SEPTEMBER 30:  Bryce Harper #34 and Juan Soto #22 of the Washington Nationals have a word after Harper was stranded on the bases after the top of the fourth inning of a game against the Colorado Rockies at Coors Field on September 30, 2018 in
Dustin Bradford/Getty Images

To be sure, the spotlight was on Harper even before he arrived in the majors.

Sports Illustrated gave him his first close-up as a 16-year-old in 2009 and he was the Nats' No. 1 pick just a year later. By 2012, Harper was deemed a "surefire superstar" with a "very real chance to develop into the best all-around player in baseball" by Baseball America.

Harper teased that potential as a rookie when his 5.2 wins above replacement set a record for a teenager, according to Baseball Reference. He later realized it in 2015, when he won the National League MVP via 42 home runs and MLB-high marks in OPS+ (198) and WAR (10.0). Based on that trajectory, it's no wonder that he eventually landed the richest free-agent deal in MLB history.

Yet despite his huge contract and the accolades that led to it, there's a vague sense of disappointment over Harper's career which stems from how often his steps forward have been followed by steps back.

He set this tone when he regressed from 5.2 WAR as a 19-year-old in 2012 to 3.7 WAR as a 20-year-old in 2013, and it's never really let up. His remarkable '15 season could have been the thing that set him free, but he's barely been worth more WAR in the four years since (10.1) than he was in the three years leading up to it (9.9).

Injuries of many varieties certainly haven't helped Harper's cause. But as the Phillies now know firsthand—it's taken until August for Harper to truly get hot—he's also prone to plain ol' inconsistency at the plate. He's long had a tendency to lose his approach and take weeks to find it again.

Soto is making hitting history in part because he's Harper's opposite in the consistency department. To wit, here's a comparison of his rolling wRC+ (which is similar to OPS+) to Harper's through his first two seasons:

Data courtesy of FanGraphs

Soto at 19 and 20 has been frequently hotter and rarely colder than Harper was at those ages. That gets at how Soto is not only a more complete hitter now than Harper was then, but also an increasingly flawless hitter in general.

Especially in light of his age, the most impressive thing about Soto is his knowledge of the strike zone. His overall 22.7 chase percentage since 2018 ties him with Carlos Santana for 10th among all qualified hitters. That's feeding an elite 15.8 walk percentage, and his knack for making contact has led him to an only slightly less elite 0.8 walk-to-strikeout ratio.

If Soto offered nits to pick as a rookie, it's that he concentrated his damage against fastballs and to the opposite field. But rather than let those habits turn into exploitable problems, he's basically erased them.

This is a tale best told by xwOBA, which measures expected production based on strikeouts, walks and contact quality. In 2019, Soto has hit better against breaking balls and off-speed pitches without losing anything against fastballs:

Data courtesy of BaseballSavant.MLB.com

Likewise, the left-handed batter has improved with his batted balls to his pull side and up the middle without compromising his opposite-field ability:

Data courtesy of BaseballSavant.MLB.com

Perhaps the one thing that Soto lacks as a hitter is tremendous raw power. Yet he doesn't have a shot at a 40-homer season strictly by the grace of the juiced ball. Both his average launch angle (11.7 degrees) and exit velocity (90.8 mph) are up in 2019.

Meanwhile, Soto is also evolving outside of the batter's box. In spite of his merely average sprint speed, he's stolen 12 bases in 13 tries. He's also improved his reaction time in the outfield and gone from minus-five to plus-three in defensive runs saved.

It's because of these improvements that Soto's WAR has already escalated from 3.0 last year to 4.3 in 2019. Two seasons does not a career make, but it's a good omen for the Nationals that Soto isn't falling prey to any kind of Harperian curse. He's exclusively taking forward steps, and he almost certainly hasn't even reached his prime yet.

Although he's bound to get buried underneath Cody Bellinger, Christian Yelich and Ronald Acuna Jr., Soto's immediate future likely involves some MVP votes. If he doesn't eventually win one in the longer run, he should at least become a regular All-Star and Silver Slugger, and perhaps even a Gold Glover.

All the Nationals have to do is sit back and enjoy it, and perhaps smile at their feat of replacing one once-in-a-lifetime youngster with one who's on track to be even better.

                

Stats courtesy of Baseball Reference, FanGraphs and Baseball Savant.