We, the baseball-watching public, have been blessed to witness two exceptional rookie outfielders in the National League East this year: Atlanta’s Ronald Acuña and Washington’s Juan Soto.
The 19-year-old Soto homered in his first at-bat in his first start, and has merely toyed with National League pitching ever since. The 20-year-old Acuña, along with second baseman Ozzie Albies, is the face of a Braves club that is startlingly young for how good it is. After signing with Atlanta out of Venezuela in 2014, Acuña made his American pro debut in rookie ball in 2015 at 17, and spent the next three years shredding older competition and climbing all the way to Triple-A in 2017 before finally breaking in with the Braves in April 2018. This past offseason, Acuña was the consensus top prospect in baseball (non-Shohei Ohtani division), and when Atlanta finally gave him the chance, he rewarded their faith by hitting .288/.348/.576 with 19 home runs and eight stolen bases.
Right now, Soto and Acuña are first and second among rookies in OPS+ (minimum 200 PA), no easy feat in an exceptional rookie class—the NL rookie leader in bWAR is Cardinals outfielder Harrison Bader. But Bader is four years older than Acuña and his value is based mostly in fluky-looking advanced defensive numbers; in short, he doesn’t have the superstar upside of Soto or Acuña.
And if anything, “superstar upside” is underselling how good Soto and Acuña are. In admittedly limited action, Soto has a career OPS+ of 151 and Acuña has a career OPS+ of 147. Both of those marks are higher than the career OPS+ of Bryce Harper, Kris Bryant, Giancarlo Stanton, or Paul Goldschmidt. The last NL MVP with a higher career OPS+ than Soto or Acuña is Joey Votto (156) who won the award way back in 2010, around the time Soto turned 12.
It would not surprise me if both Acuña and Soto won MVP awards themselves, provided civil society holds up long enough for them to get the chance. But just for fun, and because I need a shot at redemption after picking Michael Conforto over Aaron Judge in a similar column last May, let’s try to predict who will have the better career: Soto or Acuña.
The Case for Acuña
Acuña was recently in the news for taking a José Ureña fastball off the elbow to open Wednesday night’s game against the Marlins. This pitch, Ureña’s first of the night, was as clear a purpose pitch as you’ll see, delivered after Acuña had homered in each of his previous five games.
Ureña hit Acuña, either in an effort to intimidate him, or out of frustration that nobody could get the Braves’ hottest rookie out, or in objection to Acuña admiring one of his two home runs the night before. (Not that it ought to matter—I’m not Mr. If You Don’t Love Bat Flips You’re the Devil, but homering in seven out of eight games pretty much makes you King Shit of Fuck Mountain. Do that and you can celebrate however you want, short of literally breaking the law.)
In his past nine starts, counting the one-pitch outing on Wednesday, Acuña has hit .471/.526/1.235 with 10 extra-base hits and 13 runs scored against just 18 outs. But even though Acuña’s power is obviously real, his bat isn’t his only attribute. Regardless of whether Acuña or Soto ends up being the better player, I’m all but certain Acuña will be more fun to watch.
Acuña’s athleticism is not the Watching a Dodge Challenger Chase Down a Bird athleticism of Mike Trout—he’s more explosive and springy, like a bigger Byron Buxton. You can even see it in his home run trot, in which he looks like he’s got pogo sticks taped to his ankles as he ambles around the bases. Soto is a left fielder now and will probably stay there throughout his career, while Acuña is only playing left field because Atlanta also employs Ender Inciarte, one of baseball’s premier defensive center fielders. On most other teams, Acuña would be playing up the middle. That defensive ability, along with the potential to steal 20 or 30 bases a year if empowered, gives Acuña a tangible edge over Soto.
And it’s not like the bat is anything to scoff at. Acuña’s swing is one of my favorites to watch in all of baseball. His hands and hips are so quick and his arms so loose and relaxed; he’s reminiscent of Bryce Harper.
Acuña is currently slugging .576 in 290 plate appearances. In the expansion era, only seven rookies have posted a higher slugging percentage in more plate appearances. When Fred Lynn became the first player to win Rookie of the Year and MVP in the same season in 1975, he also slugged .566. In his rookie season, Josh Hamilton hit .292/.368/.554 in 337 plate appearances, and though Hamilton’s path to big league stardom was nothing like Acuña’s, that’s the kind of player I’d expect Acuña to become: an MVP-caliber bat-first center fielder.
He’s pretty close already. Acuña is hitting .288/.348/.576. From 2011 to 2015, Andrew McCutchen hit .302/.396/.509. He also made five All-Star teams, won an MVP award, and finished in the top three twice more in that time. It’s not that hard to see Acuña improving his on-base skills, if not to McCutchen’s level, then at least to a point where his added power makes up for the difference.
According to Baseball Reference, Acuña has been worth 1.9 wins above average in his rookie season. Since 1901, 14 rookies Acuña’s age or younger have been worth 1.9 WAA. Of those, five (Acuña, Carlos Correa, Mike Trout, Bryce Harper, and Jason Heyward) are active, and seven of the other nine are in the Hall of Fame. You can pick holes in Acuña’s game—he doesn’t walk as much as you’d like from a power hitter, and we’ll see what happens to his speed as he fills out as he ages—but this is a Hall of Famer starter kit. It’d take a special kind of player to beat that.
The Case for Soto
Back in 2010, I was convinced that Jason Heyward was going to be a Hall of Famer because he posted a .393 OBP at 20. Top draft picks and top prospects come and go, but players who can not only break into the majors at such a young age but perform immediately are extremely rare. Trout, who is probably the best baseball player ever, hit .220/.281/.390 in 135 plate appearances as a 19-year-old before returning to the big leagues the next year and immediately turning into the Trout we know today.
