You could be forgiven for not thinking much about Carlos Santana. When he came up, he was billed as Cleveland’s switch-hitting replacement for Victor Martinez behind the plate. Like Victor before him, Santana’s bat played even when his defense didn’t, and eventually Santana was moved to third base before settling in as a first-sacker.
It will probably surprise you to learn that Santana, back with Cleveland after a quick one-year stint in Philadelphia, posted almost four-and-a-half wins last year by fWAR. It may also surprise you to learn that Santana, by wRC+, has now turned out to be a better hitter than the feared Martinez - even, in some ways, an historic one.
When you think about Santana, you usually think about power. After all, the erstwhile catcher has posted 150.4 weighted runs above average (twice Martinez’s total) on the back of a mighty .199 career isolated power mark and 232 career home runs. But what really sets Santana apart is his walk total. Santana has averaged a remarkable 107 walks per 162 games in his career.
Since he broke into the big leagues in 2010, Santana is fifth in walk rate and has drawn 944 walks, more than anyone in baseball not named Joey Votto. Among active players, Santana is fourth, behind Albert Pujols, Votto, and Miguel Cabrera. That said, Santana is the youngest of that quartet at just 33, and remains by far the most effective, coming off a season where he posted a 135 wRC+.
In that light, it’s time to look at where Santana might end up among history’s best at procuring the base on balls. With another season in line with his career averages, Santana will break into the top-100 all-time in most walks drawn, passing Billy Williams and possibly making it as far as Harold Baines. If he continues to draw walks at something close to his career norms for the next four years, Santana will pass John Olerud at 1,275 walks, and break into the top-fifty.
Now, a lot depends on how Santana ages, and his power-and-patience profile doesn’t always lend itself to graceful aging curves. Santana also has almost no shot at catching Barry Bonds, who managed to draw a staggering 2,558 walks in his career. That said, passing Cabrera and Pujols, who are drawing half as many walks as Santana at this stage of their careers, seems inevitable. Then we start looking how far up the list Santana could conceivably go. At tenth all-time is Frank Thomas, with 1,667 walks.
It would be difficult, but if Santana were to play until his age-40 season, another seven seasons, and average 100 walks per year, he’d end up with 1,644 walks - just behind the Big Hurt. In other words, if Santana can keep finding work and drawing walks, he has a plausible (if unlikely) shot at the top-ten all-time in most walks drawn. Frankly, that’s rather amazing. Santana didn’t secure a full-time job until he was almost 25, and has just nine full big league seasons to his name.
Whilst we’re on the subject of elite walk wizards, whither Votto? Joey enters 2020 with 1,180 walks to his name, but is already 36 and his vaunted plate discipline showed signs of slipping last year. Votto’s 2019 BB% of 12.5%, whilst still excellent, was a far cry of his elite figures from just a couple of years ago. Still, Votto is under contract through 2023 (with a team option for 2024), and is already 67th all-time in walks.
Assuming that Votto can maintain double-digit walk rates through the remainder of his contract, he has an outside shot at passing Bobby Abreu and breaking into the top-twenty all-time. That should add luster to what is already promising to be an intriguing Hall of Fame candidacy. Notably, everyone in the top-ten except Bonds is already in the Hall of Fame.
Somewhat more quietly, Bryce Harper has begun mounting a legitimate run at the top-25. Already with 684 walks at just 27 years old, Harper hasn’t walked at a rate less than 13% since 2015, and has two 120-walk seasons to his credit - the kind that pad the numbers. If he played another decade and kept averaging close to a hundred walks per year, he’d enter his age 37 season having passed Frank Thomas and inside the top ten - and with three years still to go on his contract.
That said, there is one player who actually has a non-zero shot at Bonds’ all-time record. If you guessed anyone other than Mike Trout, you’re wrong. The perennial best player in baseball and human cheat code has somehow racked up a whopping 803 walks, and he just turned 28. Granted, a full hundred of those walks are intentional, and that number is likely to fall now that Anthony Rendon is taking up residence behind Trout in the Angels’ lineup. That said, over the last three years, Trout has pushed his walk rate above 18%; he’s averaging over a hundred walks per full season in his career, and he hasn’t walked fewer than 110 times in a full season since 2015.
In other words, if Trout kept walking at his career rate for another decade - through his age-37 season - he’d blow past Jim Thome at seventh all-time and threaten the top-five. If he played through his age-40 season and kept walking at this rate - admittedly a very difficult task - he’d pass Rickey Henderson at 2,190 walks. This would require Trout to keep drawing 110 walks per season and not get hurt, but the fact that we can even have this conversation is just more proof of Trout’s peerless greatness.