Soto, So Young, So Good
Juan Soto played his 162nd game on Wednesday ... that's one full season's worth.
His numbers through 162: .292/.402/.519, 36 doubles, 2 triples, 31 home runs, 107 RBIs, 107 runs.
That's pretty special, particularly for someone who won't turn 21 until after THIS season. How does it compare? Well, you can look at this guy.
.285/.356/.518, 31 doubles, 10 triples, 31 home runs, 77 RBIs, 114 runs.
That compares quite well. And that's Bryce Harper.
Or this guy:
.309/.374/.531, 30 doubles, 6 triples, 32 home runs, 93 RBIs, 135 runs.
Soto's numbers are pretty close to that too. And that's Mike Trout.
So Juan Soto has pretty quietly climbed up into some pretty good company. I would say, looking over the history of baseball, Soto has had one of the Top 50 starts 162-game starts in baseball history, or at least in Baseball Reference recorded baseball history.
What does this mean for the future? When you consider his youth, it probably means pretty great things. When you look at the greatest 162 game starts, you find that the list is overwhelmed by all-time greats like DiMaggio, Frank Robinson, Gehrig, Mize, etc.
You know who had an AMAZING start to his career? Carlton Fisk. Through 162 games, he hit .301/.378./.559 with 35 doubles, 10 triples (!) and 30 homers. It was actually a better start to his career than Johnny Bench, and I honestly didn't realize that. Sure, not everybody is an all-time great. There are a few Kal Daniels (.328/.415/.582) or Eurebiel Durazos (.292/.391/.545) in there too. But I'd bet on Soto.
Someone asked me if I would rather have the next five years of Harper or Soto. Even as a pretty big Harper fan, I'd take Soto and it wouldn't even be that close.
OK, so let's have some fun -- here's my list of the Top 10 162-game starts ever. Before you start, see if you can predict who is No. 1. Let's just say: It wasn't who I predicted before I started.
Honorable mention: Benny Kauff
Stats: .365/.450/.530 with 44 doubles, 13 triples, 9 homers, 101 RBis, 126 runs and 77 stolen bases.
Holy cow! Who the heck is Benny Kauff? Well ... exactly. Benny Kauff was a very good player from Deadball, but he spent those first 162 games with the sort-of Major League Indianapolis Hoosiers and Brooklyn Tip-Tops of the Federal League. I wish we had the first 162 game stats, the real ones, of players like Josh Gibson, Oscar Charleston, Turkey Stearnes and Pop Lloyd.
Honorable mention II: Chuck Klein
Stats: .361/.408/.645 with 39 doubles, 7 triples, 44 homers, 131 RBIs, 122 runs.
I have written at length on Chuck Klein -- he's fascinating. But because he played in that crazy Baker Bowl, I chose not to put him in my Top 10.
No. 10: Jose Abreu
Stats: .316/.381/.587, 40 doubles, 3 triples, 41 homers, 88 runs, 121 RBIs.
It's easy to forget that the young Abreu raked. Maybe it's easy to forget because he wasn't actually that young -- he came over from Cuba as a finished product and was 27 years old in his Rookie of the Year winning first season. So he's not an apples-to-apples comparison to Sotoa. Still, those are pretty massive numbers -- the guy led the American League in OPS+ that rookie year. Abreu kept on hitting his first four seasons but then, like many, he has begun his decline phase in his early 30s.
No. 9: Wade Boggs
Stats: .359/.431/.457, 33 doubles, 3 triples, 5 homers, 91 runs, 70 RBIs.
You may ask: "Hey, what formula did you use to come up with this list anyway?" It's a fair question and one I will answer like so: "Formula?" Unlike most of these lists, I didn't come up with a specific way to choose or rank the Top 10. I did this one by feel, meaning I really just kind of picked my 10 favorite big-league starts and put them in the list in an order that seemed appropriate. I don't have a great excuse for putting Boggs in this list other than his .359 batting average and story are interesting to me.
