The Dark-Horse NL MVP Candidate Who Looks Like Ted Williams 2.0

Kerry Miller@@kerrancejamesCollege Basketball National AnalystSeptember 20, 2021

Washington Nationals OF Juan Soto
Washington Nationals OF Juan SotoJoe Sargent/Getty Images

If you haven't paid a single unit of attention to the Washington Nationals in the past several months, well, who could blame you? The 2019 World Series champions have the fifth-worst record in baseball, have already been eliminated from the postseason and traded away what felt like their entire active roster in late July.

They did hang on to one star player, though.

His name is Juan Soto.

He is 22 years old.

And he is already cementing his legacy as one of the mostwe have to make up a word to adequately convey his greatness at the dish"unretirable" hitters in baseball history.

In the modern era of the almighty strikeout, it is just about expected that every batter will whiff more often than he walks.

Per FanGraphs, we are nearing the end of a ninth consecutive season in which the league-wide K/BB ratio is north of 2.50. To put that number in historical perspective, the highest such ratio in the entire 20th century was 2.09 in 1968. It was dubbed "The Year of the Pitcher," and Major League Baseball was so appalled by the volume of strikeouts that it both shrank the strike zone and lowered the pitching mound the following year in an effort to restore competitive balance.

Nowadays, it seems like everyone can throw 100 miles per hour, and everyone can hit home runs, so it's go up there, take a few hacks for the fences and try again next time if and when you miss on each of those swings.

Not Soto, though, who has somehow managed to bring a Ted Williams-level of plate discipline into this K-heavy world.

Through the morning of Sept. 17, there were 395 players with at least 150 plate appearances (slightly more than one per team game). Of those 395 players, 394 had more strikeouts than walks.

Then there's Soto, who could just about strike out in every plate appearance for the rest of the season and still have the best BB/K ratio in the majors. Through Friday morning, Soto had 120 walks against just 83 strikeouts for a ratio of 1.446. And, to reiterate, no other player can even boast a 1.0 ratio.

On Friday night, he drew three more walks without a strikeout in yet another Nationals loss.

Business as usual.

Nick Wass/Associated Press

Now, you might be thinking, "But of course he walks! There's no one left on this year's team for opposing pitchers to be afraid of!" And there is a decent amount of truth to that. Soto's pre-trade deadline BB/K ratio (1.203) pales in comparison to his post-trade deadline ratio (2.167) in large part because he has drawn more intentional walks (12) in the past 44 games than he did in his first 92 games (seven).

But even Soto's pre-deadline ratio was substantially better than anyone else can boast. Plus, he had a 1.464 BB/K ratio (while leading the majors in both on-base percentage and slugging percentage) during the truncated 2020 campaign, so this isn't exactly a new, roster-situation-based development.

The young man—"Childish Bambino," as he came to be known as a 19-year-old rookie—simply sees the strike zone better than anyone.

When he does take the bat off his shoulders, good things tend to happen, too.

Last year, a 21-year-old Soto became the youngest player ever to win the National League batting title with a mark of .351, slightly besting Pete Reiser's feat as a 22-year-old in 1941.

This year, he has a good chance at winning it again if he can just finish ahead of former teammates Trea Turner and Bryce Harper, sitting at .317 and .313, respectively, as of Saturday morning.

Through Saturday morning, Soto was batting .315 with 25 home runs and a .986 OPS.

According to the Washington Nationals Twitter account, Soto is just the second player under the age of 23 in MLB history with at least 25 home runs and 18 intentional walks in a single season.

The other player to do that?

Ted Williams in 1941.

(Yes, that means, in back-to-back seasons, Soto has either equaled or bettered a record that had stood since World War II.)

But will an MLB-best .460 on-base percentage (the next-closest player is Harper at .427) be enough for Soto to win the NL MVP?

John Bazemore/Associated Press

Alex Rodriguez (in)famously won the AL MVP in 2003 while with a Texas Rangers team that went 71-91. Mike Trout won the AL MVP in 2016 and 2019 despite the Los Angeles Angels losing 88 and 90 games, respectively. And there have been more than a dozen Cy Young winners for losing teams, perhaps most notably Felix Hernandez in 2010, when the Seattle Mariners suffered 101 losses.

There has at least been a precedent set for players to win a major individual award despite playing for a team that hadn't had a playoff pulse in months.

In most of those cases, either the player led the league in wins above replacement by a laughable margin, or there wasn't a great candidate from a postseason-bound team.

That doesn't appear to be the case for Soto.

As of Saturday morning, his 5.4 WAR on FanGraphs was merely fourth-best among National League hitters, trailing Bryce Harper (6.2), Fernando Tatis Jr. (5.8) and Trea Turner (5.6), each of whom plays for a team with a winning record.

As things currently stand, though, neither the Phillies nor the Padres would make the playoffs. And as far as Turner is concerned, no player in MLB history has ever won the MVP for a season in which he was traded.

It also bears mentioning that—excluding Soto's .490 OBP last year—no qualified player has finished a season with an OBP north of .470 since Barry Bonds' preposterous .609 mark in 2004. If he finishes with a flourish and reaches that .470 threshold, voters will surely take notice.

Because people are clearly already taking notice.

Search for "Juan Soto" on Twitter. and the top results are a cornucopia of absurdity.

There's one note from "Cespedes Family BBQ" from a little over a week ago that only Ted Williams, Barry Bonds and Joey Votto have had a higher post-All Star Break on-base percentage than Soto's. (It was .521 at the time. It's currently .530.)

Nationals beat writer Mark Zuckerman noted on Friday night that Soto is the first player to reach base at least four times in 21 games in a single season since Bonds in 2004.

ESPN's Jeff Passan noted on Wednesday that Soto's recent 55-game stretch puts him in elite company in this century.

And the list goes on.

So don't rule out Soto just yet.

Even if he has to settle for a third consecutive top-10 finish in the NL MVP vote, though, perhaps this will finally be the star hitter the Nationals sign to a long-term deal.

They lost Harper to free agency during the 2018-19 offseason, suffered the same fate with Anthony Rendon the following year and dealt Turner (and Max Scherzer) for prospects two months ago. But after failing to lock up those fan favorites, general manager Mike Rizzo could win back over a frustrated fan base by making sure Soto doesn't leave the nation's capital for at least another decade.