This slugger is on a Bonds-ian pace

... for drawing walks, that is

August 11th, 2020

Here’s something to keep an eye on in a wacky season: is chasing Barry Bonds.

No, not in that statistic; Bonds’ career and single-season homer records are plenty safe for now. But after back-to-back three-walk games against the White Sox to close out the weekend, the Indians' first baseman has accrued 23 walks across Cleveland’s first 17 games of the 2020 season. Santana has gone walk-less in only four games so far, and his last such contest was more than a week ago. The man cannot stop drawing free passes.

If Santana were to maintain his current pace across a typical 162-game slate (which, of course, he won’t be able to do in 2020), he’d be on track for a 219-walk season -- and, no, that is not a normal number. The only hitter to record a 200-walk season in MLB history is … Bonds, who drew a record 232 of them in his video-game 2004 campaign. And even the mighty Bonds only crossed the 200-walk plateau once.

Santana, while an often prolific slugger in his own right (he’s topped 25 homers four times), is not Bonds, of course, and one doesn’t need to look much farther than his rather absurd .188/.451/.250 slash line in 2020 to figure that out. In the last week alone, Santana notched two games in which he reached base at least three times without knocking a single base hit, and his only homer came back in Cleveland’s fifth game of the season.

But Santana’s early hitting woes make that walk total sort of impressive, in its own strange way. Bonds struck fear into nearly every pitcher he faced in the early 2000s; more than half of those record 232 walks he drew in ‘04 were intentional (120). Meanwhile, Santana -- with all of three RBIs on the season -- has tied for the 13th-most walks through a team’s first 17 games of any season in modern history (and the third most since Bonds, behind 2007 Jim Thome and 2013 Joey Votto). He's done so without drawing a single intentional pass, and none of the sluggers atop that list were sporting anything nearly as low as Santana's .701 OPS.

The Indians’ woeful offense might have something to do with this. Apart from offseason acquisition César Hernández and José Ramírez, every other Cleveland regular is off to a painfully slow start. In fact, the Indians’ team .196 batting average is not only the lowest of all 30 MLB clubs, but also the lowest by any club through its first 17 games since the 2014 Astros. If an opposing pitcher has either fallen behind Santana in the count or feared his bat, Santana’s teammates haven’t given that pitcher much reason to think twice about putting him on first base.

Let’s also give credit where it’s due to Santana, a walk savant for years running. Santana’s lowest walk rate over the past five seasons prior to 2020 was 13.2%, and he finished within the top 3% of qualified MLB hitters in that category in four of those five campaigns. In fact, Votto is the only hitter who has drawn more free passes than Santana since his big league debut back in 2010. Always among the disciplined hitters, Santana has chased a career-low 12.8% of pitches outside the strike zone this year -- second only to Twins catcher Mitch Garver (9.4%) among qualified hitters entering Monday’s games.

Maybe whatever walk total Santana winds up with won’t resonate much beyond this summer, especially if he doesn’t start hitting and slugging. But in this weirdest of seasons, his pace is certainly strange enough to keep tabs on for the next seven weeks. Santana won’t reach 200 walks and he won’t catch Bonds, but maybe he can beat Bonds’ single-season record 37.6% walk rate (Santana sat tied for second, with Bonds’ ‘02 campaign, at 32.4% after Sunday). At the very least, should Santana play in all of the Indians’ games like he has so far, his 81-walk pace would be the fifth-most by any player in any 60-game stretch within a span of 75 days or fewer in the modern era, trailing only Bonds (97 in 2004, 84 in ‘02), Babe Ruth (83 in 1920) and Ted Williams (82 in 1954). Now that’s a club to be in!

Rooting for ball four? That’s strange, but so is everything about 2020. We’re on “walk watch” now, thanks to Santana.