At the time, I was fond of a specific Baseball-Reference Play Index search: The top OBPs by qualified hitters age 20 or younger from 1901 to 2010. Here’s the top 10 such seasons:
Top OBP Seasons by Hitters 20 or Younger 1901 to 2010
Outside of Heyward, these aren’t just future All-Stars—these are inner-circle Hall of Famers, the type of player you use as shorthand for the best ever. The next 10 on the list include four more Hall of Famers: Arky Vaughan, Rogers Hornsby, Ken Griffey Jr., and Bobby Doerr. More Hall of Famers, or future Hall of Famers, followed: Willie Mays is 21st, Adrián Beltré is 24th, and Orlando Cepeda is 31st.
Now, in the eight seasons since Heyward debuted, Trout, Correa, Harper, Corey Seager, and Francisco Lindor sort of broke the curve for great offensive seasons by 20-year-olds, while Heyward has fallen short of expectations. (Though he’s been worth more than 35 wins through age 28, which is still a really good career.) But Heyward’s career is an exception to the rule: Good players don’t avoid outs at this rate at that age—great players do.
Soto has a .420 OBP in 318 plate appearances at age 19. He won’t make the list above because he won’t qualify for the batting title this year, but he is the first 19-year-old ever to post a .420 OBP in this many plate appearances. No 19-year-old has ever posted even a .400 OBP in 300 plate appearances. Ott—one of 20 position players in MLB history with 100 bWAR or more—had a .397 OBP at 19 in 1928, which is the only other season in which a teenager posted even a .360 OBP in 300 PA. But Ott had played in 117 MLB games combined in his age-17 and age-18 seasons. Heading into Thursday’s action, Soto has played 198 games, total, across all levels of American professional baseball.
Soto is walking in 17.3 percent of his plate appearances, which, if he had enough plate appearances to qualify, would leave him tied for fourth in the league with Carlos Santana, behind Trout, Votto, and Harper. Soto, unsurprisingly, is not only the first teenager ever to post a 17 percent walk rate in 300 or more PA. No other teenager has ever even posted a 12 percent walk rate, and Soto is the fifth teenager ever (and first teenager in 55 years) to have even a double-digit walk rate.
Even though Soto could be a productive player even if all he did was walk (Santana, with his career .364 OBP, is about a 25-bWAR player through his nine-year career), he’s doing much more than that. Soto famously homered on the first pitch he saw in his first MLB start and has added 14 more dingers to his total since.
The most obviously impressive thing about him is his strength, not just the strength to make hard contact (he also has 17 doubles and a triple) and hit tape-measure home runs, but the strength to muscle balls out to the opposite field. That’s evident in his .244 isolated power, which narrowly edges out Tony Conigliaro’s 1964 mark of .240 for the best ISO ever for a teenager. Soto is also hitting for this kind of power without striking out—55 walks against 59 strikeouts, the best ratio for a teenager since Rusty Staub in 1963, which was also the last time a teenager posted a double-digit walk rate.
Earlier this week, USA Today’s Ted Berg took a shot at a similar question, comparing Soto not only to Acuña but to Vladimir Guerrero Jr., and he speculated that most fans would prefer Vladito or Acuña to Soto because of their flashier skills and prospect reputations. Indeed, Soto topped out as no. 22 on the Baseball Prospectus top-100 prospect list, and while we saw Guerrero and Acuña in full-season minor league ball for more than a year (where Vladito sadly remains), Soto didn’t spend much time in front of the public before arriving in Washington. Moreover, while Acuña’s bounciness and Guerrero’s power jump off the field, Soto’s plate discipline is a more subtle skill that only really stands out when you look at the numbers, which didn’t really exist in useful quantities for Soto until the past month or two.
But now that they do, we know this: Soto has better plate discipline than any major leaguer ever at his age, and it’s not even remotely close. Maybe this is a fluke—though it’s unlikely as plate discipline numbers stabilize faster than any other batting stats—but Soto could regress a lot and he’s still have better plate discipline than any hitter his age in baseball history. That discipline combined with his impressive power could make Soto into the best offensive player in baseball one day.
Acuña is a rare talent with good early statistical indicators for making the Hall of Fame, and he’s a joy to watch. If that Josh Hamilton comp turns out to be close to right, that’s great—Hamilton, despite having his career cut short at the beginning by addiction and at the end by injuries, was a five-time All-Star who won an MVP and played in two World Series. Whatever numbers Acuña puts up, he will probably sell more jerseys in his career than Soto, too.
But I genuinely don’t know what Soto’s career is going to look like, because there is simply no precedent for a player his age being this good in this particular and important way. Ott was another stocky power-hitting corner outfielder who walked a lot, and the closest statistical comparison, but he retired 71 years ago, the same year Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier. Can you even use Ott as a comparable when the game he played is completely different from the one Soto plays now? Can Soto become a smaller, faster Albert Pujols? Soto isn’t the defender or base runner Trout is, but he presents a similar problem from a standpoint of statistical projection: How do you predict the progress of a player who’s so good and so young? Particularly when plate discipline and power are typically tools that improve with time: Is Soto going to walk 25 percent of the time and hit 50 home runs a year in his prime? Who knows?
As good as Acuña is, I’ve seen players like him before. I know what his skill set tends to turn into. I can’t say the same for Soto. So given the choice between the two, I’d choose Soto, and ride with him into the Undiscovered Country.