- CLUTCH Summary: Juan Soto and Ronald Acuna Jr. continue to amaze in their second year in the Big Leagues.
- The Nationals and Braves talents are making increased history after an already unprecedented 2018 campaign.
- For both, the sky remains the limit, and MLB fans are watching history in the making each time either plays.
In 2018, MLB fans saw something truly unprecedented. Before our very eyes, a teenager and a 20-year-old were asserting themselves as superstars, and it seemed like we hardly batted an eyelash.
Young phenoms are nothing new to baseball, this generation has known as much with the debuts and subsequent hype surrounding guys like Bryce Harper and Mike Trout.
But what Juan Soto and Ronald Acuna Jr. continue to do in their second year is truly astounding. Aside from being two of the youngest players in the league and National League East rivals with the Nationals and Braves, respectively, Soto and Acuna share something else in common: they are historically good.
It is quite possible that the league has never seen two guys that are still so young performing at a consistently high level at the very same time. So, we have to break it all down:
No Harper? No problem!
Most Nationals fans surely dreaded the anticipation that came with this past winter. For the first time in his professional career, Bryce Harper would be a free agent, and he was almost certainly on the precipice of a record-breaking contract.
Meanwhile, Washington took another step backwards. After winning the NL East in 2017, the Nats lost in the NLDS for the third time since Harper’s rookie season, and the third time in four seasons. In 2018, they stumbled to an 82-80 record and missed the playoffs. All indications pointed to Harper leaving town.
While all of this was happening, however, a glint of hope emerged in the form of Dominican youngster Juan Soto, who made his MLB debut at the age of 19 and finished second in NL Rookie of the Year Award voting. Soto slashed .292/.406/.517 with 22 homers and a 146 wRC+ in just 116 games, quickly cementing himself as a star in the next wave of big-league talent.
Harper did indeed depart from the D.C. area this past winter, but the Nationals have rebounded from a poor start to surge into playoff position, and Soto is a huge reason for their success.
On the surface, Soto’s 2019 has been slightly less remarkable than his rookie season, with pretty similar sample sizes at this point in the year. However, that would be a pretty antiquated of what he has accomplished.
Soto immediately recovered from an April where he hit just .248, posting a 1.127 OPS in May and a .904 OPS in July. His isolated power (ISO) is actually higher in 2019, and his ground ball rate is down 10 percent from last season. As a result, Soto has a higher average exit velocity, and his line drive and barrel percentages are also up, according to MLB Statcast.
Then there is this little tidbit, first discussed in Joe Sheehan’s Baseball Newsletter and then updated in a piece by Eno Sarris of The Athletic: Soto ranks seventh all-time in wRC+ for all 20-and-under players in history (minimum of 500 plate appearances).
Although he is still a below-average defender, Soto has made marked improvements in terms of positioning in 2019. In fact, most metrics would rate him as an average to above-average defender based solely on positioning and range factor.
Soto has posted two Defensive Runs Saved this season, compared to -5 last year, and is +7 in terms of Fielding Bible runs saved, according to FanGraphs. Needless to say, he has made significant strides over the last calendar year.
For years, Nationals fans grew up with Harper. He was the first real superstar the organization had known since the Expos first moved to D.C. in 2005. However, Washington has found yet another young star who is arguably already more prolific than Harper (even if Soto was brutally snubbed from making the NL All-Star team). Oh, have I mentioned that the kid is still not of legal drinking age in the United States?
Alas, Soto is a tremendous player, and his production has been awesome to watch.
More than just the Rookie of the Year
When Soto finished second in the 2018 Rookie of the Year voting, he was the runner-up to Ronald Acuna, who is not even a full year older and yet just as exciting.
Acuna made his debut with the Atlanta Braves about one month before Soto hit the scene, but would actually play in fewer games due to injuries. Nevertheless, he showcased the kind of talent that made him a five-tool prospect in Atlanta’s system, slashing .293/.366/.552 and stealing 16 bases.
The Venezuelan outfielder earned 27 of 30 first-place votes to capture Rookie of the Year honors, and he was a critical piece in a season that saw the Braves reclaim their former glory at the top of the NL East standings. Since then, the enigmatic Acuna has only elevated his superstar status.
Much like Soto, most of the numbers do not tell the story of Acuna’s season. Acuna is also registering a higher percentage in barrels and line drives, and he ranks in the top seven percent of the league in both xSLG and xwOBA, according to MLB Statcast. Acuna is also spreading the ball all over the yard, and he absolutely destroys off-speed pitches.
Similarly, Ronald Acuna has made defensive strides of his own. He is +7 in terms of DRS, and is running an 0.9 Ultimate Zone Rating after posting a -3.4 rating in that same metric last season.
In more innings in the outfield, Acuna has a higher fielding percentage and more assists, and he has adjusted well to playing centerfield after mostly being stationed in left in 2018.
The most notable change for Acuna has been his aggression on the bases. Acuna leads the National League with 26 stolen bases and 93 runs, completely decimating opposing defenses by being a menace on the base paths.
Of course, this leads me to the history-making angle, which is this: Acuna has a real shot at joining the 40-40 club. As of now, Acuna is on pace for close to 37 stolen bases and 41 homers, but should he stay healthy, he may look to pursue this milestone.
Should Ronald Acuna reach the 40-40 plateau, he would be the youngest player in MLB history to accomplish the feat. In fact, he would be a full year younger than Alex Rodriguez when he posted a 40-40 season (1998), and ten years younger than Barry Bonds (1996).
Need more evidence that Acuna is one of the best all-around players in the game? According to Baseball-Reference, he ranks sixth in baseball in terms of Win Probability Added (WPA).
The Braves made waves when they announced that they were signing Acuna to an eight-year, $100 million extension. Many executives around the league even criticized the move. Yet, given his steady production and ascension as an All-Star, Acuna is proving to be an absolute bargain.
Show the young guys some love!
While players like Aaron Judge, Harper and Manny Machado have consistently been propped up as some of the most “marketable” superstars in baseball, both Juan Soto and Ronald Acuna are demanding the attention of teams and fans around the league.
They may not necessarily be at the top of the NL MVP race, but the two youngsters are producing at a historic level, and it is time to take notice.