Today, I am going to cover some of the players who accomplished the rare feat of finishing the 2021 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 four seasons (2020, 2019, 2018, 2017) and even created a Tableau dashboard (though it could use a major makeover) 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!
Overview of the Year
After the 60 game pandemic shortened MLB season that was 2020, the 2021 season was much more normal. While there was still the occasional breakouts and injury designation due to COVID-19, each team played a full 162 games resulting in a regular sampling of baseball data to explore. There were 132 batters who were considered qualified. Remember a batter is considered qualified if they receive at least 502 plate appearances (PA) (3.1 PA * 162 games) in a regular season. The 2021 was an MLB season unlike any other. For the first time in the history of the sport, there was only one qualified batter who had a BB/K >=1.
The Qualified Hitter
Author’s note: The number in parenthesis next to a player’s name indicates the number of seasons where they have met this criteria.
That one player is none other than, Juan Soto (2), an 2021 MVP Candidate, 2019 World Season Champion, and rival to Mike Trout as the best pure hitter in the sport. Soto walked in 22% (BB%) and struck out in 14.2% (K%) of his PA in 2021. If you are not aware, that is extremely good. The 22% BB% was the highest of all qualified batters in 2021 by 4.2%. This is not fluky as his plate discipline metrics back these skills up. His Out of the Zone Swing Percentage (O-Swing %) was 15.1%. That is the lowest among qualified hitters in 2021 and if we extend the window 2017, the first season I did these recaps, it is the lowest among all qualified hitters in that time frame. His Swinging Strike Percentage (SwStr%) was also 6.3%, one of the best in the league. When pitchers put the ball in the zone, he does not miss much and when they throw it outside, he is rarely chasing.
For those who are unaware, Soto is only 23 years of age and will be for the entire 2022 season. Someone so young doing this is very special. I was attempting to write code to see how many other hitters at his age have done this exact thing before in order to get some potential player comps, but due to other priorities and coding issues, I decided to get this article out without them. I may explore this later as an exercise for myself. For now, please refer to this tweet by Jeremy Frank for some related context.
How about that for comps? If you are not following Jeremy Frank on Twitter and like interesting baseball stats, then do yourself a favor and give him a follow.
The Most Interesting of the Rest
I could write about how Tony Kemp (2) accomplished this feat for the second year in a row, this time in 397 PA. I could also write about how catcher Yasmani Grandal (1), known for on base skills, accomplished this feat for the first time in his career in 375 PA with an impressive 23.2% BB%. However, I am not going to as it would just distract from the fact that this recap has turned into a Juan Soto appreciation post.
Updates on the Career Leaderboard
After the 2020 season, I wrote about Albert Pujols and Luis Arraez in this space as active members of the more career walks than strikeouts club with more than just a handful of PA. While I am mentioning them again this year, it is for more unfortunate reasons. After the 2021 season, both players find themselves no longer members of this exclusive club.
Arraez is only 966 PA into his career, is young, and currently sports a career 0.1% difference in career BB% and K% so there is still a chance he can make it back in. However, as of writing this, Pujols is in the twilight of his career and without a team. Even if he finds a spot on an MLB roster, he would need to be even more selective at the plate. After walking 14 times and striking out 45 times in 2021, his career walks and strikeouts are 1345 and 1349 respectively. He’d have to make up a deficit of only 4 walks, but the way his career is trending, this does not seem likely.
To have a full career of more walks than strikeouts is incredibly hard to do, especially in the modern area. Pujols, one of the best hitters of this century, only managed to do it due to the strength of the first half of his career. That is why it is incredibly rare for someone to join this group with some many PA in their career. Normally you get players with a only handful of career PA showing up on this list each year. Instead, we have the main topic of the article, Juan Soto, joining the club with career 2003 PA.
Pujols was less a walks machine and more of a never strikeout while hitting the absolute crap out of the ball and drawing walks kind of player. While he was elite for the first half of his career, it took him until his 8th season in the league to surpass 100 walks in a single season. Soto is a different animal. He surpassed 100 walks in a season in only his second season. As I mentioned above, his walk rate is one of the best in the league, his strikeout rate is below average, and he has not even entered what is considered his prime playing years yet. There is so much room for growth! Due to his style too, he should accrue a much greater number of walks to pad his stats for the decline phase of his career.
Don’t just take my word for it, let’s look at what the 2022 projections have to say about him. Steamer projections, housed on Fangraphs and their own site, is widely regarded as the standard for baseball projection systems and projects Juan Soto down for 135 walks and 96 strikeouts. ZIPS projections, also housed on Fangraphs and created by their current writer Dan Szymborski, projects Soto for 144 walks and 104 strikeouts. Both projections seem to be on the same page, Juan Soto is a walks machine who should handily have a BB/K > 1.
It is very hard to project the future and even harder to project the more distance future. After his time with the Cardinals, Pujols seemed like a lock to produce and stay a member of this statistical club. Hell, the Angels paid a lot of money because they thought that would be the case. Yet, time comes for us all. While Soto is doing remarkable things on the baseball field now, he is no lock to remain in the BB/K >= 1 club I continue to write about year after year. However, if I had to bet on one current player to end their career with more walks than strikeouts, there is no better bet than Juan Soto.
Thanks for reading and have a great day!