Juan Soto’s surprising debut season was one of the primary storylines, and few bright spots, for the Nationals in 2018. In fact, his historic rookie year was one of the biggest storylines in all of baseball.
We’ve addressed his incredible accomplishments before, but they're worth revisiting. As a reminder, Soto led Major League Baseball in opposite field home runs by a left-handed hitter this season, in addition to falling just two home runs shy of Tony Conigliaro’s teenage record of 24. He achieved both marks despite missing six weeks of the season while he was still in the minors.
Soto became the first teenage hitter to ever have an on-base percentage over .400, the only teenage hitter to ever walk 60 times in a season (he did so 79 times), and his wRC+ of 146 is the highest a teenager has ever had.
What’s even more impressive is that for many of the records Soto broke, the hitter he surpassed was Mel Ott, who had already played 117 games in the big leagues prior to his age-19 season. Soto barely played that many games as a professional, let alone at the highest level the game has to offer.
The question, then, is what does all this mean for the rest of his career? Is a historic rookie season a sign of certain future success? And what would be a reasonable expectation for the young slugger?
Frankly, it’s hard to say with any degree of certainty.
The most obvious first step in trying to project the rest of Soto’s career is to look at the other teenage hitters who broke out in a big way. Of course, most of the players listed played in entirely different eras, or were completely different types of hitters, or both. Still, the list of names is interesting.
wRC+ is a stat we’ve referenced before, but for those who don’t know, it’s an all-encompassing metric for a hitter’s value at the plate. A 100 is league average, and every number above 100 is a percentage better than average. So, Juan Soto’s 146 means he was 46% better than an average Major League hitter in 2018.
By wRC+, the best teenage hitters in baseball history before 2018 include Ott, Tony Conigliaro, Ty Cobb, Bryce Harper, Sherry Magee, Johnny Lush, Mickey Mantle, Cesar Cedeno, and Edgar Renteria.
That’s obviously an up-and-down group. Ott, Cobb and Mantle are inner-circle Hall of Famers. Harper is on their level from a talent perspective. Lush and Conigliaro had entirely forgettable careers.
Magee, Renteria, and Cedeno each had extremely valuable careers, providing 30-50 Wins Above Replacement each. That means that of the nine players behind Soto in teenage wRC+, one third were among the greatest players of all-time, one third were classic “Hall of Very Good” players, and one third were either disappointments or are still early in their careers.
Those numbers bode extremely well for Soto’s future. Obviously far less than 33% of baseball players make the Hall of Fame, so being in this elite class of young hitters is very exciting. By the time all is said and done, it seems likely that 7 of the 9 will have accumulated at least 30 WAR, and 6 of the 9 will be above 50. That’s insanely good.
Another interesting note is that simply by playing as a teenager, Soto’s odds of a historic career are pretty high. In the entire history of baseball, among all players who had 100 plate appearances before turning 20 years old, a whopping 24% of them ended up in the Hall of Fame. That’s completely ignoring how successful or not they were with those plate appearances. Soto had 494 plate appearances in 2018, well over the threshold of 100.
Looking at it historically, and comparing Soto to other players, the odds appear pretty good that Soto will be a high-impact player for more than a decade.
With many of those guys, the tools and talent meant that improvement could be expected. With Soto, what makes him so impressive, is that he already looks close to a finished product. He’ll probably end up accumulating some ridiculous counting stats, thanks to his early start, but expecting a leap in production as he enters his twenties would probably be foolhardy. He’ll improve as he gains experience, sure, but not by leaps and bounds.
I know it seems crazy on the surface to say “this teenage prodigy won’t get that much better,” but odds are his peak seasons won’t look too different from his 2018.
Soto will eventually have to deal with sophomore slumps, pitchers adjusting to his tendencies, the burden of expectations, and the obstacle of staying consistent 600 times a year at the most difficult skills in sports. Ultimately, though, given the history of prodigious young talents at the plate, it’s hard to imagine a scenario in which he isn’t a major contributor in the lineup.
He’s now set a baseline of something in the neighborhood of a .300/.400/.500 slash line, to go along with a 25 homer pace. The keen batting eye isn’t going away anytime soon, and based on his scouting profile and body type the power likely won’t fluctuate too much. His specific skill set will always provide a high floor and consistency. He may never win an MVP, but he could easily end up playing in a dozen All-Star Games.
This is who he is, and he’s (probably) here to stay. If it plays out like the numbers say it will, which would jive with what talent evaluators have long projected and what fans experienced all summer long, then by the time his career is over, he may be the next D.C. baseball player to have a statue built of himself. You never want to project a young prospect to make the Hall of Fame one day, but right now, nothing seems impossible for Juan Soto.
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