The Red Sox didn't think that Boggs was a big-league player. He didn't fit any of their preconceived notions about what a player is supposed to look like. He was too slow to play anywhere but third or first, and he didn't hit with enough power to play third or first. He had this weird, choppy swing, he was quirky beyond typical flakehood, and he just kept hitting for higher and higher averages wherever they sent him in the minors. They sent him to Pawtucket twice, and he kept doing the same things -- hitting .306 and .335, some doubles, no homers, deathly slow, awkward looking -- and they had no idea what to do with the guy. He was told by more than one person that he would never become a big league player hitting THAT way.
Then he finally came up and hit .359 in his first 162 games and he went on to the Hall of Fame.
No. 8: Fred Lynn
Stats: .340/.408/..574 with 49 doubles, 9 triples, 23 homers, 115 RBIs, 108 runs.
Lynn famously won the MVP and the Rookie of the Year in 1975.
It's accepted wisdom among baseball fanatics that if Fred Lynn had stayed with the Red Sox, with Fenway as his home park, he'd be in the Hall of Fame right now. But is it true?
Actually, yeah, I think it is. Let's look at it by WAR. Lynn finished with 50 bWAR, which makes him, well, a double borderline Hall of Famer.
Here's your bWAR cheat-sheet -- this is for eligible everyday players who are NOT stained by a steroid or cheating scandal.
WAR greater than 80: Lock.
100% of these players are in Hall of Fame (33 out of 33)
WAR 70-79: Near lock
81% of these players are in Hall of Fame (21 out of 26). Missing are Larry Walker, Scott Rolen, Lou Whitaker, Bobby Grich and Bill Dahlen.
WAR 60-69: Probable
66% of these players are in Hall of Fame (28 out of 42). Among the missing are Dwight Evans, Graig Nettles and Keith Hernandez.
WAR 50-59: Borderline
40% of these players are in Hall of Fame (22 out of 54). Among those missing are Joe Torre, Dick Allen, Darrell Evans, Johnny Damon, Fred McGriff and, yes, Fred Lynn.
WAR 45-49: Unlikely.
33% of these players are in Hall of Fame (15 for 45). Among those missing are Dale Murphy, Thurman Munson, Dale Murphy, Omar Vizquel and Dale Murphy).
Lynn, with 50 WAR, really is at that Double Borderline spot. But if Lynn had put up even 10 more WAR, he would have had a better than 50-50 shot at the Hall. There's a good chance he would accumulated 10 more WAR had he stayed in Boston He averaged more than 5 WAR per season in Boston. He never had a 5 WAR seasons after he left Boston. He twice led the league in slugging in Boston. He never slugged .500 after he left Boston.
No. 7: Ryan Braun
Stats: .311/.352/.611 with 40 doubles, 8 triples, 47 homers, 134 RBIs, 117 runs.
Say what you want ... the young Ryan Braun MASHED.
No. 6: Joltin' Joe DiMaggio
Stats: .329/.357/.575 with 48 doubles, 17 triples, 33 homers, 147 RBIs, 154 runs.
DiMag has the record for most runs scored in his first 162 games which is insane when you realize that he only walked 27 times. In time, DiMaggio walked more but the young Joltin' Joe flat out refused to take the free pass.
No. 5: Shoeless Joe Jackson
Stats: .385/.441/.559 with 42 doubles, 23 triples, 7 home runs, 137 runs.
His RBI record is incomplete but he probably had close to 100 RBIs.
Didn't you always think that this exchange between Ray and his daughter Karin in "Field of Dreams," was kind of awkward?
Ray: "I mean if he was supposed to be throwing the World Series, how do you explain the fact he hit .375 for the series and didn't commit one error?"
Karin: "I can't."
"Twelve hits, including the series' only home run! And they said he was trying to lose?"
Karin: It's ridiculous."
No. 4: Albert Pujols
Stats: .330/.404/.613 with 49 doubles, 3 triples, 37 homers, 133 RBIs, 114 runs.
The start of Pujols' career has long captivated me. You undoubtedly know that he was a 13th-round pick and was widely viewed as a non-prospect. Scouts questioned his body type, his defense and his ability to stay in shape. Pujols was a hitting savant, but few thought it would get him to the big leagues.
