One of the bigger story lines in baseball this year has been the unprecedented ascension of Juan Soto. A 19 year old prospect that had only played in 83 career minor league games, starting the year at the Low-A level would have been considered impressive by itself. But then he was in High-A. And then soon after, Double-A. Then you blink and he’s at the major league level putting up numbers that would be near the top in almost every category on a leader board. The numbers suggest he might even be the best teenage hitter ever.
Players who have a career path that is even half-comparable to Soto’s are rare. Players that crush competition much older than them like Soto are rare. But just for fun, let’s try to find the best candidate to pull off an unbelievable climb through the minor league ranks.
While doing a little searching around, finding this “comp” for lack of a better term (I really don’t like doing player comps), I developed a very loose criteria. For one, the player has to be really young compared to his league-wide peers. Second, the player has to be performing at a very high level (think 130 wRC+ plus). Third, the player has to show extreme polish for his age, the best tool for this being plate discipline number (BB-rate, K-rate, swinging strike-rate). And like I said, players like this are extremely rare, so the narrowing down part wasn’t too hard.
The best candidate I found was a very familiar name in the prospect world. Familiar for two reasons, one being that he’s in no way an under-the-radar type guy. The other being he has two brothers with the same first name that have also played professional baseball (and he’s also Erick Aybar’s nephew!). This prospect lays in the Tampa Bay Rays farm system, going by the name of Wander Franco.
If you remember Franco, it’s probably because not too long ago he was one of the bigger players on the international market. The younger brother of two Giants farmhands, Franco was signed as a 16-year-old switch-hitting shortstop out of the Dominican Republic, inking a 3.825 million dollar deal with the Rays last international signing period.
Once short-season ball began, Franco was placed on the roster of the Princeton Rays of the rookie level Appalachian League. That itself was quite the accomplishment for the 17-year-old, as the average age of his competition rounds out to 20.3 years of age. Out of 195 hitters to receive a plate appearance in that league, he is one of two 17-year-olds. For more perspective, only 1.9 percent of qualified hitters in that league since 2006 have been 17-years-old or younger.
But age has been just a number for Franco this year, as evidenced by some of his ranks among 61 qualified Appalachian League hitters
- wRC+: 9th
- AVG: 5th
- OBP: 18th
- SLG: 6th
- ISO: 7th
- BB/K: 8th
- SwStr%: 4th
Taking things into a historic perspective (FanGraphs minor league data only goes back to 2006), he’s putting together one of the better power/plate discipline seasons in the recent history of the Appalachian League.
Let’s narrow the crop down to players more similar age-wise. As I mentioned above, 17-year-olds (or younger) have only made up 1.9 percent of qualified hitters in the Appalachian League since 2006. That makes 15 players, including Franco. The biggest caveat to this analysis is most of these guys are players that haven’t had much of a career past the lower-minors. The most notable names out of this crop include Wilmer Flores, Amed Rosario, and Vladimir Guerrero Jr. Here’s where Franco stands out of this group of 15.
In BB/K ratio, he’s first by a considerable margin.
The power numbers aren’t even close.
And swinging-strike percentage is the same story. The average rate for a hitter 17 or younger in the league is 25.8 percent. It’s 27.3 percent if you take out Franco’s rate of a ridiculously low 5.1 percent.
Comparing any prospect to Juan Soto would be insulting to his accomplishments. I’m not trying to do that. The point of this had more to do with the amazing things Wander Franco is doing at his age, much like how Soto has achieved amazing things at his age. But if you pressed me and asked “who is the next Juan Soto?,” I’d guess I’d have to go with Wander Franco.