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Juan Soto's stunning season for the Nationals was fleeting; what it foreshadows could be historic

Juan Soto of the Washington Nationals, before a game in 2018.

JOE GROMELSKI/STARS AND STRIPES

By THOMAS BOSWELL | The Washington Post | Published: September 26, 2020

Mike Trout, Hank Aaron, Albert Pujols, Alex Rodriguez, Willie Mays, Joe DiMaggio, Mookie Betts and Mickey Mantle never led their league in batting average, on-base percentage and slugging average in the same season. Babe Ruth did it once.

Right now, 21-year-old Juan Soto of the Washington Nationals leads the National League in all three categories.

Why is it so difficult, and so eye-catching within MLB, to lead in all three areas? Because it's hard to slug balls over and off fences while also making the consistent hard contact to have the highest batting average. And because drawing walks, a key contributor to a high on-base average, is yet another skill.

Winning these three titles in the same year is a hallmark of the greatest pure hitters ever. Rogers Hornsby did it seven times, Ted Williams five and Ty Cobb four.

Now that I have your attention — and you may be screaming in outrage, too — let's be clear: What Soto does in a two-month season, including whether he still leads in all three categories by Sunday evening, means little. At most he'll play in 47 games, a small data sample. Maybe Freddie Freeman, who trailed Soto in hitting, .351 to .338, entering Friday's games, will win the batting title. And Soto hasn't led the NL in any of these categories in a real season, yet.

But what Soto has done in the first three seasons of his career, and especially the rate and breadth of his improvements in many aspects of hitting, is worth serious evaluation and appreciation.

What are we watching now? And what is it foreshadowing?

In his last 161 games before Friday's, going back to May 17 of 2019, when he returned to the lineup from a back injury and got hot, Soto has hit .312 with 41 homers, 131 runs and 123 RBIs. More stunning is that his on-base percentage (.435) and slugging percentage (.617) make me dizzy. That's the stratosphere — an OPS (on-base-plus-slugging percentage) of 1.052.

How many players have a higher career OPS than 1.052?

Ruth, Ted Williams and Lou Gehrig. Barry Bonds is 1.051.

This is a cherry-picked stat. Trout's career OPS is .999 — No. 8 ever. In another five years, if Soto is still around 1.000 — this year he's at a silly 1.189, which is higher than Ruth — we'll talk.

But, on the other side of the coin, we need to be fair to Soto, too. He's only 21 and, in each of his three seasons, he's gotten better — at almost everything. It's Soto's progression, and the joy plus relish with which he's doing it, that rivets us.

In fact, his career OPS of .971, which is the lowest baseline you could pick for him right now, would be 15th all-time — right behind Mantle, DiMaggio, Stan Musial and Frank Thomas.

Soto has areas to improve. Advanced stats say his base-running is average and his fielding in left somewhat below average. The everyday eye test might rank him higher.

The best all-around players in MLB right now, the ones who show up at the top of Wins Above Replacement — including Trout, Betts, Cody Bellinger, Anthony Rendon, young phenom Fernando Tatis, Jr., Freeman, Christian Yelich, catcher J.T. Realmuto and a generation of fabulous shortstops like the Nats' Trea Turner — are either speedsters, Gold Glove candidates or both. MLB is just filthy with monster athletic talents.

But some of those defensive and base-running skills are hard to measure. Hitting isn't. Over his three seasons, Soto ranks fourth in MLB in weighted on-base average (wOBA) behind Trout, Yelich and Betts, while in weighted runs created-plus (wRC+) he's fifth, with Alex Bregman also ahead of him.

Everything about Soto as a hitter is fascinating. This week, he hit two homers into the Nationals Park bullpen in left field. So, his 69 career homers are equally distributed: 23 to left, 23 to center and 23 to right. Where do you pitch him to avoid his power?

Shifts don't work on him, at least not yet, because his batted balls go to all fields almost equally, slightly favoring his pull side. Because he chokes up with two strikes, he battles for walk — his 20.1-percent is No. 1 in MLB this year — yet limits his strikeouts. His walk-to-strikeout ratio is the best in MLB this year and third best over his career.

What would the world do without "barrel percentage?" But we've got it — the percentage of balls hit smack on the barrel, with exit velocity that's a blur — so why not use it? Each year, Soto has improved: from 10.1% to 11.3 to 15.7 now.

How has he managed such a huge jump in "barrels" this season, as well as a new high in "hard-hit percentage" (50.4), when he was already so good? I'll spare you the stats: He's chased fewer pitches outside the strike zone, been a bit more selective within the zone and, it appears, learned to smoke the only pitch that previously bothered him a little — the slider — against which he's gone from a bit below average to very good.

The league appears to have given up on throwing him many curveballs — the rate at which he sees them has dropped almost in half — in part because he picks up the spin so quickly and spits on the low ones while crushing the higher mistakes. Put all this together and he's reduced his swings and misses by 28 percent.

An elite hitter only asks for two items: a table-setter in front of him and a thumper to bat behind him. Soto just got one of his wishes in Turner (.335) who, at 27, has blossomed into a mature hitter and roughly as good an all-around star as Soto.

Next year, Soto will have an established hitter behind him, too. If he doesn't, the Nats are guilty of roster malpractice.

Look at the free agents who'd fit the Nats in a spot of need — whether corner outfield, catcher or first base. And look how high they ranked in OPS the last three years combined: George Springer (25th), Anthony Rizzo (27th), Michael Brantley (30th), potentially Nick Castellanos (33rd), Joc Pederson (41st), J.T. Realmuto (45th) and current NL home run leader Marcell Ozuna (51st).

Few things in MLB are more fun than watching Juan Soto hit. If the Nats do their offseason job, with Turner in front of him and a new bopper to protect him, that's not going to stop.
 

Juan Soto of the Washington Nationals dives back into first base on a pickoff attempt by the Dodgers in 2018.
JOE GROMELSKI/STARS AND STRIPES