Then he went to the minors and was impossibly great, so good the Cardinals couldn't promote him fast enough. By the end of one minor league season, he was the Cardinals No. 2 prospect behind Bud Smith. Even then, people STILL underrated him. Cardinals manager Tony La Russa caught one look at Pujols during spring training that year and thought, "Holy $(#&$&* what do we have here?"
What they had was one of the best players in baseball, right away, from his first day in the big leagues.
So how did scouts miss it? This is one fo the classic questions in baseball history -- it's one thing for scouts to fail to predict the future. But in Pujols' case they failed to see what was right in front of them because Pujols' was ALREADY a superstar. How did they miss it?
I believe it's because there's a skill/tool that is very difficult to scout. Albert Pujols is what you might call an "Improver."
Mike Trout is an improver too. Tom Brady is an improver. Steph Curry is an improver. I think if you look back at the biggest misses in scouting, it comes down to that -- there are certain players who have the unique ability to get better all the time. This takes a whole host of talents. You have to be competitive, obviously. But you also have to be humble, realizing that you are not a finished product. You have to constantly self-evaluate. You have to pick up on cues and hints and vibes that most people miss. You have to be constantly on the lookout for anything and everything that can make you 1 percent better than you were. And you have to balance all of this with the daily pressure and grind of playing the game at the highest level.
Pujols was a relentless improver. His work ethic was legendary. His batting sessions were legendary. His ambition was legendary. He decided to cut down his strikeouts -- he cut down his strikeouts. He wanted to improve his defense -- he became a Gold Glover. He wanted to become a better base runner -- he became a super base runner. This is SO hard to do.
No. 3: Mark McGwire
Stats: .286/.365/.610 with 28 doubles, 4 triples, 51 home runs, 124 RBIs, 104 runs.
He won't be remembered this way because of the steroid admission, but McGwire from the start was the purest home run hitting machine the game has ever known.
No. 2: Ted Williams
Stats: .328/.435/.609 with 48 doubles, 13 triples, 33 home runs, 154 RBIs, 146 runs.
When he walked down the street, people said, "There goes the best hitter who ever lived."
No. 1: Rudy York
Stats: .306/.401/.660 with 29 doubles, 3 triples, 55 home runs, 163 RBIs, 113 runs.
Rudy York? You didn't see THAT coming, did you? Well, I sure didn't.
Rudy York had the hardest time getting into the Detroit Tigers lineup in the mid-1930s. He was a first baseman by trade, but the Tigers had a pretty decent first baseman in future Hall of Famer Hank Greenberg. He'd played some catcher but the Tigers had a pretty decent catcher in future Hall of Famer Mickey Cochrane.
Still, his bat was exciting enough that the Tigers tried him at third base. That wasn't good. He was apparently so uncertain there that teams openly started bunting down the third base line knowing that he wouldn't be able to cope with it. There are also stories of his being entirely frozen as ground balls skipped by.
Because of the defense, it was a sketchy start. Through his first 50 games, he was hitting .250 and had popped 12 home runs, but it was hardly anything that got anyone excited.
But then Cochrane was hurt, and on August 4, 1937m York was placed into the lineup as catcher. What followed was simply unprecedented. For the rest of the month, he hit .366 and slugged .929 with 18 home runs. No one -- not even Babe Ruth -- had ever hit 18 home runs in a month before.
He slowed down a bit in September -- hitting around .300 with five home runs -- because nobody can keep up THAT pace.
But in 1938, he went on another rampage, hitting 20 home runs in his first 55 games. That gives him the totals you see above -- 55 home runs and 163 RBIs in his first 162 games, the greatest start in baseball history.
York ended up having a good but not legendary career. He played ball during World War II and in 1943 led the American League in homers, RBIs and slugging. He hit 277 home runs in his career and played in seven All-Star Games. Bill James ranked him as the 56th greatest first baseman ever in his Historical Abstract, and now he would still be in the Top 75.
But you would have to say he didn't live up to that astounding start. There are many reasons; many blame his drinking; York himself conceded that alcohol probably shortened and diminished his career. He was a bit flaky, teammates never could quite figure him out, and he clashed at times with Detroit fans. Still, York was generally well-liked and, as Bill James has written, he was one of the most talented hitters of his generation.