Juan Soto took his 99th and 100th walks of the 2021 campaign (versus 76 strikeouts) in the third of three with the Marlins in Miami on Thursday night. Going into last night’s opener in New York’s Citi Field, the Washington Nationals’ 22-year-old slugger had reached base in 13 of his last 14 games, with a .556 OBP in that stretch.
Soto is the only player in the major leagues this season with more walks than Ks on the year.
Talking with reporters on a Zoom call following the second straight loss to the Marlins, Soto was asked if he was tired of all the walks he’s been issued this season, including a total of 14 intentional walks, which was tied for the major league lead?
“I mean, I prefer a walk than strikeouts, so, I like it,” he said. “I like it. Every time I take a walk I don’t mind it at all, even if they intentionally walk me.
“Sometimes it’s tough because you want to get the RBIs, you want to try to help the team, either way, but it is what it is.
“If I walk I know I’m helping my team either way, like I did today, I just scored for my team.”
Soto has the plate discipline to deal with how other teams approach him though, knowing he has to wait for his pitch, and rarely chasing out of the zone. His 20.5% BB% was the best league-wide among qualified hitters going into the weekend, his .444 OBP the best, while his O-swing%, the percentages of pitches swung at outside of the zone, was the lowest in the majors (15.2%).
“I just got to keep myself in the strike zone, just try to look for a specific pitch, if they don’t throw that, just walk,” Soto said, “... but if they throw it, just try to don’t miss it. Sometimes they throw it once or [twice] in a series, and they can throw it five times in a series, but if you miss it you won’t see it again, so just try to be ready for that pitch and try to not miss it.”
There’s also the challenge of not getting much to hit in the zone, and then having a pitcher, like the Marlins’ rookie Edward Cabrera, throwing filthy changeups for strikes that you have to try to react to. It’s not easy. It’s hard to be patient, and hard to be ready for when they do finally throw you some strikes. [ed. note - “See Soto’s at bat against Jeurys Familia on Friday night.”]
“Sometimes. Sometimes it’s kind of hard, like yesterday,” Soto said on Thursday night, “... when you see a guy that you’ve never seen before, and he just throws you some nasty changes right down the middle and it’s just tough for me, it’s kind of frustrating, because you know it’s pitches that you can smash, and I just took it. But the thing is we just got to keep grinding and keep it going.”
“It’s definitely difficult,” Soto’s manager, Davey Martinez, said before the first of three with the Mets on Friday, “especially when you haven’t faced [a pitcher] before. There was quite a few guys that they said it was a changeup, they said it was a split, some guys thought it was just a two-seamer that [Cabrera] was throwing. So we had all kinds of mixed ideas, and Juan obviously saw it as a changeup, which is what we thought.”
When he does get pitches to hit, aside from those changeups from Cabrera, Soto is hitting them too, and hitting a lot of them out. He hit 11 home runs in 332 plate appearances before the All-Star break this year, as he struggled to elevate balls for a time, but since the break, he’s hit 10 in 155 PAs going into Friday’s game, with his 21st on the season on Thursday, and he is still taking his walks, with 42 (vs 24 Ks) in 36 second-half games, and a .523 OBP in that stretch.
“I think he’s still hitting the ball good,” Martinez said on Thursday. “The big thing about it is he’s getting walked a lot. We know that. I like the fact that he’s accepting his walks, he’s just got to be ready. We always talk about, ‘Hey, they’re going to make one or two mistakes per at bat, you just got to be ready to hit them.’”
Martinez has, in the past, compared Soto’s plate discipline to what he saw from Barry Bonds during the legendary slugger’s big league career, explaining on MLB Network Radio back in December of 2020, “I played with Barry Bonds, and I watched him take pitches I obviously would have never taken.
“For me, the way [Soto] takes pitches, the way he’s engaged on every pitch, it’s incredible.”
Bonds didn’t have his first 100-walk season until he was 26, in his sixth season in the majors, long before he started getting what’s now known as the Barry Bonds treatment later in his career.
Soto already has two 100-walk seasons at 22 years old. Kind of impressive.
“I’m very impressed,” Martinez said on Friday afternoon. “Like I said, this kid at a young age really understands the hitting portion of the game, he does — he’s going to do whatever it takes to get on base. It’s something that he’s not selfish in the way where he’ll want to go up there and just swing. He’ll take his walks and get on. We always talk about — I talk to these guys about how to become a better teammate, and that’s one way to become a better teammate, just getting on base for the next guy and the next guy getting on base for the next guy, so he goes up there, and I told him, I said, ‘Look, I definitely want you to hit. There’s no doubt about it. When you get a pitch to drive be ready for it, because I want to see you take a swing and put the ball in play,’ but he’s going to get the ball in the strike zone, he’s going to work at bats, he’s going to work counts, and he’s good at it.
“And like I said, he’s not afraid to accept his walks. He’s not afraid to hit with two strikes, as we all have seen, he’ll go up there with two strikes and it doesn’t seem to bother him at all.”