Juan Soto is approaching Paul Bunyan territory in terms of his mythical accomplishments. In a similar vein to baseball legend Michael Jordan being so good in the NBA Finals that his team never went to a game seven. Jordan’s Finals stats missed out on seven total games across six Finals because he closed them out too quickly. Soto has been that good at baseball.
In just four seasons, Soto has evolved to a level that few players have ever achieved. In 2021, Soto drew 145 walks. This number is so comically high that just 13 players in Major League Baseball history have hit the mark, combining for 24 seasons. However, there is a curse associated with those players. None of them ended their career with 3,000 hits.
Soto is so good at baseball that he actively plays less baseball. To use Soto’s 2021 season as an example, despite playing in 151 games and having 654 plate appearances, Soto ended with just 502 at-bats. While those walks help Soto’s Washington Nationals, they hurt his quest for 3,000 hits.
While none of the 145-walk players are in the 3,000-hit club, six of the non-Soto players are in the 500 home run club. The players who have hit 145 walks multiple times are the three most common answers to “who is the best hitter in MLB history?” Barry Bonds (six times), Ted Williams (five times), and Babe Ruth (three times) are those answers.
Bonds ended just 65 hits shy of 3,000, and he would have gotten to the milestone if American League clubs had a collective brain cell in 2008. While Bonds only had a batting average of .298 for his career, that is significantly higher than some members of the 3,000-hit club (such as Cal Ripken Jr.).
The problem for Bonds was his MLB-record 2,558 walks in his 22 seasons. He had 12,606 plate appearances, but nearly 3,000 were “wasted” because he walked to first base. Bonds was so good at not playing baseball that opposing pitchers chose to give Bonds first base for free 688 times (also a record). If those 688 plate appearances were competitive, Bonds would just need a batting average of .095 to get to 3,000 hits.
Somehow, it gets better. When Bonds was eating a balanced breakfast and turning an OPS of 1.300 into average, he had a .349 batting average. Across 573 games and 2,443 plate appearances, one might imagine Bonds racked up more than 700 hits. He won four consecutive MVPs, but he had 573 hits: one per game. On the other hand, he drew 755 walks including 284 intentional walks.
Williams did miss three seasons of his prime because of World War II (and most of two seasons due to the Korean War), but he still had the profile of a 3,000-hit club member. He had a stellar average of .344, and he is famously the last player to bat .400. While that season receives the most attention, he also had a .388 season and two other seasons in which he won the batting title and batted over .355. Despite this ridiculous effort, he finished 346 hits shy of 3,000.
Williams drew 2,021 free passes with 258 intentional walks. He had 9,792 career plate appearances, but only 7,706 became at-bats. To get to 3,000 hits on that few at-bats, Williams would have needed a .389 average. Williams’ incredible plate discipline (and an MLB-record .482 on-base percentage) made it virtually impossible for him to become a hit merchant. Even in the season he batted .406, he only had 185 hits. For context, Whit Merrifield had 184 hits in 2021.
Soto is often called the modern-day Williams. The moniker fits like a glove. Williams is the only player to have more walks in an age-22 season than Soto’s 145 last year. Naturally, Williams drew 147 walks, but that is the second-most famous number of his season. First is his .406 batting average.
Like Williams, Ruth has an excuse. He was primarily a pitcher through his age-22 season. However, Ruth became an everyday player in 1918 and started walking. Ugh. By 1919, Ruth was walking 100 times per season, a mark he cleared 13 times. When Ruth retired, he had earned 2,062 walks with 34 official intentional walks (only tracked from 1928 to 1935).
Ruth had a career batting average of .342, but he would have needed a .357 average to eclipse 3,000 hits in his 8,399 at-bats. It is a shame that more than 2,000 plate appearances were “wasted” on those pesky walks. Ruth did have some stereotypical big hit seasons, cracking 200 hits three times, but he never led the league in hits. The greatest irony is that Ruth won a batting title, but it was not the season he hit .393. Harry Heilmann happened to hit .403 in 1923.
Ruth led the Majors in walks a ridiculous 11 times, maxing out with 170 walks in the aforementioned 1923 season. With the New York Yankees, Ruth had a scarcely believable 20.1% walk rate. In 1920 and 1923, Ruth had a 24.3% walk rate. Soto has cleared 20.0% in each of the last two seasons, but he needs a solid bump to get to 24.3%.
For the traditional crowd (such as the 1936 Hall of Fame committee that voted for Ty Cobb on more ballots than Ruth), Soto is dangerously close to becoming too good at baseball. He has the most walks through his age-22 season in MLB history. In Soto’s three non-COVID seasons, he ranks first, second, and second in terms of walks accumulated for a season of that age.
Of the 18 players who walked at least 1,500 times, only four are in the 3,000-hit club. However, those players also cleared 3,000 games played, so they were closer to being walk accumulators than the 23-year-old record-setter. Soto has a career walk rate of 18.6%. Rickey Henderson came in with a 16.4% walk rate. Carl Yastrzemski posted a 13.2% walk rate. Stan Musial only had a 12.6% walk rate. Pete Rose did not even have a 10.0% walk rate.
Soto could break up the string of Bonds at the top of the walks leaderboard. Come back to this article when Soto walks 178 times in 2022.
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