Fingers crossed that the 2021 MLB season will begin on time — and that we get to see some live baseball at the ballpark this year.
As we wait, Buster Olney continues his annual ranking of the 10 best players at each position heading into the coming season, based on input from industry evaluators. Thursday, it’s outfielders — the top 10 left fielders, center fielders and right fielders. He’s already ranked pitchers and infielders, and he will follow these with the top 10 teams on Friday.
Joey Votto travels with Ted Williams’ book “The Science of Hitting” and has built a Hall of Fame résumé based on a lot of the principles that Williams espoused — like not doing the pitcher a favor by chasing pitches out of the strike zone. Williams loved to talk hitting, and through the last years of his life, he developed friendships with the likes of Tony Gwynn.
I texted Votto that I thought Williams would’ve loved to watch the Nationals’ Juan Soto, who might be the closest replica to Williams, with his remarkable plate discipline and power. Through Williams’s age 21 year — two seasons — he had 203 walks, 54 homers and an OPS of 1.041 in 293 games. Through Soto’s age 21 season, he has played 313 regular-season games — two full seasons, basically — and has 228 walks, 69 homers among 146 extra-base hits, and an OPS of .972.
“He’s a hitting outlier,” Votto responded. “I’ll take a guess that there hasn’t been enough impetus for young players to be patient only until recently. He’s clearly taken pride in his plate discipline from an early age and been rewarded with performance and — I would also guess — supportive coaching.
“There’s a nuance to disciplined hitting that needs to become a habit. It’s not like swinging hard and hitting a ball 115 mph. That’s primal, natural. Hitting with discipline is something you elect to do. It’s partially controllable.
“There are so many factors that go into it, and I don’t want to speak for Soto, but there are certainly some habits you have to develop and reinforce when you are young. If you don’t have coaching that can support that, then the player needs to be very stubborn with his thinking, which, in my opinion, requires a strong independence. Soto, in my opinion, has that. As in: This is the type of hitter I want to be; get out of my way.”
Pitchers are on the other end of Soto’s will, as well. Soto has created a mountain of crazy numbers already, but here’s one of my favorites: When he led off an inning in 2020 — when pitchers might’ve been most likely to challenge him — Soto went 13-for-25, with four doubles, four homers, eight walks, one hit by pitch and one strikeout. For your basic .520/.647/1.160 slash line.
What follows is a ranking of the Top 10 left fielders in baseball. The identity of the No. 1 guy is pretty obvious, through the compilation of thought from folks around the industry. Other choices were more complicated, particularly by the question of who might be more suited to be ranked among the designated hitters.
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