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Is Juan Soto a lock for National League Rookie of the Year?

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Is Juan Soto a lock for National League Rookie of the Year?

In April, it would have been unfathomable. In May, it would have been laughable. In June, it would have been improbable. In July, it started to look possible. In August, it might even have been likely. Now, it’s a complete toss-up.

Juan Soto is the worthiest National League Rookie of the Year. So is Ronald Acuña.

It’s one of the most exciting rookie races in recent memory, not simply for the otherworldly numbers each freshman sensation is putting up, but for just how good they are at such young ages. Juan Soto is a jaw-dropping 19. Acuña, by comparison, is the wizened veteran at the old age of... 20. 

The two are preternaturally talented, and their mature-beyond-their-years games have translated perfectly well to the big leagues. The question now is: which one will actually take home the hardware?

(Before we continue, I’ll note that Jack Flaherty, Brian Anderson, and Walker Buehler are all very talented young players who would at least be in the conversation in normal years).

The first step is to look at the numbers.

On the season Acuña is slashing .287/.347/.571, and his wRC+ is 144. He’s got 19 home runs and 8 stolen bases in just 68 games and his fWAR is 2.3. bWAR has him at 2.8

Soto’s slash line is currently .293/.420/.534, to go along with 15 home runs. His wRC+ is 153, and his fWAR is 2.7. His bWAR sits at 2.2.

Obviously, the numbers are terrific for both. Acuña has been up longer, but thanks to injury Soto has actually played 8 more games. Acuña has the edge in power, both in home runs and slugging percentage, plus he’s clearly the speedier player and better defender. If you’re looking for all-around game, he’s probably your man. Plus, for those who care about such things when voting on awards, the Braves are several games ahead of the Nats in the standings.

However, Soto’s performance has a couple things going for it. First of all, as impressive as it is that Acuña is taking the league by storm as a 20-year old, Soto is nearly a full year younger. It cannot be overemphasized how wild it is what Soto is doing as a teenager. He may very well be the greatest teenage batter in baseball history.

Secondly, Soto has been incredibly consistent. He’s basically been an All-Star level hitter since the day he was called up in May, whereas Acuña’s numbers, while very legitimate, are buoyed by his recent hot streak. He’s hit 8 home runs in 8 games, and of every hitter with at least 100 plate appearances since the All-Star Game, he has the highest wRC+ in that span. He’s had plenty of valleys to his peaks, though, and Soto has been a model of consistency. Of all hitters with at 200 at-bats this entire season, Soto ranks 7th over the entire season, That’s astounding.

Another point in Soto’s favor is just how historic his numbers are. Voters love a narrative, and as mentioned above, Soto is having literally the best offensive season a teenager has ever had. The highest wRC+ by a 19-year old in baseball history is Mel Ott with a 140 exactly 90 seasons ago. Soto is beating that by 13 so far.

The true separator, though, is Soto’s on-base percentage. His .420 mark is a comfortable 4th of all players with at least 300 plate appearances, behind elite batting eyes Mike Trout, Mookie Betts, and Joey Votto. And, once again, we’re talking about something historic.

Soto’s .420 on-base percentage, if it holds, will be the only OBP over .400 for a teenager with 200 plate appearances in Major League history. In fact, outside of Ott’s .397 in 1928, no other teenager has ever reached base at a .360 clip, let alone Soto’s astronomical .420.

Ultimately, I believe more in Acuña’s future, but I think Soto’s been the better player this season. Acuña is more well-rounded, but Soto’s elite batting eye has made him a top 10 hitter in baseball already. If Soto had been up on Opening Day and played at this level, he’d be on pace for a 5.5 WAR, which would top even Bryce Harper’s 2012 season.

As mentioned, though, voters love a narrative. If Acuña comes back from his injury and stays as hot as he’s been all August, it’ll be tough to ignore his performance during the Braves’ stretch run. This award is not over, but for now, Soto should be considered the favorite.

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Howie Kendrick needed the Nationals, and they needed him

Howie Kendrick needed the Nationals, and they needed him

Howie Kendrick knew he was in trouble May 19, 2018, when he was down on the warning track and could not control his ankle. His Achilles tendon tore after he moved back for a fly ball in left field. His season ended. His career could have well ended with his season.

Last offseason’s shift in free agency affected those still in their prime. The market tormented Bryce Harper and Manny Machado before forking over large sums. It treated veterans destined to be part-time players worse. Super-utility player Marwin Gonzalez didn’t sign with Minnesota until Feb. 25. He turned 30 in April and was coming off a 2.5-WAR season for a team that went to the American League Championship Series. Yet, he couldn’t find a job anywhere.

This would have been Kendrick’s plight. Perhaps it would have been more challenging. He may never have found a job via a new contract. Think of the advertisement: soon-to-be 36-year-old coming off Achilles tendon tear, with reduced positional flexibility and past hamstring problems, seeks part-time work. 

Kendrick vowed from the start he would be back, healthy, and just ride out the recovery timeline as it was dictated. The second year of his contract made the process easier. It also all but assured him of a job again with Washington. At just $4 million, even as a bench player, Kendrick’s salary was easy to accept. If he showed good health and a quick bat in spring, he would again team with Matt Adams as a potent left-right combination off the bench. The second-year saved him from graveling in the offseason.

“if that was the last year of my deal, I don’t know if I would have been in the Major Leagues this year,” Kendrick said. “Because a lot of times the way the league is now, bringing veteran guys back and being around the game, you don't see too many veteran guys around anymore. 

