While we wait, let’s debate. This week, we’ve entertained arguments about the greatest pitchers and the greatest catchers of the era. Today, let’s look toward the future.
At the tail end of the 2010s, Ronald Acuña Jr. and Juan Soto each made an instant impression on MLB — Acuña as a key contributor on back-to-back National League East-winning Braves teams, and Soto as a lineup linchpin on the Nationals’ first-ever World Series championship squad.
While there are other great young talents all across baseball, the fact that Acuña and Soto debuted within a month of each other in 2018, play in the same division and have both wreaked havoc on the league already (last year, they became the first pair of players younger than 22 to qualify for the batting title with OPS+ marks of at least 120 since Ken Griffey Jr. and Juan Gonzalez in 1991) makes it natural to compare them.
So which of these young studs would you rather have on your club for the next decade?
Let’s discuss …
RONALD ACUÑA JR.
Age: 22 years, 99 days
Honors: 2018 NL Rookie of the Year, '19 NL Silver Slugger, '19 NL All-Star, 12th in '18 NL MVP voting, 5th in '19 NL MVP voting
Data, to date: .285/.365/.532 slash, 67 homers, 48 doubles, 165 RBIs, 53 stolen bases, 311 strikeouts, 121 walks, 130 OPS+, 133 wRC+, 9.9 Baseball-Reference WAR, 9.3 FanGraphs WAR
The case for: Acuña came just three stolen bases shy of becoming the fifth player in history to have a 40-homer, 40-steal season.
In his age-21 season.
If that’s a baseline upon which this kid is going to build, then of course you want to buy in. From the time he arrived to the bigs in April 2018, Acuña has been an igniter. The decision to move him to the top of the lineup in ’18 and again midway through ’19 (after he had opened the year as the cleanup man) sparked the Braves' offense. And there is nothing fluky about the way he has gotten to his numbers so far. As a matter of fact, per Statcast, Acuña’s '19 slugging percentage (.518) was 54 points below his xSLG, based on his quality of contact. So there is arguably more in that big bat of his than even his stellar 2019 stats would indicate. His homers traveled an average of 418 feet last year. The only players with at least 20 homers and a longer average were Joey Gallo and Mike Trout (419 feet apiece).
Acuña, though, is not just potent at the plate. This is a player who can significantly impact the game in many ways. You see it in the swipes (Acuña ranked fourth in the Majors in steals last year) and in the sprint speed (Acuña’s seasonal average of 29.4 feet per second ranked 12th among those with at least 100 competitive runs last year). And you see it in the cannon he brings with him to the outfield, where he can do things like this:
There is a reason Acuña is actually the favorite among some oddsmakers to win the 2020 NL MVP. He’s already electric, and he’s only scratched the surface of his potential.
The case against: Acuña exceeded the league average strikeout rate in each of his first two seasons. He’s struck out in 25.9% of his plate appearances overall. That hasn’t prevented him from logging an above-average walk rate (10.1% overall), but it is something to keep in mind in this conversation.
Acuña’s hustle has been a point of contention multiple times in his young career. He was benched in the middle of a game against the Dodgers last August for breaking into a home run trot on a deep fly ball that wound up hitting off the wall. He was then guilty of the same misjudgment in Game 1 of the NL Division Series against the Cardinals. Acuña is young, and we have every reason to believe he’ll mature over time. But again, these points are at least worth considering in a debate like this.
Defensively, Acuña went from plus-4 in outfield Outs Above Average in 2018 to minus-1 last year, while Soto went in the opposite direction – from minus-6 to plus-6. A full-time move to right field this season could improve Acuña’s showing, but, again, something to consider.
Age: 21 years, 153 days
Honors: Runner-up for 2018 NL Rookie of the Year, ninth in '19 NL MVP voting, '19 World Series champ
Data, to date: .287/.403/.535 slash, 56 homers, 57 doubles, 180 RBIs, 17 stolen bases, 231 strikeouts, 187 walks, 140 OPS+, 143 wRC+, 7.4 bWAR, 8.5 fWAR
The case for: Soto shined in the spotlight of a World Series run. Though he didn’t even turn 21 until midway through the Fall Classic, he came through in big moment after big moment — from his two-out, two-run single off Josh Hader in the eighth inning of the Wild Card Game to his go-ahead homer off Justin Verlander in Game 6 of the Series — because of his superb ability to find and capitalize upon his pitch.
Though he won’t be vying for a 40-40 season anytime soon, Soto has Acuña beat in important rate stats like OPS+ and wRC+, which adjust the numbers for league and ballpark context. The only players in Major League history with at least a 140 OPS+ in at least 1,000 plate appearances through their age-20 season are Hall of Famers Ty Cobb (145), Mel Ott (144) and Mickey Mantle (144).
The reason we can expect Soto to continue to fare so well is his selectivity. Per FanGraphs, over the course of 2018-19, only 10 qualified hitters swung at pitches outside the strike zone less frequently than Soto. That’s what allowed Soto to post the ninth-best walk-to-strikeout ratio (0.81) in baseball and to be one of only five players with an OBP of .400 or better in that span (Mike Trout, Christian Yelich, Mookie Betts and Alex Bregman are the others). It’s too early to be making any Ted Williams comps, but Soto’s discernment is at a level we don’t ordinarily see from such a young hitter. This could make him more reliable than Acuña, whose swinging strike rate was 3.2% higher over 2018-19, in the long run.
As noted above, Soto made significant strides in his defensive metrics last season. He was in the 90th percentile in Outs Above Average and in the 76th percentile in outfield jumps. So he’s no bat-only player. And what he’s brought with the bat puts him in historic company, with the arrow very much pointed upward.
The case against: The key difference between these two players is speed. Not that Soto is a truck (he was in the 60th percentile in sprint speed last season), but he can’t match Acuña’s dynamic speed-power combo that is a really rare thing in a game that has largely gone away from the stolen base.
When players are at this stage of their career, it’s impossible to know what trends will stick. So while Soto did cut his ground balls down to a league-average rate (41.6%) in 2019, it’s worth noting that more than half of his balls in play in 2018 were on the ground. For the sake of comparison, Soto’s overall groundball rate in 2018-19 was 46.8%, while Acuña’s was 39.8%. Soto has also been more susceptible to breaking pitches than Acuña. Last season, Soto had a .217 average and .398 slugging percentage against such pitches, whereas Acuña had a .302 average and .563 slugging percentage.
Finally, while Soto did have the better defensive metrics in 2019 specifically, Acuña’s speed and arm are assets that could potentially give him the higher defensive ceiling in the future.
Soto or Acuña. If you could only choose one to build your team around, who would you want?
Which of these young stud outfielders would you rather have on your team for the next decade?🤔
I know how @Braves and @Nationals would vote, but what say [email protected]
— Anthony Castrovince (@castrovince) March 26, 2020