Today, after much delay, I am finally going to cover some of the players who accomplished the rare feat of finishing the 2020 MLB season with a Walk to Strikeout Ratio (BB/K) greater than or equal to 1 (which I may abbreviate as BB/K>=1 to make this less wordy). If you have read my blog before, you know this has been its primary reoccurring theme. If you have not (I assume that is most of you), welcome! I have written about this topic previously on the last three seasons (2019, 2018, 2017) and even created a Tableau dashboard to cover the history of this feat in all MLB seasons. I became fascinated with this topic when I started writing online back in the beginning of 2018 as the way the modern game is progressing, there has been less of an emphasis on penalizing players for poor plate discipline. The goal of this series of articles is to shine a spotlight on those players that standout out in this area. With the intro over, let’s get to it!
Before my write ups on the players, I wanted to mention a few things about the dashboard. While this article is coming over out 9 months after the previous season ended, I have had the dashboard updated with all regular season data through 2020 data since October. At least I’ve done one thing for this blog since 2019! That said I will hopefully be making some major updates to the dashboard this coming year as I have learned visualization techniques at work I want to try out which should provide greater clarity for users. Right now, it is useful in a self-service context, but it is nothing more than what a user could simply do on Fangraphs right now.
Overview of the Year
Anyone who is reading this should be well aware of what the year 2020 was like. It was not a great year for many of us and honestly I did not think there would even be an MLB baseball season, let alone one game. While it was not a traditional season, we did have a 60 game regular season followed by an expanded playoff format and the records from the season still count for the MLB history books.
The Qualified Hitters
Author’s note: The number in parenthesis next to a player’s name indicates the number of seasons where they have met this criteria. Additionally, stats used in this article were as of 7/1/2021 prior to the games that day.
In the abbreviated 2020 MLB season, a total of 26 players had a BB/K>=1. Among those 26, only 7 were considered qualified batters. For those unaware, a batter is considered qualified if they have a total number of plate appearances (PA) equating 3.1 times the maximum number of games to be played per season. Therefore in a normal season, a batter needs 502 (162 games * 3.1 PA per game) to be considered qualified. Since the 2020 was only 60 games long, a batter only needed 186 (60 games * 3.1 per game) PA to be qualified.
Let’s get things started with the 2020 National League (NL) Most Valuable Player (MVP), Freddie Freeman. First thing I noticed when I went to Freeman’s Fangraphs player page was that he has been a full time player since 2011 and an elite one since 2013. My how time flies. The MVP he picked up in last year’s shortened season adds another piece of hardware to a very decorated career so far: 4 time All Star (2013, 2014, 2018, 2019) , 2 time Silver Slugger Winner (2019, 2020), 1 Gold Glove (2018), and 1 All MLB Team 1 (2020) and 1 All Team MLB 2 (2019) appearance. Freeman has a full season career high K% of 24.7% (2016), but since then has not had a K% over 19%. Additionally, he has not had a BB% below 10% since 2011! With patience and a lower whiff rate for a slugger, it is no surprise he made this list in a shorter season. I would not be shocked if he did it once again before his career was over, but it seems like he would need a very strong final three months to pull it off in 2021.
Moving from one NL MVP to another, I will now discuss Bryce Harper. Harper has had a tremendous career and would probably be more highly regarded if 1) he did not come up around the same time as Mike Trout, 2) he was not continually voted as overrated by his peers, and 3) he did not have his worst offensive season by wRC+ (111) after his 2015 NL MVP season (wRC+ of 197!). In fact, Harper has been pretty good since the Phillies signed him in 2019 as his 8.1 since then ranks 26th among all active batters. Though people probably expect more from a $330 million player, he is within 1 WAR of 18th on the list and you could easily argue there is room for error there when creating an imperfect system to measure player talent (I am not going to do that now, that would be like writing a whole separate article). Harper has always been a threat to walk (a BB% above 13% since 2015), and while he’s come close to a BB/K >= 1 before, it took a short season, that probably allowed for him to keep his K% down before it could sky rocket again. His K% has spiked back into the 20s this season, but you have to wonder if the shoulder and wrist injuries are to blame rather than last year being a career K% year. Only time will tell.
“Bryce Harper who?” That is what Nationals fans have been saying since Juan Soto came on the scene in 2018. In fact, referring back to the batters with the most WAR since 2019, Soto’s 9.2 WAR ranks 17th, ahead of Harper. I have a feeling Soto will be a mainstay in this column for years to come. The 22 year old phenom has never had a walk rate below 16% (that is incredible for anyone, let alone a player so young) and seems to have elite plate discipline skills. I know he is having a down 2021, but I am assuming it is du to the injury he had to his shoulder. To my surprise I noticed while diving into his profile, if the season ended today, he would again qualify for the 2021 BB/K>=1 club. The Nationals need to sign him to a long term extension ASAP.
Next up we have the former teammate of Soto’s, the player who started this whole series of articles, the man I once stupidly compared to Mike Conley, and a World Series Champion: Anthony Rendon. While 2020 was Rendon’s first season as a member of the Angels, he still continued hit at his normal, elite level, with his wRC+ of 154 matching his 2019 total. Things came together for him in 2020 with regards to his plate discipline as his K% held steady while his BB% rose to a career high 16.4%. As of right now, Rendon’s having the worst season of his career by wRC+ (91) though it can probably be blamed on injuries he sustained in the first half rather than a decline in skills. The good news for Rendon is there is still another three months to play and he can easily turn his season around.