“Having the ability to come back to a place I really enjoy and get to be around these guys... It's been fun. We got a lot of great young guys here, guys like [Victor Robles], [Juan] Soto, [Anthony] Rendon, [Trea] Turner, those guys they keep you going every day and it's been fun. And it’s been cool to be able to see these guys grow and they've helped me out too with my game.”

Kendrick is having his best offensive season. Delivering it this year became an enormous factor in the Nationals’ survival and turnaround. Ryan Zimmerman has been to the plate 168 times in 2019. Kendrick has filled the gap with one of the most potent part-time -- rightfully not full-time -- bats in the majors.

His OPS-plus is a career-high 142. His second-best season in that category? Back in 2011, when he was 27 years old in Los Angeles. His OPS is 119 points higher than any other season, his slugging percentage 88 points higher. He’s two homers shy of tying his career-best mark despite 237 fewer plate appearances than he had in 2011.

“I'm not an everyday guy anymore and I know that and [Davey Martinez] knows and I'm not going to complain one bit about the way I’ve been used,” Kendrick said. “When I play, I play. When I don't, I’m ready to play and go in the game and I’ve kind of streamlined that process a little more, I’ve figured out, being in the National League how to prepare myself and be ready. 

“We've come up with little drills for when we pinch-hit and things like that to be as ready as we can. And then once you get in the game, whatever’s going to happen is gonna happen, and that’s what I try to look at. Keep the same mindset as hey I prepared and I’m going to go out here and try to do my job and that's' all you can ask for. I think your teammates know that, and I think your coaches know that. I think that’s the biggest part of it, and mentally you just have to know you're not always going to succeed.” 

Though this year, he has -- a lot. 

Kendrick’s career-best season exists because he didn’t have to wade through the market. The second year of his contract provided him a work haven despite his age and major injury. His work during it likely created a chance for him to sign yet another one, something which may have otherwise not happened in the first place.

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Nationals reliever Sean Doolittle still doesn’t look right

Nationals reliever Sean Doolittle still doesn’t look right

Sean Doolittle’s six September appearances have produced a 1.80 ERA. Opponents are hitting just .063 against him. Yet, something’s not right.

The eye test suggests it when outfielders drift deep toward the wall to catch fly balls. Sounds suggest it, too, when squared-up pitches come off the opponent’s bat. His ERA and batting average against, however, do not, and if they are not telling an outright lie, they are at least delivering a modest fib.

Doolittle’s time away from the team was supposed to rejuvenate his arm and brain. His velocity dipped, his ERA spiked and he couldn’t find a fix for what was happening. Doolittle was open -- as always -- with the media when saying repeatedly fatigue had become a factor in his season. Despite a truncated and altered exercise program in between appearances, he remained tired. 

Earlier in the season, when Doolittle’s fastball still had its standard zip, he did run into a temporary lull as part of the late-May debacle in Flushing. He looked for answers in the video from April and May of 2018. What he promptly saw was a more upright version of himself. Doolittle realized he was “top-heavy” because his shoulders curled and his momentum went toward first base instead of home plate. Such movement causes both the deception from and speed of his fastball to dwindle.

The toe-tap part of his delivery has lived its own life this season. Controversy and irritation were launched when Chicago manager Joe Maddon suggested the move was illegal. Doolittle mocked him during his protest, then stopped using it against the Cubs in the inning just to prove a point. He later shelved it before bringing it back in September when he returned from the injured list (right knee tendinitis).

Also part of his return was Davey Martinez’s repeated stance Doolittle needs to operate as the team’s closer for it to be at full strength. Doolittle is yet to be used in such a demanding role in September. The reason may be his underlying numbers, the ones which tell a story opposite his front-facing ones.

Doolittle’s average fastball release speed has been on the downswing since June when it peaked this season at 94.2 mph. July followed at 93.6 mph. August matched July, however, Doolittle was pummeled during the month, leading to his injured list stint and trek for answers. His average release speed is 92.76 mph since he returned -- its lowest point since last September’s 92.92 mph and the lowest since he joined the Nationals following a July 16, 2017 trade. He has spent the entire season below an average of 95 mph for the first time since 2015. He started that season on the injured list because of a shoulder injury and threw just 13 ⅔ innings -- almost all from late August to September.

Another velocity average is also of note since his September return: average exit velocity. Doolittle has allowed just a hit in five innings since coming back. But, much of the contact against him has been hard. The first batter Doolittle faced in September, Martin Prado, flew out to the warning track. In his Sept. 15 appearance, three balls in play averaged 98.9 mph. 

Another way to explain what is currently happening against Doolittle is through swings and misses. In April, when he was fresh, 16 percent of Doolittle’s pitches resulted in swings and misses. In September, 9.8 percent of Doolittle’s pitches have produced swings and misses. In April, none of his 12 appearances included an outing with zero swings and misses. It has happened three times in six September appearances.

Also pivoting is the view of Doolittle’s future in Washington. It has moved from a slam dunk to him working so much free agency was possible, to slightly clouded. The team holds a $6.5 million option on Doolittle this offseason. His early performance made the option’s outcome obvious. The end of the year has caused it to be rethought. Did the Nationals push their closer so hard he’s worn out to the point of not returning?

For now, Doolittle is focused on finding a way to get outs during the final week-plus. After that, the postseason could be next. Then, ultimately, the offseason decision-making will arrive and the organization needs to decide if an extended winter break will return their closer to who he was and they need him to be.

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