- Senior writer ESPN Magazine/ESPN.com
- Analyst/reporter ESPN television
- Author of “The Last Night of the Yankee Dynasty”
About 15 minutes before first pitch of a Nationals-Braves game last summer, one of Juan Soto’s sprints took him into the outfield, out behind second base, and he paused to say hi to Ozzie Albies, who talks to everyone, and after a moment, Ronald Acuña Jr. joined in, listening more than talking.
Baseball endures partly because generational threads are extended, and in watching Soto and Acuña engage, it’s easy to wonder about how Willie Mays and Henry Aaron shared similar moments in the Polo Grounds, or when Ted Williams and Joe DiMaggio said hello near the batting cage or in the hallways underneath Yankee Stadium. Mays and Aaron were both born and raised in Alabama, Mays just 2½ years older. Acuña and Soto were born less than a year apart. Williams and DiMaggio were sons of California, southern and northern, respectively.
Soto and Acuña look as if they are going to be the Mays and Aaron, the Williams and DiMaggio of their age group — all-time great talents who take turns dominating baseball’s landscape. Soto’s searing plate discipline is much like that of Williams, who thought it something of a sin to consciously hack at a pitch outside of the strike zone — and who viewed his showdown with pitchers in personal terms, as Soto does. DiMaggio was generally the better all-around player than Williams, just as Acuña has a wider breadth of talents than Soto.
Trying to rank Acuña and Soto as part of the Top 10 player rankings for each position feels almost as impossible as comparing Aaron and Mays or Williams and DiMaggio. Maybe the Nationals can take pity on a lowly sportswriter and shift Soto back to left field to ease this process.
Soto is the more refined hitter, leading the league in walks last season with 145; only two other players even got to 100. But Acuña is improving, clearly. Acuña is a better right fielder, throws better, runs better, but Soto’s dominance as a hitter is so unusual that his offense could more than offset any flaws in other parts of his play. Think about this: Acuña was leading all National League position players in fWAR (4.2) at the time of his season-ending injury on July 10 — and 47 days would go by before eventual NL MVP Bryce Harper passed him. Acuña is the first player since DiMaggio, ESPN’s Paul Hembekides reports, to score at least 300 runs and hit at least 100 homers through his first 400 career games.
But the list of elite right fielders only starts with those two. Harper plays the position. So does Mookie Betts, who finished second for NL MVP in 2020. And Aaron Judge, who could be the next $300 million player.
No position is quite as stacked as right field in MLB these days, and Acuña and Soto are at the top of the heap. Here are the top 10 outfielders at each of the three spots, based on feedback from evaluators, as well as Hembekides and Sarah Langs of MLB.com.
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