Juan Soto’s 2021 campaign among greatest age-22 seasons since World War II

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Soto’s 2021 among greatest age-22 seasons since World War II originally appeared on NBC Sports Washington

Juan Soto is an NL MVP finalist, and he barely lifted his bat to do it.

The Nationals’ outfielder heard his name called Monday night as one of the three final men left standing in contention for one of baseball’s most prestigious awards. Named alongside Bryce Harper and Fernando Tatís Jr., Soto will place among the top three in MVP voting for the first time in his career.

Even though his path to winning the award is a difficult one, Soto put together a historic season that stands out among players his age. The recently turned 23-year-old is often compared to Hall of Famer Ted Williams, whose rare blend of power and plate discipline helped him go down as one of the greatest hitters of all time. Williams wrapped up his age-22 season in 1941, two years before he put his MLB career on hold to serve in World War II.

Ever since, there have been few — if any — young hitters that have matched Williams’s production. For starters, here are the highest OPS totals by a player with at least 500 plate appearances in his age-22 season since WWII:

  1. Bryce Harper, 2015 (1.109)

  2. Eddie Mathews, 1954 (1.026)

  3. Boog Powell, 1964 (1.005)

  4. Vladimir Guerrero Jr., 2021 (1.002)

  5. Juan Soto, 2021 (.999)

  6. Fernando Tatís Jr., 2021 (.975)

The 2021 season was a remarkable one for 22-year-olds. Not only did Soto accrue the most walks (145) and the highest on-base percentage (.465) by any player in his age-22 season since WWII, Guerrero did so for home runs (48) and Tatís placed second in slugging percentage (.611) behind only Harper.

What stands out the most about Soto’s season is how he did it: not swinging his bat. Soto swung at just 35% of the pitches he saw this year. That was the lowest rate in the majors this season, but it was also the lowest among 22-year-olds since FanGraphs started tracking plate discipline data in 2002. Despite selling at the trade deadline, the Nationals weren’t a low-scoring team and they had reliable protection behind him in first baseman Josh Bell. Soto just didn’t need to swing to be valuable.

Advanced analytics reward Soto for his approach. His .420 weighted on-base average (wOBA) is tied with Mickey Mantle for the fifth-highest by a 22-year-old since WWII. Over that same span, Soto’s weighted runs created plus (wRC+) of 163 ranks sixth. His 6.6 fWAR is 16th while Baseball-Reference’s figure of 7.0 puts him 14th.

The fact that Soto drew a walk on 22.2% of his plate appearances — yes, another post-WWII record for 22-year-olds — did leave fewer opportunities to stuff the stat sheet in other ways. His 29 home runs put him in an eight-way tie for 25th in that group. He’s also tied for 30th in RBIs (95), 87th in hits (157) and 171st in doubles (20).

But it’s Soto’s approach that puts in him in such rare company. Playing in an era where strikeouts are at an all-time high, Soto has managed to keep his swing-and-miss totals to a respectable level. He joins Mathews as the only two 22-year-olds since Williams to record 100 or more walks without breaking 100 strikeouts. This is plate discipline that simply isn’t seen among players this young.

Soto may not win MVP this year, but he’s on track for a well-decorated trophy case by the time he wraps up his career. Players such as Williams, Mantle, Ty Cobb and Barry Bonds are heralded for having some of the most disciplined plate approaches ever seen. The way he’s playing, it’s only a matter of time before Soto joins them.