NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Was it really only 16 months ago? How can it be possible that Juan Soto’s entire tenure as a San Diego Padre went by so fast it fit in between seasons of “Curb Your Enthusiasm”?
But that’s the deal on The Deal — and not just any deal. When Soto went from the Washington Nationals to San Diego, I wrote that it was “the biggest deal in trade deadline history.” But that’s a wrap on Soto’s frustrating time as a Padre. He’s a New York Yankee now.
So let’s do this. Sixteen months ago, I wrote a Soto by the Numbers column to help explain the monstrous size of that original trade to San Diego. Now that he’s dialing Allied Van Lines yet again, let’s run it back, to explain what the Yankees are (and aren’t) getting, with this edition of Soto by the Numbers 2.0.
The magic number — 24
As I did in my last Soto column, I’m starting with the number that makes all the other numbers so mind-rattling — his age at the end of last season: 24. Think about that.
Since the 2000 season, we’ve had nine players win a Rookie of the Year award at an age older than Soto’s age as of the 2023 season. Nine. This guy is already on the road to Cooperstown. Those guys — nine of them — were just getting started on their baseball journey.
So what’s the big deal about Juan Soto? He’s so freaking young — still. And he has now been traded for 11 players just in the past 16 months.
The magic number — 157
Soto’s OPS+ has declined slightly in the past 16 months. But it’s still hovering in quite the elite orbit, at 157. That tells us that, through his age-24 season, he has been 57 percent more productive than the average hitter in his sport over his six seasons in the big leagues. Now here comes the part of this column where I try to explain how rarified that is.
In the modern era (1901-present), only five hitters have gotten at least 3,000 plate appearances through their age-24 seasons and come out the other side with an OPS+ of 157 or better. See if any of these names ring a bell:
Ty Cobb: 176
Mike Trout: 170
Mickey Mantle: 166
Jimmie Foxx: 166
Juan Soto: 157
Whew. Want to lower the bar to a minimum of 2,500 plate appearances? Sure. Why the heck not? Then we get to add in four more super-cool names:
Ted Williams: 190
Albert Pujols: 167
Tris Speaker: 162
Rogers Hornsby: 158
So that’s nine names. You can track down more info on seven of them in Cooperstown, N.Y. — on their Hall of Fame plaques. The other two are Pujols, who could start rehearsing his Hall of Fame speech tomorrow, and Soto.
I don’t present this list to give Soto the idea that he should start rehearsing his own speech. I present it because you should know that every modern hitter whose career began the way Soto’s has wound up in baseball’s magic kingdom.
The magic number — .421
Dudes as young as Juan Soto aren’t supposed to have a career on-base percentage that starts with a “4.” But the memo to inform him of that must have been lost in the mail — because, through his age-24 season, thanks to the most discerning eye at the plate in baseball, this guy has an OBP of .421. And you’ll be shocked to know that puts him in more incredible company:
.421 OBP or better through age 24
Ted Williams: .481
Jimmie Foxx: .432
Arky Vaughan: .429
Juan Soto: .421
(minimum 2,500 plate appearances)
So that’s a good group. Except that Soto separates himself from almost everyone because he also has 160 career homers to go with that .421 OBP. And here’s the complete list of all other hitters who had ever done that, at this age, before Soto entered the conversation:
End of list.
The magic number — 179
I’m reprising one last nugget from the original Soto by the Numbers column because it’s too spectacular not to bring back for an encore.
I mentioned back then that Joe DiMaggio was a Hall of Famer. His career OBP was .398.
Joe Morgan is a Hall of Famer. His career OBP was .392.
Honus Wagner is a Hall of Famer. His career OBP was .391.
But here is Soto, already rocking a .421 on-base percentage — and it’s hard to see his OBP falling into even their range anytime soon. And why is that? Because for Soto’s OBP to drop below .400, he would have to avoid reaching base in his next 179 plate appearances!
For some reason, I’m not feeling that. So what are the Yankees getting in this man, Juan Soto? Not merely a great hitter, but at his best, a historically special hitter. And they seem to be aware of that … since they just traded five guys to buy into one year of that!
On the other hand, however, they should also be aware of …
The not-so-magic number — minus-6
There was a time when Soto was considered an above-average defender in the outfield. That time seems like a looonnng while ago. Doesn’t it?
According to Sports Info Solutions, Soto finished last season with minus-6 Defensive Runs Saved? Does that seem not that ideal? Possibly because it’s not that ideal. In fact, only nine full-time outfielders in baseball were worse than that. That seems like it might be a problem, for a man interested in making half a billion dollars next winter when he cashes in his free-agent lottery ticket.
