For the first time in his career, it appears that Jorge Soler is playing baseball unimpeded by injuries and ineffectiveness. The first 61 games of last season were the closest we had gotten to a Soler firing on all cylinders after he spent 2017 fighting injuries and being mostly horrible at the plate.
In 2019, Soler is playing every day, and he is playing well. That is, he’s hitting baseballs very hard and very far. His 20 homers put him on a 43-home run pace, which would be the Royals first 40-homer season. However, for much of the season, his power value has been brought down by him seemingly forgetting how to get on base.
As a professional, Soler has always brought two real skills to the table. First, his raw power. Even when he was struggling, it was easy to see the power potential he had. But secondly, he has been someone who could be counted on to draw walks at a reasonable clip.
When his season ended last season, Soler was on a pace that would have seen him walk over 70 times, something that hadn’t been done by a Royals hitter since Billy Butler did it in 2013. Since 2000, only four Royals have reached 70 walks in the season, with Alex Gordon, Mike Sweeney, and Carlos Beltran joining Butler.
Frankly, 70 walks is not an earth-shattering figure. In 2018, 41 hitters had at least 70 walks. However, for an organization that has historically not been able to draw free passes, Soler brought that ability to the table. From 2016-2018, Soler walked in 11.2% of his plate appearances. Since 2000, there have only been six individual seasons from Royals players with a BB% that high. Over the course of seven seasons in the minors, his BB% rested at 13.4.
Fast forward to June 8, 2019, and Soler’s BB% was sitting at a career low 5.7%. Not just a career low, but a complete outlier from his career numbers. In the majors, the closest he had ever gotten to 5.7% was 6.2% during his first stint with the Cubs in 2014, which accounted for just 24 games.
Through June 8, Soler’s OBP rested at .286, well below his career average. Now, we can’t dismiss that he was also hitting just .236, so even a reasonable BB% wouldn’t have him where Royals fans would like to see him.
Still, his lack of on-base skills was diminishing what would otherwise be a breakout season from Soler. So much so that many questioned whether or not he was even a replacement-level player, despite his 40-home run pace. And to be clear, if you believe in WAR, he was not. On June 8, his rWAR was -0.1, thanks to some of the worst defense in the league and missing on-base skills.
Our own Shaun Newkirk wrote about Soler’s true value this past Tuesday, where he talked about the diminished value of home runs in 2019:
This is the third-most home run heavy season in the live ball era, spanning nearly 100 years now, which makes home runs cheap. Home run-only hitters, which Soler has been for the most part this year, are playing in the third-worst year for their skill.
The important thing Newkirk made sure to note of was home run-only hitters. Entering Thursday’s slate of games, there were 13 hitters with at least 20 home runs. Only two of those players — Franmil Reyes and Jorge Soler — had an fWAR below 1.0. And of those 13, five were top-10 fWAR players, while four more were in the top-30.
All of those guys bring other skills to the table. Soler’s second skill, historically, had been getting on base, something that he hadn’t been doing. That is, until last week. As the Royals were getting ready to win their first series in nearly two months on June 13, Soler entered the series finale against the Tigers with 15 walks in 275 plate appearances. In his next 32 plate appearances, he walked seven times, as well as homering three times.
In the past week alone, Soler’s OPS jumped from .806 to .833, his wRC+ from 108 to 115, and his BB% from 5.8% to 7.5%. Most notably, Soler drew 30% of his walks this season in the past week. That includes his current stretch of six consecutive games with a walk, the second longest stretch of his career.
The longest stretch came last April, a nine-game stretch that included 12 walks. It was during that stretch that we really saw the on-base ability and plate discipline potential that Soler had. During March and April of 2018, he walked in 18% of his plate appearances, good for a .434 OBP, and didn’t swing at a ton of pitches out of the zone. However, he managed just two homers during that stretch. Then came May, when walk total was cut in half, thanks to swinging at far more pitches out of the zone. He was also swinging at more pitches in the zone, which resulted in 14 extra-base hits, including six homers.
Royals fans have been waiting for Soler to put both sides of his game together since they traded for him. The question is whether or not he can hit for power and get on base at the same time. We have yet to see that over a prolonged stretch of games, but for the last week, we have gotten a taste.
Soler’s value is going to be tainted by the sheer volume of homers around the league, his atrocious defense in right field, and his mediocre skills on the bases. Those things aren’t likely to change. If he can continue to get on base without losing power, though, his season at the plate could be special.