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Jorge Soler’s breakout is legit

This is real life

MLB: Kansas City Royals at Seattle Mariners Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports

Jorge Soler, former top-50 prospect and Wade Davis trade return, is having a great season and looking very much like the incredible hitter that many thought he could be. He’s approaching the Royals’ single-season home run record, something that would have been hard to imagine even a year ago. In a season where the Royals’ reward is a draft pick and not the playoffs, Soler has been one of a handful of welcome distractions from the losses. His at bats have become must-see television for Royals fans. He’s hitting the cover off the ball and I’m here to tell you, the changes he’s made are legit. With the obligatory caveats of baseball being a cruel game of inches and adjustments, Jorge Soler is looking like a star right now.

A lot has already been written about Soler’s breakout season, so I’ll try not to bore you with ground that’s already been covered, but I do want to emphasize just how great he’s been this year. He consistently ranks near the top in most “dude hits a ton” categories.

Jorge Soler 2019

Statistic Value MLB Rank
Statistic Value MLB Rank
xSLG .561 11th
Barrels/PA % 10% 13th
Avg Exit Velocity 92.4 16th
xwOBA .390 17th
Hard Hit % 48.4% 27th

The players ahead of him are the very best in baseball. It’s a good place to be, and a promising development for the Royals, who traded a local hero for Soler during a time when they may or may not have been trying to compete. He was off to a great start last year as well before he broke his foot, but it wasn’t like this. He was still hitting the ball hard (89.5 mph avg EV, 41.3% Hard Hit), but wasn’t hitting as many home runs. This year, he has increased his xSLG by 100 points this year and his average launch angle has gone from 10.9 to 14.5, all while maintaining roughly the same strikeout and walk rates. He’s become a veritable slugger in the middle of the Royals’ lineup, something they’ve lacked for basically forever.

The simple explanation for the improvement is that he’s gotten better at being Jorge Soler. He’s swinging at exactly the same rate as last year (43.8%), but he’s become more aggressive in the strike zone and he’s chasing fewer pitches out of the zone. His contact rate has increased by over 5%, and when he makes contact, it’s some of the hardest in all of baseball.

The biggest change has come to his approach at the plate. Jorge Soler sees more sliders than anyone in baseball, at a rate of 29.6%. When facing lefties, he sees 24% changeups. Down and away is how opposing pitchers choose to pitch to him, and with good reason. His batting average, slugging and average exit velocity are lowest on pitches low and out of the zone. This year, he’s lowered his whiff rate on those pitches by more than 10%. On sliders specifically, he’s making better contact at a higher rate and has raised his ISO on sliders from his career rate of .155 to a respectable .244. He still whiffs a lot on pitches down and away (68%), but he’s not as vulnerable as he once was, and appears to have a better approach all around.

The other big change? He’s absolutely destroying high strikes when he sees them. He’s always hit high pitches hard and at an optimal launch angle, but this year he’s taken that to a new level. His launch angle on high pitches in the middle of the zone is a sweet 24 degrees. And take a look at his average exit velocity on that zone.

It’s no surprise that his Barrels/BIP on that zone is an incredible 39%. He only sees about 4% of all pitches up there, but when he does see one, he’s swinging 80% of the time. Since the All Star break, he’s seen 19 fastballs in that area and has swung at 17 of them, making contact with every single one. And when he does make contact, it often looks like this.

I may be wrong (it’s happened so, so many times before), but this does not look like a player who’s been riding a lucky streak (if anything, he’s been a touch unlucky) or someone who has sacrificed one part of his game in exchange for another. These are the types of changes that lead to a real, non-fluky, totally legit breakout season.

Barring injury, he’s going to break the Royals single season home run record. But more importantly, we’re seeing a talented player take a big step forward and that’s very exciting. He’s addressed his greatest weakness and has accentuated his greatest strength. That’s a breakout I think we can believe in. He may have more work to do, too. I can’t wait to see what he does next.