What Juan Soto did in 2020 showed how much of a generational talent the 22-year-old is.
The Washington Nationals outfielder led the majors in on-base plus slugging percentage at 1.185. He launched 13 home runs in a shortened 60-game season and drove in another 37. He was such a potent hitter that he led all of MLB with 12 intentional walks — although the flip side of that statistic is it shows how few other threats were in Washington’s lineup.
When the finalists for the 2020 National League MVP award were revealed Monday night, though, Soto’s name wasn’t included. Despite winning the batting title with an NL-best .351 average, Freddie Freeman, Mookie Betts and Manny Machado got the nod instead.
Those three aren’t slouches, each compiling an impressive season of their own. But what helped edge Soto out of the MVP race, even with his eye-popping numbers?
To ESPN baseball analyst Tim Kurkjian, it comes down to how many games Soto missed and the quality of the team he played for. Soto missed time due to what he feels was a false-positive coronavirus test to start the season and a sore elbow later in the campaign. He played in 47 games — 13 fewer than Freeman and Machado, and eight fewer than Betts — and the Nationals missed the postseason.
“In a 60-game season, when you have 60 fewer at-bats than Freddie Freeman, it’s a significant number,” Kurkjian told The Washington Times. “Also, it really hurts Juan Soto, and this is my opinion, that he didn’t play on a winning team, a playoff team, and a team that played truly meaningful games throughout the season.
“That usually doesn’t matter anymore for most people, but as an old guy, it still matters to me. Did you play on a team that, one, made the playoffs? And were you the reason that they made the playoffs?”
In some ways, Soto and shortstop Trea Turner were practically the only bright spots in a dismal Nationals’ season. Starter Stephen Strasburg needed carpal tunnel surgery, and right fielder Adam Eaton underperformed before an injury ended his season prematurely, too. Washington lost Starlin Castro early in the campaign to injury, then relied heavily on Luis Garcia at second base, a 20-year-old rookie.
Soto and Turner — who hit .351 and .335, respectively — didn’t have the bats around them to force pitchers to go right after them. And while the team made a surge late in the year, the Nationals, just one year removed from a World Series title, never looked like a playoff team, finishing 26-34.
For Freeman, Betts and Machado, though, their teams all made it to the postseason. Freeman and Betts met in the National League Championship Series, where the Dodgers toppled the Braves. And then Los Angeles broke a 32-year World Series drought, with Betts playing like the superstar he is.
While MVP voting doesn’t take the playoffs into account, the Fall Classic displayed what makes Betts so unique. It’s not just his hitting — and he did that well in 2020, with a .927 OPS. His fielding and baserunning made a significant difference, and it’s those areas Soto could still improve most.
“I don’t care if he ever steals a base. If he keeps hitting like that, just keep doing what you’re doing, kid,” Kurkjian said. “But defense, at least to me as an old guy, defense is really important. And I think he’s an average defensive outfielder, and he’s going to get better.
“But you look at the difference that Mookie Betts made in the postseason — especially in the World Series for the Dodgers — with his defense, and every young player should aspire to help your team on both sides of the ball. And Juan Soto could do a slightly better job of that defensively, and I think he will, because he’s a kid. He’s still just learning how to play the game. It is stunning — stunning — how good a player he is at this age on both sides of the ball.”
His numbers speak for themselves. But if he played in more games and if the Nationals had made the playoffs, Soto might’ve been an MVP finalist. Instead, Freeman, Machado and Betts have the finalist slots.
Freeman’s offensive statistics are closest to Soto’s, finishing with a .341 batting average, 1.102 OPS and 13 home runs. Machado hit .304 with 16 longballs and Betts swung at a .292 clip and also slugged 16 homers on top of his 10 stolen bases.
Kurkjian figures Soto will still wind up in the top five of NL MVP voting after his standout campaign, even with the knocks against him.
“If you lead the league in OPS, almost by definition you’re the best offensive player in the league,” Kurkjian said. “When it comes to best young hitters in the game, I’m not sure you start anywhere other than Juan Soto.”
So while the Nationals have a long offseason ahead, deliberating where to make splash signings to retool a roster that suffered from a post-World Series slump, one thing is clear.
With Soto in the heart of the order, Washington has one of the best players in baseball — present and future.
“He’s going to win multiple, multiple MVPs before he’s done,” Kurkjian said. “He is off to such a great start. He has done things that no 19-year-old, no 20-year-old and no 21-year-old, basically, has ever done. And there’s no question in my mind he will win more than one MVP before his career is over.”