On a yearly basis, award races in MLB fluctuate between being extremely competitive to landslides. This season’s Rookie of the Year race in the National League between Washington Nationals outfielder Juan Soto and Atlanta Braves outfielder Ronald Acuña Jr. is extremely compelling.
There are intriguing secondary candidates like San Francisco Giants pitcher Dereck Rodriguez and Miami Marlins third baseman Brian Anderson. Yet neither player is in the same stratosphere as Soto and Acuña Jr.
This season, we’ve been treated to a special race between these two phenoms. Imagine if, in 2013’s Rookie of the Year race, Mike Trout and Bryce Harper played in the same league. That’s the type of scenario voters find themselves faced with this year.
A compelling case exists for either player to win the award. Comparing these players’ numbers, recent play and surrounding circumstances, we can make a clear case for which player should win the honors.
Soto provides the story of a 19-year-old who is doing things no teenager has ever done in the history of baseball. At the same age, Mickey Mantle posted a .792 OPS with 13 home runs, which seemed crazy. Fast forward to Bryce Harper, who raised the bar even higher in his MLB debut as a teenager with an .817 OPS, 22 home runs and a .340 OBP.
Those marks are nothing compared to what Soto has achieved this season. In his first season, the 19-year-old carries a .950 OPS with 15 home runs and a .416 OBP. Soto is surpassing things Hall of Famers have done, and it all seems so easy for him.
As a 19-year old, Acuña Jr. was still in the minor leagues learning to make adjustments and crushing inferior pitching. At the same age, Soto is putting up better numbers while facing MLB competition.
Perhaps age may not seem like a big deal to some, but consider many of the top hitters in Double-A this season are between 22-25 years old. Meanwhile, many of the players in Triple-A are 24-plus years old.
If Soto was 25, like Brian Anderson, he would still be a strong candidate for ROY honors. Instead, he is a 19-year-old emerging star doing things we’ve never witnessed before by a teenager.
Yet, it’s impossible to just rule the race over and give Soto the award. He is having an outstanding season, but Acuña Jr. has been sensational as of late in a record-setting season.
As of late, Acuña Jr. has been one of the best players in baseball. The 20-year-old outfielder became the fourth player ever to hit a leadoff home run in both games of a doubleheader. A day later, Acuña Jr. became the youngest player to hit a home run in five consecutive games.
We saw Acuña Jr. struggle when he returned from the disabled list with a .212/.255/..404 slash line, 34.5 percent strikeout rate and .658 OPS from June 29 through July 15.
The All-Star Break clearly helped the rookie regroup because he has slashed .354/.418/.798 with 12 home runs, a 1.216 OPS and a 23.6 percent strikeout rate since then.
If Acuña Jr.’s incendiary stretch at the plate continues, he can reach 30 home runs by season’s end. A 20-year-old coming up as a rookie and hitting 25-plus home runs with a .920-plus OPS and .280-plus batting average is a rare moment in baseball history.
Where the hairs can be split for voters is if Soto’s achievements as a teenager are more worthy of ROY honors than Acuña Jr.’s advantages defensively and on the base paths or vice versa.
This will be one of the closest race in decades, and voters’ personal feelings on specific statistics and values will decide the winner. Of course, there is another solution that MLB has seen play out before.
In 1976, pitchers Butch Metzger and Pat Zachary each received 11 first-place votes and split the N.L’s ROY honors.
It then happened in 1979 when third baseman John Castino and shortstop Alfredo Griffin both received the honor in the American League.
Ultimately, this would be the best result for baseball. Soto and Acuña Jr. should split the ballot and both receive the rookie honors. Both players are part of MLB history in their rookie seasons, and they each deserve the award recognition.
Whether that happens remains to be seen, but this is a situation where it requires taking a different approach than most years. MLB has two of its brightest, young stars who can both be the face of baseball competing for one award. Now the voters should take the opportunity to honor both of them for their achievements.