Shohei Ohtani is the best player in baseball. Mike Trout is the best pure position player in baseball. Juan Soto is the best hitter in baseball, and as much as I love Mike Trout… he’s not close. Juan Soto is doing something Trout has never done. In Juan Soto’s last 40 games, he has an OPS of 1.253 and a batting average of .386. In Mike Trout’s entire career, one of the greatest starts to a career the baseball world has ever seen, he has never accomplished such a feat. Trout has had several instances where he’s recorded an OPS greater than 1.2, but he’s never done so while maintaining a batting average during that streak of greater than .380.
This streak by Soto is ridiculous.
The Washington Nationals are not going to make the playoffs in 2021. While the team still had a small chance of reaching the postseason around the trade deadline, the team unofficially conceded the season when they traded Max Scherzer and Trea Turner to the Dodgers on July 30 — two of their biggest superstars shipped to the opposite side of the country. However, the Nationals’ organization made it abundantly clear that Soto would not be available for trade discussions, and that decision has paid off enormously and immediately. Since the end of the trade deadline, Soto is slashing .378/.555/.669 for an OPS of 1.223 with 11 home runs, 34 RBI, and an astonishing 59 walks. He’s walked more than once per game for almost two months! That’s more than just a good batter’s eye. That’s fear. That’s opposing managers having the bejesus scared out of them. That’s respect from opposing pitchers.
Since the trade deadline, here are a list of statistics that Juan Soto leads all of Major League Baseball in among hitters with at least 160 plate appearances:
BB% (28.0 percent)
Batting Average (.378)
On-Base Percentage (.555)
That’s a lot of stats, and those are all very positive. I want to take a little bit of time to look more deeply at that last one though. O-Swing% is an indication of what percentage of pitches outside the strike zone Juan Soto swings at. His mark of 14.5 percent since the start of August, is 4.6 percent lower than the next closest player on this list, Joey Gallo (19.1 percent). That’s a huge difference. I highly value plate discipline. If a hitter has a phenomenal eye, that will force pitchers to throw into that hitter’s wheelhouse. If you do swing at pitches outside the zone, you better be able to foul those off, because you’re not going to get a lot of good contact on those pitches. Soto avoids that step entirely, and that incredible discipline has undoubtedly played a huge role in how Soto has been able to accumulate 59 walks in less than two months.
A huge belief in the world of baseball is that the high fastball, in a pitcher’s count, is everyone’s kryptonite. When the hitter sees a ball high in the zone in a bad count, they naturally assume that the pitcher will throw filth at them. Why would they throw something straight when they are up in the count? The hitter assumes the pitcher missed his spot and the pitch is about to drop into the zone. However, once the hitter decides to swing, it’s too late for them to realize the pitch isn’t breaking down, and they usually don’t have the bat speed to catch up to the high heat. This leads to a lot of swings and misses. As great a player as Mike Trout is, that high fastball has been one of his only weaknesses. He’s improved on it tremendously since the start of his career, but it’s still several pitchers’ go-to strategy when facing the Angels’ slugger.
In 2021, Mike Trout whiffed at 38 percent of pitches high and tight, 26 percent of pitches up and middle, and 50 percent of pitches up and away. Most of these whiffs come from fastballs. Good pitchers don’t leave off-speed stuff up in the zone, so we can safely assume most of these whiffs are from fastballs. Those percentages are the highest of any area of the strike zone against Trout. This was also the case for Trout in 2020, 2019, 2018, and 2016. So, even after Trout supposedly “fixed his biggest weakness” back in 2015, pitchers still love to go after Trout with fastballs up in the zone. This strategy doesn’t work on Juan Soto.
While Juan Soto also struggles to make contact with pitches high in the zone, he normally just doesn’t swing at them. Mike Trout has a total of 19 whiffs on high pitches in the zone in 2021. He’s played in 36 games. Soto has whiffed at 32 such pitches in 142 games. Since the start of August, he hasn’t swung at a single fastball up in the zone. That’s a game changer. When a pitcher’s go-to technique doesn’t work, that changes everything. How are you supposed to get this guy out? He doesn’t swing at pitches outside the zone at all. He doesn’t fall for the oldest trick in the book, and when you challenge him, Soto is hitting .378 with a 90.9 percent contact rate on pitches inside the zone. There’s no getting around him.
Juan Soto’s hot stretch may not be as eye-popping as Bryce Harper’s 17 home runs or as flashy as Salvador Perez’s climb to the top of the MLB home run leaderboard. However, I’d argue that it has been more impressive. I’m not saying that Soto deserves the NL MVP Award, but maybe he should be getting more attention than he has been. The race is widely considered a two-person race between Harper and Fernando Tatis, but Soto has come on so strong at the end of the season that any major statistician should look at this stretch and marvel at just how good a hitter Juan Soto is. The guy is only 22 years old. He’s nowhere close to his physical prime, but the world better get ready, because when he is… we might not be ready for that kind of dominance.