On Monday afternoon, we’ll find out whether Juan Soto or Ronald Acuña, Jr. is the National League Rookie of the Year. It’s probably going to be Acuña, who has the edge in homers, WAR, stolen bases, and defensive value, but it’ll be a close race. And it’s a great excuse to appreciate how beautifully rare it is to see two under-21 players succeed like this.
It probably doesn’t feel as rare as it should, though. We happen to be in something of a boom time for under-21 players. Carlos Correa just wowed us all, but three years before that, Bryce Harper, Manny Machado, and Mike Trout were all a part of the same rookie class. We were just getting used to the idea that Giancarlo Stanton and Jason Heyward were going to be All-Star outfielders for the next decade. At this point, it’s a little odd when a season doesn’t feature an under-21 player thriving.
But it’s not always like this. There were just five hitting seasons from an under-21 player that were worth at least 1 WAR in the 1980s, and one of them came from Dwight Gooden. There are tables and long lists of names below, so you can scroll down to a too-long-didn’t-read version, but if you look for seasons with multiple three-win players 20 or younger, you’ll see this is something of an anomaly:
Seasons with multiple under-21 hitters worth at least three WAR
|Decade||Number of seasons|
|Decade||Number of seasons|
It’s not enough to get just one preternatural talent under the age of 21. Now we’re used to a pair. And just think: Soto’s WAR is severely limited by his defensive metrics. Those don’t seem especially predictive, though, considering he’s a teenager learning how to play major league defense on the fly. Let’s look for the seasons with multiple under-21 players with 3 oWAR or better. There are just five of them:
2018 - Acuña, Soto
2012 - Harper, Trout
1952 - Mickey Mantle, Eddie Mathews
1928 - Mel Ott, Jimmie Foxx
1911 - Rogers Hornsby, Whitey Witt
As you can see, the ... dammit, Whitey, you’re ruining my perfect narrative. But the overall point remains sound. It’s rare to get a couple of these seasons clustered together, and when it happens, the players usually enjoy Hall of Fame careers.
Just a simple list of the under-21 players who have recorded a 3-oWAR season is impressive, too:
In the Hall (or has the statistics to be in)
Ken Griffey, Jr.
Multiple high-level or All-Star seasons through 20s
Career shortened because of war or injury
Ronald Acuña, Jr.
I broke up the Hall of Fame category into groups of five to make it easier to read. I did not have to do this for the other categories. This is because hitting this well before turning 21 is a great indication that player in question will make the Hall of Fame. There are exceptions to the rule. There are players who still end up breaking your heart. But for the most part, hitters like Acuña and Soto grow up to do amazing things.
(And if you limit the search to 3-oWAR players who are still teenagers, you get Mel Ott, Bryce Harper, and Juan Soto. That’s it. And two of them played in the same outfield.)
Celebrating two of these players in the same season is rare, then, even if we’re strangely used to Trout, Harper, Correa, et al, coming up and humiliating their peers before they can legally drink. It feels like a trend — something having to do with year-round baseball, travel ball, and the state of modern analytics — but there’s no way to confirm that the correlation and causation are linked. Could be a blip.
So if you’re looking for a TL;DR, it goes something like this:
- It’s rare for a player 20 or younger to have a season as good as Juan Soto or Ronald Acuña, Jr.
- It’s really rare for two of them to do it in the same season.
- This is the first time that two players under the age of 21 finished 1-2 in the Rookie of the Year voting
- A player who has a season like this is on a path to the Hall of Fame, more often than not
- We should probably appreciate this more
It’s worth watching for more players like Acuña, Soto, Trout, and Harper. Maybe there is something to the trend. But for now, all that we know is that baseball has graced us with two of its most special mythical creatures in the same season, and they’ve finished 1-2 in the NL Rookie of the Year voting. It’s just as rare and amazing as you think.