Tommy La Stella began the 2020 season as a teammate of Rendon’s and like Rendon, also had his first season of a BB/K>=1 in 2017 (I am really reaching for these segues). While his 2020 season saw him perform the feat with a qualified number of PA, in 2017 he only received 151 PA during the season with the Cubs. After a career season in 2019 and decent 2020, La Stella signed a three year deal with the Giants only to spend most of this season on the injured list (IL). Before he became injured though, he did not appear on track to making this list again. Hopefully with a healthy 2022 and beyond, I will have he pleasure of writing about him again.
Another corner man, and rightful TV smasher, Carlos Santana is no stranger to being included in this series. In fact, this is the third year in a row I am writing about Carlos (I’ve become close to him in that time so I feel like we are on a first name basis). As this season is tracking, Carlos is on pace to once again finish with a BB/K>=1. He has always been a elite plate discipline player with a career walk rate over 15%. While last year was a down year, posting a career worst 96 wRC+ (his only season below league average), he still managed to hold a career single season high 18.4% walk rate which was 6th best among qualified batters. Not bad for a guy who hit .199.
Two of the batters with higher walk rates than Carlos in 2020 were already mentioned above (Harper 20.1% and Soto, 20.9%), two others are elite bats (Christian Yelich, 18.6% and Ronald Acuna Jr., 18.8%) and one of them is Aaron Hicks (19.4%, a career high). The Yankees outfielder has posted double digit walk rates since 2017 though he has not being able to live up to the performance of his career 2018 that inked him a 7 year $70 million deal. In Hicks’ defense, he was spent a large portion of the past three seasons, including this one where he is now out for the season, on the IL. If Hicks could manage to stay healthy, he would be a big boon to the Yankees and may just find himself on this list in the future.
The Most Interesting of the Rest
Of the 19 players I did not cover above, I found the following four to be most interesting and worthy of my time to write up. Two such players, Tony Kemp (1), who is having a great 2021 season, and Yandy Diaz (1) are the only other players who achieved this feat with over 100 PA for the season. As of 7/1/2021, only Kemp has a current BB/K>=1. I wonder if he will be able to keep this up for the rest of the year. While Diaz does not, he is very close. Unless they slump, I think it is likely appear on my 2021 list since they both have a strong track record of plate discipline in most of their minor league seasons.
Franchy Cordero (1) was first put on my radar in early 2018 when Jeff Sullivan wrote about the then Padres prospect as a player with an incredible set of tools and potential. Also pointed out by Jeff was the main issue with Cordero was his lack of plate discipline. In 273 PA prior to the 2020 season, Franchy had a career walk rate of 8.8% and strikeout rate of 38.8%. That is why when Cordero put up a BB/K>=1 after he was traded to the Royals in 2020, albeit in only 42 PA, it caught my attention. Was this a positive sign of things to come or just a matter of small sample size? Now he is a member of the Red Sox who cannot seem to stay on the MLB roster and it seems like it was more of the latter. Still only 26 years old, I think he still has some time to turn his career around, though it will need to be seen if it will continue to be with the Red Sox after this season.
After 21 PA last year, Lorenzo Cain (1) decided to opt out of the remainder of the season. I can totally understand why he would want to do that as last year was certainly unprecedented and it is easy to make the argument there are things in life far more important than baseball. That said, I am glad to see him back playing again this year. He seems like a good dude and the Brewers could really use him to play like he used to over the remaining 1.5 years left on his contract if they want to make the playoffs.
A Few Words on the Career Leaderboard
Way back in June of 2019, I first added a section to the dashboard tracking the career BB/K of all players with a value great than or equal to 1. Additionally, I added a way to filter by active players. The only two players who qualified then that still qualify now are Albert Pujols (10) and Luis Arraez (1). Pujols, a most likely first ballot hall of famer,
has only one more guaranteed year left on his current contract is now a bench player on the Dodgers. While he has never been a high strike out player, he is still on this career leaderboard due to ten straight seasons, (2002-2011), of accomplishing this feat. To anyone who has followed his career since then, it is not surprising he has not had a season with more walks than strikeouts since.
Prior to the 2021 season, Jonah Heim (1) and Elliot Soto (1) both had careers with their BB/K >=1. However, unlike Pujols, and even Arraez, their MLB careers are much shorter, with no more than 50 total PA between the two of them. I thought Heim was a nice acquisition for the Rangers this past off season and Fangraphs’ Prospect writer Eric Longenhagen‘s positive write up of him in his 2021 Texas Rangers Top Prospect Report makes me feel confident in this thought. While he currently no longer has a career BB/K>=1, since May 1st, he has been hitting much better with a wRC+ of 105 on the season, 5% better than league average, and 17th among all catchers with at least 70 PA.
Elliot Soto, never making a Fangraphs prospect list, was with three other team’s organization before making his MLB debut with the Angels last season. This year Soto is currently with the AAA team for the cross town Dodgers and has yes to make his MLB appearance this year. For now, his career BB/K remains in tact!
Thanks for reading and have a great day!