Over the last several weeks, much has been made of the Royals team speed going into 2018. Coming off of a 104-loss season, Royals fans can at least look forward to watching the Royals wreak havoc on the base paths again. Heck, even the national media is excited to watch it. Jonah Keri of CBS listed the Royals as one of the 10 reasons to be excited for the 2019 season, saying that the Royals “terrorized opposing pitchers on the base paths [in 2018],” and that the Royals “are going to be bad again this year...so why not get even faster?”
We are all excited to see how this converted track team will perform on the diamond, but this has also caused us to forget about one guy who doesn’t fit that mold at all: Jorge Soler. Not long ago, Soler was having a career year. Through 61 games, he had posted the highest wRC+ of his career, along with what would be career highs in SLG, OBP, and wOBA. For a team that never walked, Soler spent March and April doing nothing but walking, taking free bases at an 18.2% rate.
When pitchers started pitching to him in May, he began taking them out of the ballpark and putting them in gaps, hitting as many home runs and doubles (14) as singles (14). After a four-hit performance on May 30, his bat went cold for much of June before fracturing his left first metatarsal as he tripped running out of the batter’s box on June 15. He was initially ruled out for six weeks, but that game proved to be his last in 2018.
A lot has happened since June 15, 2018, including the Royals’ hitting philosophy moving even further away from the model that made Soler successful in the first half of the season. With the addition of Hamilton and a crowded right-field competition that includes Brett Phillips, Jorge Bonifacio, and now, apparently, Terrance Gore, Soler now looks to be the likely Opening Day DH. The question is, will he pick up where he left off in 2018?
Let me start by saying this. Regardless of what power he shows in 2019, Soler is a good bet to lead the Royals in walks if he stays healthy. Ryan O’Hearn would be the other leading candidate, as both he and Soler are the only Royals who have consistently walked in more than 10% of their plate appearances for their career, both in the minor leagues and at the Major League level. Soler has always had strong plate discipline, consistently chasing fewer pitches out of the strike zone than league average. It would be surprising if that went away in 2019.
However, Soler’s success will not come down to his ability to draw walks. It will almost certainly come down to his ability to hit for power while keeping his contract rate stable. In today’s game, this is not an uncommon struggle for hitters. As pitchers continue to get better and as hitters continue to focus on elevating the baseball, contact rates continue to fall.
That hasn’t hurt all hitters. The top of the K% board has often been filled by some of the league’s best hitters. Take 2018 for example. Of the 15 worst batters in terms of K% other than Chris Davis (my lord), only three had a wRC+ below league average (100) and the lowest of those three was 94. The average wRC+ of that bunch was 117. The average wRC+ of the 15 batters who struck out less than everybody else in 2018 was 111.
Soler fits into this mold. But if he is going to strike out at around a 28% rate as he has over his entire career, he has to hit for power. Here are a few of those 15 batters who struck out more than anybody in 2018: Joey Gallo, Giancarlo Stanton, Justin Upton, Kyle Schwarber, Khris Davis, CJ Cron, Javier Baez, and Trevor Story. The common denominator between those dudes in 2018 is they all smashed. Schwarber had the lowest home run total of the three with 26 homers. Every other guy hit at least 30 and four of the eight hit at least 35. It is also worth noting that outside of Baez and Story, all of those guys are poor defenders and offer little to no value on the bases, like Soler.
We know Soler is going to strikeout a lot and walk a lot. It is not an uncommon mold in today’s baseball. The question is whether or not he can make the most of the balls that he does put in play. In 2014, 2016, and 2018, the three seasons in which Soler had better-than-league-average wRC+, he had an average 18.2% HR/FB. In 2015 and 2017, the two seasons where his wRC+ was sub-100, that number plummeted to 10.45%.
This isn’t surprising. This is always who Soler has been, both at the minor league and Major League level. The wrinkle is that we just haven’t seen that much from Soler at the Major League level. He’s been around since 2014, but he’s only played in more than 100 games in a season once and has 500 fewer career at-bats than Whit Merrifield despite having a two-year head start on him.
So, if Soler can stay healthy, this will quite literally be the first full season he ever plays in. His skill set is volatile because we haven’t ever seen him put up the power numbers required for him to find value over a full season. And even if his skill set was less volatile, his injury history would still loom.
However, if the first two months of last season were a turned corner and he can find a way to stay healthy, he could be a valuable player on talent-depleted roster and a potentially valuable trade piece come July.