The single most important offensive statistic is on base percentage. Yes, batting average is sexier, on base plus slugging more inclusive, and weighted runs created plus more indicative of total offensive value, but simple OBP is the foundational building block for how offense works in baseball.
The reason is simple, and is easily illustrated through a simple change in perspective. In a standard baseball game, outs are a finite resource. Both teams get 27 of them. The better you avoid outs, however it happens, the more runs you will score, because you are bringing more guys up to bat. Scoring runs is as simple as going through your lineup as many times as possible by avoiding outs. Sequencing—the order in which offensive outcomes takes place—is obviously important, as is lineup construction, but both bow to OBP.
Batting average is obviously the largest component to on base percentage, but the second-largest component is the base on balls. Walking increases on base percentage, and it is what makes the OBP kings, like Barry Bonds, truly special.
Enter Jorge Soler. The Cuban slugger is turning in a season for the ages, walking and getting on base at a truly prodigious rate.
The Kansas City Royals are celebrating their 50th season this year. In those combined 50 seasons, there have been 764 individual players with at least 90 plate appearances, including Soler this year. After walking last night against the Boston Red Sox, Soler’s walk rate of 18.2% is fourth all-time among Royals.
Fourth. All-time. Among 764 individual player-seasons.
And, lest you think that this feat is belittled by the Royals’ long history of swing-happy players, it is not. Expanding those same parameters out to all 30 MLB franchises over the last half season yields a player list of 20,584. Soler’s 2018 campaign ranks 195th in walk rate, in the 99th percentile.
But walk rate is only important inasmuch as it portrays to sweet, sweet OBP, and Soler is killing it in that regard, too. Again, with the same parameters as before among all Royals, Soler’s .434 OBP through 90+ PAs ranks fifth (below George Brett in 1980 and 1985, Kevin Seitzer in 1986, and Hector Ortiz’ 99 PAs in 2000). Expanding to all 30 teams, Soler’s OBP this year ranks 151st, once again in the 99th percentile.
And from a pure numbers game, Soler is on pace for a truly astounding number of walks. His 18 walks through 28 games translates to a 104-walk pace, and nobody has intentionally walked him yet. If he gets there, 104 non-intentional walks would rank fourth all-time in Royals history.
There are a few caveats here. First is that Soler almost certainly won’t continue to walk at this high a rate. His career average is 10.1%, which is very good, but a far cry from his current 18.2%. And if Ned Yost sticks with Soler in the two spot ahead of Mike Moustakas (or anywhere else in the lineup ahead of Moose, for that matter), teams may be less interested in working around him than were when the likes of Cheslor Cuthbert, Paulo Orlando, Alcides Escobar, and Drew Butera were hitting behind him.
And regarding the OBP—Soler is a career .249 hitter, and currently has a .407 BABIP; neither that nor his .304 batting average is going to hold.
But the glory of OBP is that average is only part of the quation, and Soler is getting to the promised land by walking and walking and walking. His overall production has also been astounting, as his 148 wRC+ is at MVP candidate levels and ranks 12th all-time among Royals if the season were to end today.
So your eyes aren’t deceiving you: Soler truly is having an incredible season.