Juan Soto put up big numbers in the second half to get himself in the conversation for the 2021 NL MVP award, with a .348/.525/.639 line, 11 doubles, a triple, 18 home runs, 87 walks, and 57 runs scored post All-Star break, and the Washington Nationals’ recently-turned-23-year-old slugger finished the season ranked 1st in OBP (.465), 1st in walks (145), 1st in OBP w/ RISP (.577) and AVG w/ RISP (.396), 2nd in OPS (.999), wOBA (.420), wRC+ (163), and in runs (111), and he was third in fWAR (6.6), and slugging percentage w/ RISP (.689) amongst National League hitters.
Soto, the Nationals noted in their Season in Review, “was the only qualified player in Major League Baseball with more walks than strikeout,” and his, “... .465 on-base percentage led Major League Baseball and was the highest in a full season since 2008 (HOF Chipper Jones, .470),” while, “... his 145 walks were the most in a full season since Barry Bonds set the Major League record for walks in a season with 232 in 2004, and the second-most by any player prior to his 23rd birthday behind HOF Ted Williams (147 in 1941).”
Add to all that the fact that he, “... reached base safely at least four times in 26 games this season...Only Barry Bonds (2001, 2002, 2004), Hall of Famer Babe Ruth (1920, 1923, 1931), and Hall of Famer Lou Gehrig (1931) put together seasons with at least 26 games in which they reached base safely at least four times.”
“He’s so young,” Nats’ skipper Davey Martinez said on the final day of the 2021 season for the Nationals.
“And to do the things he’s been doing — he’s, as you can see, some of the names that pop up next to his, it’s incredible, it really is. So, I can’t wait to watch him continue to do what he does and watch him grow, I mean, he’s truly one of the best young players in the game if not the best young player in the game, so it’s been a lot of fun to be here with him and I expect us to be together for a long time.”
Both his manager and GM Mike Rizzo talked at the end of the regular season about how well they thought Soto handled the upheaval at the trade deadline, after the front office decided to reboot the organization.
Rizzo said he was impressed with, “just the way that he’s been so even-keeled throughout the whole process. You start off as a young rookie player and everything is in front of you, and you dominate a league to the point where teams are afraid to pitch to you and then we kind of reboot right in front of him and not a peep of discontent, and I think you’ve seen a different even better gear if that’s even possible the second half of the season than he had in the first half of the season, and I think that says everything you need to know about him.”
His new hitting coach, Darnell Coles, marveled at Soto’s ability to not just make contact, but make solid contact on a regular basis.
“Juan Soto is Juan Soto. That’s god-given, I think we all know that, and he’s one of if not the best hitters in the game,” Coles told reporters in his introductory press conference, noting that coming in his message is that no one is to, “... under any circumstances mess with his swing.”
“He is the epitome of what a great major league hitter is,” Coles added.
“He understands the strike zone. He pays attention to detail. He understands what they are are trying to do. He does his homework. He doesn’t let the moment get too big for him. He stays to the middle of the field. His best quality is that he can basically get a hit whenever he wants to, to the opposite field, which is tough to do.
“So, I think a lot of people in baseball understand the kind of player he is.”
Soto talked after a three-hit game on September 22nd pushed his OPS over 1.000 (up to 1.010) about that being something he was extremely proud of doing late in a season. So, why does OPS mean a lot to him?
“You want to be good in all kind of places that you are, even defense, running, hitting, if you have a couple things in hitting, it’s better so that’s one of the things I’m liking,” he explained.
What made where he ended up especially gratifying for Soto was the fact that his relatively slow start to the season (.283/.407/.445 line, nine doubles, 11 home runs, 58 walks, and 52 strikeouts in the first-half) had some critics raising questions.
“I think that at the beginning it started off a little slow, with all the critics saying, ‘You know he’s got a slow start,’ and this and that,” Soto said. “I thought come along well, stay positive, kept working, and I thank God for the opportunity obviously to be able to not only stay healthy, but be able to perform on the field, and you know, I feel real good so far about what I’ve been able to do up until this point.”
He fell out of the race for a second straight NL batting title with a rough final week, but that he did manage to end up in the discussion for the NL MVP meant a lot to Soto.
“It feels really good, like I said, after that slow start and then just come from the bottom and come all the way up, it feels great.
“We’re going to see at the end of the day how it goes.”