Juan Soto turned 23 on October 25, 2021. Although he finished second to Bryce Harper for the National League 2021 Most Valuable Player award*, he set or extended a number of statistical marks during a trying season for the Washington Nationals. In November, for the second year in a row, fans helped vote him onto the annual All-MLB team.
Soto continued to make the case, as MLB.com’s Mike Petriello argued last year, that he is steadily becoming the next Ted Williams. Why?
- His runaway leadership this season in on-base percentage — .465, 36 points better than no. 2 Harper. He’s the only player aside from Williams to lead the league twice in that category before age 23. Soto reached base more than half his times up after the all-star break (.525)
- His WAR for position players (by Baseball Reference) – 7.1, well ahead of no. 2 Fernando Tatis at 6.5.
- His batting average with runners in scoring position – .396, tops in the N.L.
- His league-leading 145 base on balls, 45 more than runner-up Harper, and the most since juicer Barry Bonds set the all-time record in 2004.
- Soto was the only regular player in both leagues who walked more than he struck out (145 vs. 93)
- He was the only player in the majors to reach base more than 300 times (304). Vladimir Guerrero Jr. was a distant record at 280.
If a pitcher dared throw Soto a strike, he was ready. Despite being pitched around and intentionally walked a league-leading 23 times (eight more than Freddie Freeman and nine more than Harper), Soto didn’t let many balls in the strike zone go by. His remarkable plate discipline resulted in a eye-opening statistic: According to MLB Advanced Media’s David Adler, he swung at just 5.1% of the 800 or so pitches he saw that were a width of a baseball or more out of the strike zone.
And the contact Soto made was hard. His 93.0 mph average exit velocity on balls he hit was tied for second best in the N.L., behind Tatis at 93.9.
Adler also determined that Soto did not swing at a single high fast ball that was out of the strike zone all season. Not once.
Of pitches actually in the strike zone, he made the correct decision and swung a league-leading 74.9 percent of the time. Keep in mind this stat includes 3-0 counts, still automatic takes in many situations.
“Whenever they want to play, I play,” Soto said in August. “When they don’t want to play, I just take my walk.” As a result, Soto came around to score 111 runs, second only to Freeman’s 120 in the N.L.
Of course, Soto knocked himself in 29 times with homers, which, like a spray chart of batted balls, were hit to all fields. Clearly, he would have hit more if he had seen more strikes. Yet, despite opponents having no good reason to give him pitches to hit after the Nats’ roster was dismantled at the trade deadline, Soto hit .348 with 18 of his home runs after the All-Star break.
Soto finished 2021 with 52 games in his career in which he reached base four or more times, second only to Ted Williams (54) before age 23. Soto did it 26 times in 2021. Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig and Bonds are the only others who have done that in a season.
A mini-slump in the last week kept Soto from achieving his goal of an OPS (on-base plus slugging) over 1.000, finishing at .999, second to Harper. Deeper into sabermetrics, Soto led the league in adjusted batting runs, adjusted batting wins, base-out runs added and base-out wins added, topping Harper by those four measures. He finished just behind Harper in the N.L. in runs created, adjusted OPS, weighted runs created plus and offensive wins percentage. (BaseballReference.com and FanGraphs.com explain how all those sabermetric categories and others are calculated.)
Harper, who certainly had an outstanding 2021, received 17 first-place votes for the MVP award to finish with a weighted total of 348. Soto finished second with seven first-place votes and 11 seconds for 274. Tatis, the third finalist, got two first-place votes. The other first-place votes went to Trea Turner, Soto’s teammates for the first four months of 2021, and Brandon Crawford.
So a strong argument can be made that Soto deserved the MVP nod as much as Harper. Both the Nationals right fielder of the past and the team’s current right-fielder were deserving and likely will compete again. But in terms of overall knowledge of the strike zone and the ability to barrel up pitches that are strikes, Soto, among an outstanding crop of young stars, clearly was beyond comparison.
* MASN’s Mark Zuckerman, who has covered the Nationals from Day One, was not one of the MVP voters for 2021 representing the Baseball Writers Association of America’s D.C. chapter. (The Washington Post does not let its staffers vote.) Instead, veteran commentators Tim Kurkjian and Ken Rosenthal, neither of whom regularly covers the team, cast the Washington ballots, and both picked Soto third. Worse, a writer from San Francisco picked Soto sixth (and Harper fifth)! Writers from USA Today and St. Louis thought Soto was no better than the fifth best in the N.L. Harper, on the other hand, got both first-place votes from the Philadelphia chapter writers who actually cover the Phillies. Soto earned the first place nod from both New York and both Los Angeles voters.)
A version of this appeared in Here’s The Pitch, the daily post of the Internet Baseball Writers Association, in December 2021.