MLB

Projections outline Juan Soto’s HOF path

Juan Soto has gotten off to one of the best starts to a career we’ve ever seen. He’s yet to play a regular-season game as a 22-year-old and is already on lists with all-time greats that foreshadow his Hall of Fame potential.

Only five players through their age-21 seasons had a higher OPS+ than he has (min. 1,000 plate appearances): Mike Trout, Ted Williams, Jimmie Foxx, Rogers Hornsby and Ty Cobb. That’s four Hall of Famers and another who will be in as soon as he’s eligible. In other words, nobody’s ever gotten off to a start like this and not put together a Cooperstown-worthy career.

What could the rest of that career look like? Glad you asked. Dan Szymborski ran ZiPS projections for Soto through his age-36 season, which is 2035, for Jay Jaffe at FanGraphs recently. The numbers are truly a sight to behold.

Through his age-36 season, Soto is projected for the following career totals:
.298/.428/.593 slash line
163 OPS+
91.1 WAR
2,317 hits
1,996 RBI
562 HR
1,762 walks

Go ahead, take a moment to process those. As many have been saying lately, especially this offseason, we are witnessing a Hall of Fame career here — and these projected numbers back that up. And it’s worth keeping in mind that there’s no reason to believe Soto’s career would stop at 36 — that span of time was used to project the years that could be covered by a potential extension, with Fernando Tatis Jr.’s 14-year deal as a template. In other words: Soto would very likely add to these totals, too, as his career finished.

Let’s break down what these numbers would mean. In each case below, when discussing all-time rank, it’s based on Soto’s projections against current all-time leaderboards. There are active players — like Trout, Tatis, Ronald Acuña Jr. and others — who will continue to climb these all-time lists in this span, too, so this is just based on where he’d be if he had those totals today.

On-base percentage and walks
By the end of the 2035 season, Soto’s .428 career on-base percentage would be tied for 10th based on today’s numbers (min. 3,000 plate appearances), with Jimmie Foxx and Tris Speaker. If we keep the list only to those whose entire careers occurred in the Modern Era (since 1900), he’d be tied for seventh. The six modern players ahead of Soto, Foxx and Speaker? Williams, Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Barry Bonds, Hornsby and Cobb.

A big component of that on-base percentage for Soto is walks. The only qualified hitters to be walked more frequently since the start of 2018 are Trout and Bryce Harper. Projections — and common sense — show that trend will continue. Soto would have 1,762 career walks through the end of 2035, which would rank seventh all-time. The only players with more than 1,762 walks in their careers are Bonds, Rickey Henderson, Ruth, Williams, Joe Morgan and Carl Yastrzemski.

How does he get to 1,762? With a whopping 10 straight 100-plus walk seasons, from 2021-30. Added on to his 2019 total of 108, that’s eleven 100-walk seasons in his career through age 36. Four players in Major League history have had at least 11 seasons with that many free passes: Bonds, Ruth, Williams and Gehrig. No player has ever had 10 straight 100-walk seasons, as Soto is projected to have.

Slugging percentage, home runs and RBIs
Feast your eyes on Soto’s .593 career slugging percentage through age 36. That would rank seventh all-time (min. 3,000 PA), behind some monstrous bats. The only players to top .593 are Ruth, Williams, Gehrig, Foxx, Bonds and Hank Greenberg.

Soto’s march to a .593 SLG projects to feature nine straight seasons with at least a .600 mark, from 2022-30. Soto also slugged .695 this year, so his total for such seasons would be 10. Only Ruth, Bonds and Williams have accumulated at least 10 qualified seasons with a .600 SLG, and nobody has ever had nine straight.

Soto’s prodigious projected home run total plays a big role in those .600-plus slugging seasons. He’s set to have 562 total through 2035, which would rank 15th on the current list, one shy of tying Reggie Jackson for 14th. That total includes six straight 40-homer seasons from 2022-27. The only players with at least six straight 40-homer seasons in their careers are Ruth, Sammy Sosa and Alex Rodriguez.

What happens when you notch a lot of extra-base hits? You drive in a ton of runs. Indeed, Soto is projected for 1,996 RBIs through 2035. That’s the exact number of RBIs that Barry Bonds totaled in his career, and would be tied for fourth-most all-time (since the stat became official in 1920).

He’s projected for nine straight 130-RBI seasons from 2021-29, with the first seven of those being 140-RBI seasons. This is becoming a common theme: there are just two players with nine or more 130-RBI seasons since 1920 — Gehrig and Ruth. Nobody has had nine straight. Those are the same names for seven or more 140-RBI seasons, and again, neither did it in at least seven straight seasons.

Beyond box score stats: OPS+ and WAR
All of the above is factored into Soto’s projected 163 career OPS+ and 91.1 WAR, per FanGraphs, through 2035. With a 100 OPS+ marking the league average, a 163 mark is 63% better than league average when adjusted for ballpark — and this is for across all seasons of his career through age 36.

There are 11 Modern Era players with at least 3,000 career plate appearances and a OPS+ of 163 or higher: Ruth, Williams, Bonds, Gehrig, Trout, Hornsby, Mickey Mantle, Shoeless Joe Jackson, Cobb, Mark McGwire and Foxx. Sure, that’s a longer list than some of the others here, but that’s also very good company.

Soto is projected for 11 straight seasons with a 150 or better OPS+, with that streak ending only because of a projected 148 OPS+ in 2032. So close. Soto had a 212 OPS+ in 2020, so that streak — and his career total — would be 12. That’s 12 times he will have been 50% better than league average. Think about that.

The nine players with at least 12 qualified seasons with a 150 or higher OPS+ will look familiar, and notable: Bonds, Henry Aaron, Ruth, Frank Robinson, Willie Mays, Stan Musial, Williams, Mel Ott and Gehrig.

As for WAR, 91.1 would rank 22nd among players through their age-36 seasons and 26th overall for a career. That includes nine straight six-WAR seasons for Soto, from 2021-29 and 10 straight with at least five WAR, if we tack on 2030 to that streak.

Here’s your list of Hall-of-Fame-caliber players for this stat, ones with at least nine straight six-WAR seasons: Bonds, Aaron, Honus Wagner, Gehrig, Mantle and Mays.

What comes next
Projections are great, and in Soto’s case here, they’re eye-opening. But he still has to put up the actual performances, of course. That still remains to be seen, but given the company he’s in to start his career, the names he’s predicted to join make a lot of sense.

And it’s going to be so much fun to watch play out.


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