More Like Juan Solo
11:57 AM EDT on September 5, 2021
The Washington Nationals initiated their big roster teardown on July 29, when they shipped out Max Scherzer, Trea Turner, Kyle Schwarber, Daniel Hudson, Yan Gomes, Josh Harrison, Jon Lester, and possibly even some other guys, in exchange for a dozen or so prospects of various potential. They kept plenty of guys—replacement grade fellows who might one day fill out the margins of a half-decent roster, should the Nationals ever again decide to pursue half-decency—but retained exactly one Dude. That Dude is Juan Soto, who is one of the two or three best hitters in all of baseball.
Presumably the Nationals kept Soto because they intend to build their next half-decent roster around him, but doing so will at some point mean doing what the team has only pretended to want to do with previous MVP-caliber position players, which is sign them to lucrative and perhaps historic mega-deals. Sports Illustrated pondered back in March whether Soto might soon become baseball's first $500 million player, which would seem appropriate given that he is only 22 years old and is already one of baseball's great sluggers, and has in fact already occupied the cleanup spot on a World Series winner. Owners are doing everything they can to suppress salaries, and a full third of the teams in the league are flagrantly uninterested in fielding a team that anyone serious would consider good, but whether or not this depressed market ultimately values Soto at half a billion dollars, he is for sure in line for a huge, huge payday.
The Nats, deploying one of the Lerner family's signature moves, loaded unsuccessful offers for forebears Bryce Harper and Anthony Rendon with funny money deferred payments extending off into the distant future, perhaps hoping for some sort of global cataclysm to spare them from ever having to fully pay up. Soto, who like Harper and Rendon is represented by the dreaded Scott Boras, may share their less-than-enthusiastic view of contracts that treat the time value of money as a problem to be solved by a player's great-great-great-great-great-great-great-grandchildren. Anyway no one would be surprised if Soto is wearing pinstripes three years from now.
That's not really the concern of this blog. This blog would like simply to gawk at Soto's numbers post-fire-sale, which represent a genuinely hysterical test-case in what happens when you strip a lineup of every professional-grade hitter except for the best hitter in baseball:
Give a generational hitter with masterful command of the strike zone absolutely no serious protection whatsoever, and even in the era of hundred-mile-per-hour sinkers and wiffle ball shit pitchers will happily just throw around the one and only dangerous guy. Soto walked on a freakish 30.3 percent of his August plate appearances, and I need you to understand that no other qualified hitter in all of Major League Baseball walked on even 20 percent of their own. Soto has drawn more intentional walks since July 29 (eight) than Vladimir Guerrero Jr. has drawn all season. Exactly one qualified hitter in all of baseball has more walks than strikeouts in the 2021 regular season, and it is Juan Soto, and he has 31 (!) more walks than strikeouts. As of Sunday morning, this recent trend of pitchers more or less refusing to throw strikes has pushed Soto's career total for walks (338) to even with his career total for strikeouts (338), an almost unfathomable accomplishment for a guy in just his fourth full season, and in an era where the league around him has set a new record for strikeouts in a season for 16 consecutive years.
Just 16 times in the history of MLB has a qualified hitter walked in at least 30.3 percent of his plate appearances across a full month, per Mike Petriello of MLB.com, and 11 of those months belong to Barry Bonds, indisputably the most terrifying hitter in the history of the sport. Ted Williams did it just once. Babe damn Ruth did it once. Juan Soto is a great, great hitter, and it takes incredible plate discipline and mind-boggling mastery of the strike zone to nowadays be within one standout season of breakeven on walks and strikes, but to me this incredible trend gets a great big "sheesh." I mean no disrespect to Josh Bell, who the post-teardown Nationals plug into the cleanup spot as Soto's protection, but it's no coincidence that Soto's historic month came immediately after his team swapped virtually every healthy and productive player around him for hazily intriguing children developing professional skills in, like, Visalia. If the opposition took even one other guy in Washington's lineup seriously, Soto might here and there have any reason beside boredom to lift the bat off his shoulders.
The Nationals played a doubleheader against the Mets Saturday, games two and three of their first full September series. Soto walked four times, including one intentional walk, struck out once, and drove in a run on a single. He has now walked on 29.4 percent of his plate appearances since the start of the month, which perhaps signals some tentative willingness among opposing pitchers to give him the occasional pitch to hit. Sweet! But Soto has also opened the month batting .416, with two homers and six RBI. It remains a terrible mistake to pitch to this man when there's so little around him. If we're just a tiny bit lucky, the numbers will only get more ridiculous from here.