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Sliding away with Jorge Soler

He’s seeing more sliders than anyone in the league.

MLB: Detroit Tigers at Kansas City Royals Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports

On the broadcast Tuesday, Rex Hudler lamented that Jorge Soler isn’t seeing as many fastballs anymore. It’s all sliders and curves... breaking pitches, according to Uncle Hud.

That’s kind of true. Nobody is seeing a higher percentage of sliders this year than Soler. According to Statcast, 28.5 percent of the pitches Soler has seen this year are sliders, the most in the game. (Statcast says the batter seeing the second highest percentage of sliders is Hunter Dozier at 26.7 percent. If you watch a Royals game, you’re guaranteed to see some sliders.)

The slider-heavy strategy makes a lot of sense against Soler for a couple of reasons. One, he crushes fastballs, so it’s kind of helpful if a pitcher has a decent secondary pitch he can lean on. Soler is hitting .331 against four-seamers this year with 20 of his dingers coming on that pitch.

Second, the slider from a right-handed pitcher sweeps down and away from Soler, presenting a tantalizing offering. Especially if it starts in the zone and breaks out, where it’s difficult to Soler to do any kind of damage. This is where most of the sliders are ending up against him this year.

Soler Slider Heat Map 2019
Baseball Savant

While Soler whiffs in a fair share of his plate appearances, we can still classify him as a disciplined hitter. He chases just 26.8 percent of the time compared to the league average of 31.5 percent. Again, according to Statcast, Soler sees more pitches down and out of the strike zone than in any other location, by over a 3 to 1 margin. Indeed a full 30 percent of all pitches Soler sees in a plate appearance are down and away, out of the strike zone.

The good news is, Soler does lay off the majority of those pitches. He’s swinging just 26 percent of the time on pitches low and away. The bad news is, even when he does offer at a pitch in that location, he’s extremely likely to miss, failing to make contact of 70 percent of his swings in that area. And on those rare occasions he does make contact, it’s not good contact. It’s probably going to be a weak grounder. His hard hit rate on pitches low and away is 19 percent. He’s hit just a single home run off a slider in that area. Witness:

And it wasn’t even that far out of the zone! It certainly wasn’t “down and away” by any means. More “away,” but just barely.

But back to the original thesis where Soler is seeing a lot fewer fastballs and a ton of sliders. That’s actually changed just a bit over the last month. From Brooks Baseball, the percentage of breaking pitches Soler has seen in the last month and a half has actually declined.

Soler - Pitch Type %
Brooks Baseball

So while Soler is certainly still seeing a healthy share of sliders, he hasn’t been challenged with as many of late. Kind of odd given the data laid out above. The results aren’t surprising. Soler hit 10 home runs in August, his highest total of any month this year. Thus, it’s not a surprise that his .663 slugging percentage was also his highest for any month. In seven games in September (through Sunday), Soler has three dingers and a .600 slugging percentage. Pitchers have decided to challenge him with more fastballs. He’s winning.

The White Sox changed up that strategy on Tuesday. Soler, saw just a single four-seam fastball and went 0-4 with a pair of whiffs.

Soler Pitch Chart vs White Sox (9/10/19)
Baseball Savant

Although Savant classifies a number of pitches as “cutters” those could just as well be sliders, the majority from White Sox starter Ivan Nova with a couple from lefty Aaron Bummer. (While StatCast classifies the pitch Nova throws as a cutter, FanGraphs and Brooks call it a slider. It averages about six mph less than his fastball and breaks like a slider.) You can see the Chicago game plan on avoiding the four-seamer and locating down and away. They missed in the zone a couple of times, but that was early in the count and Soler didn’t offer. When Sox pitchers did offer down and out of the zone, Soler swung on two of the six pitches. He missed on one and foul tipped the other.

For the season, Soler is hitting .331 against the fastball with a stratospheric .777 slugging percentage. On the slider, he’s managing just a .205 BA and a .397 SLG. His whiff rate of 46 percent against the slider is the highest of any pitch he sees.

The White Sox got it right on Tuesday, and on an evening when the ball was flying out of the yard in the early innings, that was absolutely the proper game plan against the Royals designated hitter. It will be interesting to see if the Sox follow the formula as they wrap up their season series this week.

Soler is having a breakout season and the slider isn’t some sort of foolproof pitch to get him out. It can be risky. Hang one and he can deposit it in the fountains in left-center. Still, it’s probably the pitcher’s best chance to get Soler out. They’ve moved away from it in the season’s second half. Will they wise up and turn to it more down the stretch?