“Juan Soto can be as good as he wants to be,” said one rival exec who has been watching Soto for years. “He just needs to decide he wants to be.”
But is that encouraging — the knowledge that there’s still a decent defender in there, or that there used to be? It would be more encouraging if we didn’t have to ask that question!
The not-so-magic number — minus-3
Hmmm. For a historically special player, Soto sure seems to have a lot of minuses on his report card.
So what’s this not-so-magic number? It’s Soto’s Baserunning Runs Above Average, according to Baseball Reference. That placed him in a tie for fourth-worst base runner in baseball among regulars who got enough playing time to qualify for the batting title, ahead of only …
DJ LeMahieu: -5
Brandon Nimmo: -4
Gleyber Torres: -4
But now here’s the worst part: If you’re wondering how many players were as below average as Soto was as both a defensive outfielder and a base runner, well, so was I! And the answer is …
Only two major-league outfielders landed in that group — Soto and Nimmo, who will be roaming center field for the New York Mets across town.
The numbers say Soto was an average to slightly above-average base runner in his first three seasons. But in his past three seasons, he has spun off a minus-3, minus-2 and another minus-3.
Would you bestow a half-billion dollar contract on a player who was that far below average both in the outfield and on the bases? Let’s just say there will be some teams asking themselves that question next winter.
The not-so-magic number — 2
All right, here’s one more number to think about. What is that number, “2”? It happens to be the number of times Soto has been traded before he plays a single game at age 25. And for a player this mega-talented, that’s just odd.
If we can stick with the assumption that players whose careers start like Soto’s end up in the Hall of Fame, I couldn’t help but wonder how many other Hall of Fame position players were traded as many times as Soto before their age-25 season.
So I asked MLB Network’s research department to look into that. And after a consultation with the Elias Sports Bureau, we had our answer:
How many other Hall of Fame position players in the live-ball era got traded twice that young? Yep. That would be zero!
Now that’s not necessarily a reflection on Soto the baseball player or Soto the teammate. It’s as much about his agent (Scott Boras) and his impending free-agent price point as anything. On the other hand, if Soto had just finished leading either his first team, the Nationals, or his latest team, the Padres, to sustained postseason glory, are we sure that either of them — or both — would have traded him? I’ll go with no on that.
So … you were expecting maybe “The ugly” as our final category? Sorry. Hate to disappoint you. But what really matters is what version of Juan Soto the Yankees are getting. So let’s try to answer that mystery with one last magic number.
The magic number — .966
Back in the first week of May, I wrote a column called What We Learned in the First 30 Games of the Season. In it, I took a step back to digest Soto’s first three months as a Padre — and concluded he should have taken the Nationals’ money (15 years, $440 million) before he went to San Diego and made people wonder if he was as generationally talented as they once thought he was.
That’s because, over those first three months as a Padre — August and September of 2022, then April of 2023 — Soto’s messy numbers with San Diego looked like this:
.224/.382/.388/.770, 11 HR, 23 XBH in 81 G
Which prompted one rival executive to tell me at the time: “Look, he’s a great player. Great. But there’s great and then there’s $400 million great.” And an 81-game “slump” had lots of people questioning whether Soto was really $400 million great. But …
Get me rewrite! Now let’s check out how it went after that — in his last five months as a Padre:
.290/.418/.548/.966, 30 HR, 60 XBH in 133 G
Oh. That’s very different. So what does that .966 OPS tell us about who Soto really is — and what the Yankees might be getting in 2024, when we’re guessing he’ll be slightly motivated by his campaign to make half-a-billion dollars on that big stage in New York City? I quizzed another rival exec who has worked in the National League since Soto arrived in the big leagues in 2018.
Asked if he was convinced again that Soto was still a special offensive player, bound for the Hall of Fame, that exec was all in on that. Here is how he answered.
“One hundred percent,” he said. “Now that he’s over the culture shock of actually being traded, his numbers will continue on the same trajectory: HOF in the making.”
But there was even more to that prediction.
“He definitely wanted to be back on the East Coast,” he said of Soto. “Hitting in front of (Aaron) Judge, he will win the MVP. And just remember you heard that here first … MVP.”
Juan Soto, MVP. If that’s what actually happens in this man’s first season in New York, I can promise you this. You’ll be reading a Juan Soto by the Numbers 3.0 column next winter!
Inside Yankees’ pursuit of Juan Soto: How trade-deadline talks formed deal’s foundation
Juan Soto is a Yankee. What might his next contract look like?
Revisiting the 11 biggest offseason MLB trades of the past 10 years
(Top photo of Juan Soto: Sean M. Haffey / Getty Images)