Soto rivaling all-time greats with 1 key trait

Nationals star walked 30.3% of time in August

September 1st, 2021

In the first game of August, Juan Soto walked three times.

In the final game of August, he walked once more.

In between, he walked 29 more times. He walked, and walked, and walked some more. He just walked his way to one of the walking-est months in the history of baseball.

It’s not just that Soto walked 30.3% of the time he stepped to the plate in a month where no other qualified hitter managed to walk even 20% of the time, though it’s also that too, because that is a tremendously entertaining gap between him at the top and Joey Gallo’s 19.3% in second.

It’s that if you go through the last century of baseball, back to the start of the Live Ball Era in 1920, and you look for all months with at least 100 plate appearances, look where Soto's August ranks. Look who’s ahead of him. Look who’s behind him.

Yes, that's 11 different months from Barry Bonds. Yes, there's Ted Williams, Babe Ruth, and Joey Votto. There, too, is Soto.

(Wait, Jack Clark? Well, he did have a .459 OBP and finish third in the NL MVP voting in 1987, though some of that was his former San Francisco manager, Roger Craig, walking him 17 times in eight games that July. Wait, John Mayberry? He did post a .417 OBP that year, finishing 7th in the AL MVP.)

Now, we know where your mind is going, and that’s the state of the Washington lineup, or what’s left of it, after the Nationals dealt away Trea Turner, Kyle Schwarber, Yan Gomes, and Josh Harrison at the Deadline, leaving Soto and Josh Bell as the only established Major League hitters on most nights. Even with Soto, the Nationals just finished off a dreadful August where they went 7-20. This is not the team that won the World Series just two years ago.

That's some of it, sure. It’s not all of it. We’ll get there. But we’re not going to start there.

That’s because this is Juan Soto we’re talking about here, and it’s not like him having elite command of the strike zone was something that only appeared out of nowhere on Aug. 1. This is the player who we said “was making history” back in 2019, when he was still 20 years old; this is the player we favorably compared to Ted Williams after his age-21 season. Even before the Trade Deadline, from his 2018 debut through the end of 2020, only the legendary Mike Trout had a higher walk rate than he did.

He's the only qualified hitter this year with more walks than strikeouts, and aside from Soto himself last year, only one player 22 or younger has pulled off that trick in the last three decades: Albert Pujols.

Plus, it should be noted, he’s approached this before.

Last September, he walked 30.4% of the time, missing out on our leaderboard above only because he took just 92 plate appearances, narrowly missing out on our minimum of 100. Soto’s command of the strike zone is so masterful, in fact, that if you look at career walk rates in baseball history, among those with as many plate appearances as he has, he’s seventh on a list where “Ted, Barry, and Babe” are three of the top four.

Limit it just through age 22, and Soto has the second highest walk rate ever, on a list where all five of the other members of the top six ended up with 500 or more homers.

Or put 2020-'21 together, where Soto has collected 705 plate appearances over something like a traditional full season (167 games). He's got a 20.6% walk rate. In the last century of AL or NL history, only one single time has a hitter had at least 700 plate appearances and a walk rate better than that: Williams himself, when he won the MVP in 1949.

He is, without hyperbole, one of the greatest artists of the strike zone we’ve ever seen, and he’s younger than any of the three Top-30 Dodger prospects (Keibert Ruiz, Josiah Gray, Gerardo Carrillo) the Nationals acquired by trading Turner and Max Scherzer to Los Angeles. He does all that, and yet when he hits the ball in the air, he hits it as hard as Aaron Judge or Gallo. That’s why we talk about him so often, and compare him to Williams this early. He cannot be overhyped.

But then … we come to August. Turner, Schwarber, Gomes and Harrison are gone. Carter Kieboom, Luis García, Yadiel Hernández, Lane Thomas and Alcides Escobar are in, and while there’s been some signs of life there -- Hernández especially -- it’s not exactly a Major League caliber group of hitters.

That’s what’s fueled this August walk rage, right? Sort of. Not exactly.

It’s true that Soto is seeing fewer pitches in the zone in August. How could he not? Just look at his in-zone rate of pitches slide this year.

But also: This isn’t exactly unprecedented. It’s about what he saw in 2019. It’s about what he saw in 2020. Even the slide this year is from 51% of pitches in the zone in April to 44% in August, which is notable but not monumental in and of itself. This is not entirely about pitchers suddenly refusing to throw him strikes because of the Washington lineup.

That’s in part because the entire concept of “lineup protection” is overrated, to a certain extent, at least in the sense that it never works as well as people think it does. But after some inconsistent Washington lineups over the first half of the season, Soto has spent most of the last two months hitting ahead of Bell, the only other really established hitter in the lineup. (Yes, Ryan Zimmerman has a long history of success, but he rarely starts, and he takes Bell’s place when he does.) He's not suddenly ahead of a backup or a rookie.

What we can do is to look at Soto’s walk rate split by the hitter behind him. In theory, the better the hitter, the lower the walk rate, right? We’re not sure it actually plays out that way.

When the next batter is …

Bell: 320 PA // 20.3% BB
Zimmerman: 140 PA // 23.6% BB
Everyone else: 49 PA // 14.2% BB

He walks a ton when Bell is behind him. He walks a ton when Zimmerman is behind him. He walks slightly less when it’s been anyone else, though in so fewer scattered plate appearances that it barely matters. 

So if it’s only a little about fewer pitches in the zone, and it’s not really about a different (or lesser) batter behind him in the lineup, what is it really about? It’s about Soto, actually. It’s about his famous patience heading to new levels. It’s about swinging less often than he has in two years.

“To have that discipline to not jump, to not go out of his slug zones and to wait for his pitch -- I know he takes his chances here and there -- his chase rate is top in the game because that’s just who he is,” said Bell to this week. “He’s not wavering from it.”

Over the last 30 days, no qualified hitter has swung less often. No one has chased outside the zone less. But, also, only two hitters have swung at pitches inside the zone less. That's not to say that pitchers haven't approached the only Nationals hitting star differently since the bulk of the lineup was traded, because it seems likely that they have. It just seems more about Soto's all-time patience being taken to a brand-new extreme.

Not to say, of course, that it doesn't work for him. You don't get compared this often to Ted Williams by accident, anyway.