Top NL rookie race be­tween Soto, Acuna Jr. im­pos­si­bly tight

Closer anal­y­sis of Nats, Braves phe­noms af­fords lit­tle clar­ity

The Star Democrat - - SPORTS -

(WPNS) — This year’s Na­tional League rookie of the year race is a good one. Ron­ald Acuna Jr., the hot-hit­ting out­fielder for the At­lanta Braves, and Juan Soto, the Wash­ing­ton Na­tion­als’ 19-year-old phe­nom, are ex­pected to be at the top of nearly ev­ery voter’s bal­lot.

Acuna, who hit .293 with 26 home runs and a .917 on-base plus slug­ging per­cent­age (OPS), caught fire after man­ager Brian Snitker moved him into the lead­off spot after July’s All-Star Game. He hit .328 with a 1.042 OPS from the top spot, and his eight lead­off home runs are a fran­chise record. Acuna also joined Mike Trout as the only play­ers to hit at least 25 home runs and steal 15 bases in their rookie sea­son. Over­all, his sen­sa­tional cam­paign was worth 3.7 wins above what a re­place­ment-level player would pro­vide.

Soto led all NL rook­ies qual­i­fy­ing for the bat­ting ti­tle

in on-base per­cent­age (.406), OPS (0.923) and walk rate (16 per­cent) de­spite start­ing the sea­son with Class A Hager­stown. He joined Mel Ott (1928) and Tony Conigliaro (1964) as the only teenagers to have a slug­ging per­cent­age over .500, and Soto is the only one to ever main­tain an on-base per­cent­age of .400 or higher. He, too, was worth

3.7 wins above re­place­ment.

Not only were their over­all val­ues the same, the slash lines for each were nearly iden­ti­cal, with Acuna show­cas­ing more power and Soto ex­hibit­ing bet­ter plate dis­ci­pline.

But ac­cord­ing to the fi­nal sur­vey of MLB.com’s mem­bers of Base­ball Writ­ers’ As­so­ci­a­tion of Amer­ica, Acuna ap­pears to be the run­away win­ner with 34 of 36 first-place votes, likely the re­sult of two fac­tors: de­fense and team suc­cess.

Per FanGraphs, Acuna saved four runs with his glove, good enough

to place 14th among NL out­field­ers this sea­son. Soto, by com­par­i­son, cost the Na­tion­als five runs due to his field­ing. And Acuna flashed his glove for the NL East win­ner, help­ing send his team to the play­offs, whereas Soto pa­trolled left field for a dis­ap­point­ing, non-play­off team.

One could still ar­gue Soto did more to help his team than did Acuna. For ex­am­ple, a met­ric known as win prob­a­bil­ity added, which uses Tom Tango’s win ex­pectancy charts to mea­sure how much a player con­trib­utes to his team’s chances of win­ning

a game, shows Soto (3.1 WPA) was sig­nif­i­cantly more valu­able than Acuna (1.7) in 2018. If we ad­just that for lever­age, which is a mea­sure of how im­por­tant a game sit­u­a­tion is, the gap nar­rows but still leaves Soto with a com­mand­ing lead.

De­ride ad­vanced met­rics if you want, but both of last year’s win­ners, Cody Bellinger in the NL and Aaron Judge in the AL, led all rook­ies in their re­spec­tive leagues for con­text-neu­tral wins. Same for Corey Sea­ger and Michael Fullmer in 2016 and Kris Bryant and Car­los Cor­rea in 2015. In­clude pitcher Jose Fer­nan­dez in 2013 and the even­tual NL rookie of the year win­ner led the league in con­text-neu­tral wins ev­ery year since 2012 with the ex­cep­tion of one, Ja­cob deGrom in 2014, who fin­ished se­cond be­hind Ken Giles that sea­son.

Will this be enough to sway other vot­ers to put their sup­port be­hind Soto rather than Acuna? Prob­a­bly not, but in a race this close, the tie should go to who­ever helped his team the most, re­gard­less if that team was in a pen­nant chase or not.

AP PHOTO

Juan Soto was a bright spot dur­ing a tu­mul­tuous sea­son for the Na­tion­als.

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