For all the talk of Vladimir Guerrero Jr.’s chase of the Triple Crown and Fernando Tatis Jr.’s dynamic play in San Diego, another 22-year-old has stolen the show in September.
Juan Soto and the Nationals might be occupying the cellar of the NL East at 64-89, but that has certainly not been because of Soto. In September, he leads all MLB hitters in WAR, according to Fangraphs, and with the recent success he’s surged into a tie with the Phillies’ Bryce Harper among the fWAR leaders this season in the National League at 6.5.
Coming into September, the front-runners for NL MVP had been Harper, Tatis and Dodgers first baseman Max Muncy. Only Muncy’s team will make the playoffs, and his team is stacked. As it seems increasingly likely that an MVP will come from a team that won’t reach the playoffs, Soto seems to have put his name not only in the conversation, but perhaps at the top of the list.
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It hasn’t just been a red-hot September, though that has certainly been a propellant. He’s quietly been putting together an incredible, even historic, campaign.
Soto’s month of September
It has been the final stretch of the season in 2021 when Soto has taken his game to a different level.
He has posted a .473/.608/.838 slash line. He’s hit seven home runs. He’s walked 25.5 percent of the time. He’s struck out 5.9 percent of the time. That’s a 4.33 BB/K ratio. That is absurd.
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Part of what makes Soto such a dangerous hitter is his ability to spray the ball across the field. According to Baseball Savant, this season he has pulled 29.7 percent of batted balls, sent 44.2 percent up the middle and posted a 26.1 percent opposite field rate.
Take a look at where Soto is hitting the ball in September, overlayed across Nationals Park (10 of the games were played on the road).
When he’s unable to hit it past the infield, he’s been a pull-heavy hitter. But the problem for opposing teams is that he has seemingly never been hitting it into the infield, and once he reaches the outfield, he’s spraying it across the field.
Soto isn’t just hitting it to all fields. He’s scorching the ball. His average exit velocity in September is 94.1 mph, more than a mile per hour faster than his seasonal average of 92.9. By comparison, only four players have a seasonal exit velocity higher than 94.1 — Aaron Judge (95.9), Guerrero Jr. (95.3), Giancarlo Stanton (95.1) and Tatis (94.3).
Oh, and don’t even think about throwing him a fastball. He has an average exit velocity of 99.3 mph on four-seamers in September.
Soto’s historic plate discipline
The most frequent comparison for Soto has often been Ted Williams.
It at times feels like an unfair comparison to relate a 22-year-old to one of the greatest hitters of all time. At other times, it feels impossible not to compare the two.
This season: Soto has taken 131 walks and struck out only 84 times. Few have ever posted numbers that impressive, let alone so young. Here’s the full list of batters who have finished the season with at least 130 walks and fewer than 100 strikeouts.
Those are some big names. The only two not in the Hall of Fame are Soto, who is still active, and Eddie Yost. Take it a step further, though. Who are the two youngest on that list, and the only two to accomplish the feat at age 22? That’s right: Williams and Soto.
There isn’t specific pitch-by-pitch data on Williams, but thanks to Baseball Savant we can look at how disciplined Soto has been in 2021. With a minimum of just 25 plate appearances, Soto is second behind only a pitcher with 44 plate appearances with a chase rate of 12.6 percent. Among qualifying hitters, Soto chases pitches outside the zone at a rate nearly 4 percent lower than the next closest batter.
He also won’t swing at pitches in the zone as often as a lot of sluggers. His swing rate on pitches in the strike zone is still just a modest 59.8 percent, the fourth-lowest in baseball.
Turning swings to power
Soto might have a low swing rate in the zone, but it’s for a reason: He’s waiting for his pitch.
According to Baseball Savant, Soto’s lowest swing rates on places in the strike zone are down and in, and up and away. His swing rate increases to 75 percent on pitches right down the middle, 71 percent on pitches up and in the middle, 65 percent down in the middle, 69 percent up and inside and 62 percent middle and inside.
Now look at the exit velocity on batted balls across the strike zone this year for Soto.
The first thing that stands out is how much yellow is in the strike zone. Just about every time he puts the ball in play, Soto is driving it with force. Baseball Savant has him listed in the 94th percentile or better in average exit velocity, max exit velocity and hard hit rate, and his barrel rate is at the 85th percentile.
The next thing to notice is that it’s clear pitchers keep the ball down on Soto for fear of what he will do to pitches up in the zone. He still stings the ball, but he’s not hitting it as far. According to Baseball Savant, he has only hit five home runs on pitches in the bottom three parts of the strike zone, while 20 have come from the middle three.
Soto’s case for MVP
Even with the plate discipline and his ability to drive the ball, this hasn’t even been his best season for power. Last year, he recorded a slugging percentage of .695, but this year it is just at .559, though of course last year he was in just 47 games because of the shortened season. In 2019, he hit more home runs with 34, but it came at the cost of a higher strikeout rate of 20 percent and lower on-base percentage (.401).
Instead, he’s put everything together this year. Soto is reaching base at a .470 clip and slugging at .559. The on-base percentage is the best in the majors by a landslide (Harper is next at .432) and his slugging percentage has him trailing only Harper, Tatis, Guerrero, Shohei Ohtani and Joey Votto.
Even his defense has been stellar. He has tallied six outs above average in left field, according to Baseball Savant, which has him at 18th among qualifying MLB outfielders.
Soto can’t control that his team has not performed well this season. He has done everything in his power to make sure that the Nationals are a competitive team. Just Thursday night, he hit two solo home runs as Washington beat the Reds, a team hoping to chase down St. Louis for the final wild-card spot, 3-2. When it comes time for ballots to be cast for the NL MVP, Soto deserves as much consideration as any other player in the National League.