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Here, in its entirety, is the list of every player to achieve a 20% walk rate in a season before age 26:
This should be incredible. Here is a tiny collection of men whose talent was not just notable, but paradigm-shifting, recasting the boundaries of what is possible on a baseball field. A name on this list once suggests the player will have a career as a no-doubt, first-ballot Hall of Famer. A name on this list twice suggests the player is arguably the greatest hitter of all time. And here we are, lucky enough to see this group add a new member for the first time in half a century, to see it add him twice, still with years to go until he turns 26. (Perhaps you want to call it one and a half times, rather than two, owing to the small pandemic sample of 2020. Fair enough! But the fact that this hair exists to be split in the first place is remarkable in and of itself.) This is something that baseball has not seen in a long, long time. So: Yes, this should be Incredible.
But if you have watched Juan Soto, even if only a little bit, it does not feel incredible so much as it feels simply reasonable. Ruth, Williams, Mantle, Soto, hm, yeah, checks out.
This is but one of the metrics that capture his general skill as a hitter. At this point, you may be growing a bit tired of hearing the (many) others, like: Soto is one of just 10 players in modern history whose first four seasons resulted in an OPS+ above 160. Or: He had the best season ever by a teenager hitter (142 OPS+ at age 19) and has surpassed it in every one of his seasons since. Or: Did you see his Home Run Derby? But it is his walk rate that stands out the most. It can take years to develop such a keen eye for major-league pitching; there is no reliable shortcut to this kind of discipline. There are no accidents here: Ruth, Williams, Mantle. And Soto.
Yet perhaps you want to argue that there’s a little bit of an accident here, or, at least, a little bit of luck. Perhaps you want to argue that this success is owed partially to lineup protection rather than plate discipline. (Just look at Soto compared to the rest of this post-trade-deadline Nationals squad and, well, it probably makes sense.) But that’s not right. As Mike Petriello wrote for MLB.com at the end of August, if you analyze his performance with various hitters behind him, you’ll see that there’s not a meaningful difference there in how often he draws a free pass. And lest you think that he’s simply had more opportunities for walks as pitchers have changed their approach for him—there’s little evidence of opposing teams pitching around him that regularly. Soto still sees just as many pitches in the zone as the average hitter. (Almost exactly so: 51.6% of pitches to Soto this year have been in the zone compared to 51.5% league-wide.) Yes, he gets plenty of intentional walks, currently leading baseball with 22. But if you were to strip out those IBBs … he’d still lead in walks. Which is all to say that while you can never separate a hitter from his lineup entirely, Soto’s impressive walk rate comes very much from him, not from his context.
How? Exactly what it seems: Soto is fantastically, almost preternaturally good at recognizing the zone, and he lays off just about everything outside of it. His chase rate is the lowest in baseball at 11%. That makes him far less likely to swing at a pitch outside the zone than a typical hitter would be: MLB’s average is 28%. He’s especially skilled at laying off the high fastball, which gives you incredible visuals like this:
There are any number of ways to represent how much better he is here than almost anyone else. Like the fact that when hitters this year have been down 0-2, they’ve gone on to draw a walk in just 3% of PAs, unless you are Soto—who has worked a walk in 12%. Or that his walk-to-strikeout ratio is not just the highest in the league, but so dramatically, laughably so. (Soto’s BB/K is 1.6, while no other hitter has better than a one-to-one mark.) There is no one else in baseball right now who understands the zone quite like this, and there is certainly no one who makes better use of it.
This is not a traditionally sexy skill; plate discipline is hard to capture in a highlight, being as it is about the absence of action, rather than action itself. It calls for an appreciation of empty space. Yet Soto makes it impossible to look away from—grinning, shuffling, playing along. His restraint has its own special energy, crackling through each at-bat, suggesting that there is a joke here and he is in on it. Go ahead, it seems to say, take your time. Soto will wait.
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