Fantasy Baseball: Has Ronald Acuna caught up to (or surpassed) Juan Soto?
Ronald Acuna's recent power binge has helped him close the gap on NL Rookie of the Year front-runner Juan Soto. But who's better for Fantasy Baseball? Our Scott White weighs in.
One was the presumptive Rookie of the Year favorite coming in, his impact delayed by service-time considerations and injury. The other was thought to be a couple years away but stormed through the entire farm system in about six weeks' time to establish himself as the best 19-year-old hitter in history.
The argument for who's better grows louder with each Ronald Acuna home run.
The way most people see it, he and Juan Soto are at least shoulder to shoulder now and possibly flip-flopped in the hierarchy of Fantasy and real-life goodness. It's all because of an unreal stretch of seven games with eight home runs for the Braves' 20-year-old wunderkind, who appears to have dodged a major injury after taking a Jose Urena fastball off the elbow Monday.
But who's actually better? Who ultimately will be? How much can we determine, really, when both are barely old enough to shave? And isn't it reasonable enough to say "they're both great?"
This your first day on the internet, son?
Opinions, I have them. And while I know praising one will inevitably be viewed as trashing the other (you should know this isn't my first day on the internet), I wish to remind you, however futilely, that I'm the one who wroteand . In other words, I have a great deal of enthusiasm for both of these players and probably did before you did.
But for now, I'm serving up the haterade.
Who's leading the Rookie of the Year race?
A number of internet polls have gone up over the past few days asking some form of this question, and the ones I've seen have all come back decidedly in Acuna's favor, which no doubt owes something to recency bias and the fact his is the name that keeps popping up in headlines.
But there's more to it than that.
Yes, just a week ago, the two hardly compared statistically, but much has happened in that week. Acuna has overtaken Soto in home runs (in fewer games, it's worth noting) and has closed the gap enough in batting average and OPS that prospective voters are forced to dig a bit deeper.
And what they find digging deeper is that Acuna has been the much better fielder — or more accurately, Soto has been plain bad. It's why Acuna has the WAR advantage, 2.8 to 2.2.
Which isn't to say the winner will or should come straight off a WAR leaderboard. If that was the case, well ...
But WAR is a popular shortcut stat among voters these days, so along with the spotlight Acuna has drawn, it's likely enough to push the Braves outfielder ahead, just as all the fan polls show.
But that's only if the voting happened today.
Who's actually better?
The voting, you may be aware, didn't happen today. We still have another quarter of the season to go, which means if either of those players' numbers have been inflated by a recent hot stretch, they'll be diluted soon enough.
I think we know which player I'm talking about.
Again, it's eight home runs in seven games for Acuna. Sure, he looks like a power hitter, one capable of hitting bunches of home runs a time, but even the 40-homer guys average only 1 1/2 per week, which means there are droughts to counteract the bunches. When this bunch ends for Acuna and he's no longer benefiting from the BABIP-independent batting average boost that home runs provide, will there be enough other forms of production to sustain him?
It's a question I can't answer with certainty because he's 20 and liable to improve in all facets going forward, but when assessing his immediate future, I can only go by what I've seen so far. And his strikeout and line-drive rates suggest he won't be hitting .288 the rest of the way. He may not even .260.
Soto, meanwhile, has been the same player since the day he set foot in the big leagues, his batting average never once dipping below .300 — and in a way that's believable thanks to his exceptional bat control and plate discipline. A near 1-to-1 strikeout-to-walk ratio is unusual for any hitter these days, much less a power hitter, much less a rookie, much less a 19-year-old. In fact, no teenage hitter — not Mickey Mantle, not Ken Griffey Jr. — has ever done what Soto is doing offensively. The only one to come close was Hall of Famer Mel Ott.
If he had the at-bats to qualify, Soto's .970 OPS would be the seventh-best in baseball, with no signs of slippage and no obvious red flags. He will sustain, and if he's sustaining while the other one isn't, the gap figures to grow again.
Who do you want for the long haul?
But Fantasy Baseball isn't a straight OPS competition just like it isn't a straight WAR competition. So while Acuna's defensive advantages are obviously wasted, so is Soto's on-base prowess, to a certain extent. Sure, some formats assign proper value to it, but most, including traditional 5x5 Rotisserie leagues, value stolen bases much more.
Only one of these two has demonstrated the ability to steal bases in either the minors or majors, and it's Acuna. I'm sure many would tell you they prefer him for that reason.
But what kind of take is that? Stolen bases are scarce, sure, and securing enough of them to compete in the category is always a headache. But of the hitters we're paying the most for — the first-round types —how many are genuine base-stealers? Mike Trout and Mookie Betts, sure. Jose Altuve, fine. We'll even throw Trea Turner in there, though it's hardly the slam dunk it appeared to be coming into this year. But Nolan Arenado? J.D. Martinez? Bryce Harper? Freddie Freeman? Even Manny Machado is hit or miss in that regard. Stolen bases will boost a stud hitter's value, but they're not a prerequisite.
You know what it is? Mashing. I mentioned Soto's .970 OPS would rank seventh if he had the at-bats to qualify, but I didn't mention the company he was keeping: Betts, Trout, Martinez, Jose Ramirez, Matt Carpenter and Arenado. Those would be the six players ahead of them, and only one, Carpenter, isn't a lock to go in the first round next year.
And while he has shown a greater willingness to run since moving into the leadoff spot three weeks ago, it's no guarantee Acuna becomes a big base-stealer just because he was in the minors, where players are encouraged to run with reckless abandon. It doesn't work that way in the majors, particularly not for middle-of-the-order bats who become too valuable to subject to such risks. The Braves probably aren't the team to ask him to do it either. They haven't had a 30-30 man since Ron Gant in 1991, and it's not because they've lacked players with the ability. You don't think Andruw Jones could have stolen 30 if he wanted, given his range in center field? Chipper Jones also flashed that kind of ability early in his career. I think 20-25 is a safe bet in Acuna's early years, but 40?
Look, I'm not putting it past him. I'm just saying it's a big assumption to make when the alternative is what already appears to be a first round-caliber hitter. You could also probably make the case Acuna has a higher power ceiling than Soto given his superior fly-ball rate, but again, there's no substitute for actual, verified production.
Clearly, I can envision a scenario where things go even more right for Acuna than they have for Soto, but the bottom line is I don't see how they go wrong for Soto. I could point to his mastery of the strike zone. I could point to the fact he crushes same-handed pitchers. I could point to how both are unheard of at his age. But most striking of all is how he became one of the game's elite hitters from the moment he set foot in the big leagues, in a way that's reminiscent of Albert Pujols.
All of this isn't to say something is wrong with Acuna or I wouldn't be turning cartwheels about him in a dynasty league. But Soto owners already know they've hit the jackpot.
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