Why is it so difficult — and so stunning within MLB — to lead in all three areas? Because it’s hard to slug balls over and off fences while making the consistent, hard contact to have the highest batting average. And because drawing walks, a key contributor to a high on-base percentage, 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 entered Friday’s games trailing Soto in hitting .351 to .338, will win the batting title. And Soto hasn’t led the NL in any of these categories in a full 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 past 161 games, going back to May 17, 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 RBI. More stunning are his on-base percentage (.435) and slugging percentage (.617). That’s the stratosphere — an 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’s OPS is 1.051.
This is a cherry-picked stat. Trout’s career OPS is .999 — No. 8 all time. 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’s career average — 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 has gotten better — at almost everything. It’s Soto’s progression — and the joy 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 is 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 such as 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 to equally distributed his 69 career homers: 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 walks — his 20.1 walk percentage is No. 1 in MLB this year — yet limits his strikeouts. His walk-to-strikeout ratio is the best in the NL this year.
What would the world do without barrel percentage? But we have 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 percent to 11.3 to 15.7 now.
How has he managed such a huge jump in barrel connection 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 has 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 has gone from a bit below average to very good.
Baseball 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 has 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 would fit the Nats in a spot of need — whether corner outfield, catcher or first base. And look how high they ranked in OPS the past three years combined: George Springer (25th), Anthony Rizzo (27th), Michael Brantley (30th), Joc Pederson (41st), Realmuto (45th) and current NL home run leader Marcell Ozuna (51st).
Few things in MLB are more fun than watching 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.
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