In 2019, Jorge Soler broke - nay, DESTROYED - the single-season club home run record and became the first Royals player ever to lead the league in home runs when he smashed 48 dingers. They were not wall-scrapers either, they were massive blasts into the stratosphere.
But as Jorge Soler heads into the summer of his fifth season with the Royals, that 2019 season is beginning to look like a huge outlier.
Jorge Soler, split by seasons
And this season he is off to his worst start of all. He has a putrid line of .175/.258/.319. There are 153 qualified hitters in baseball, and Soler ranks ahead of just seven of them in wRC+. Because of his defensive limitations, he is dead last in WAR, according to Fangraphs. You don’t need analytics to tell you that a player that can’t hit and can’t field is the least valuable player in baseball.
The biggest area of concern is his huge whiff rate. Soler has always struck out a lot - the year he led the league in home runs, he also led the league in strikeouts. But he has managed to spike his strikeout rate significantly. In 2019, he had a strikeout rate of 26.4 percent, just a bit higher than the American League strikeout rate of 23 percent. Since the beginning of the 2020 season, Soler’s strikeout rate has skyrocketed to 33 percent, the seventh-highest rate among all qualified hitters in that time.
So if he had the same 26 percent strikeout rate he had back in 2019, that would be an extra 11 balls in play this season - significant, but that doesn’t fully explain his awful line. He has had some bad luck. His exit velocity and hard-hit rate are actually higher this year than in 2019. His batting average on balls in play is just .242, lower than the league average of .288, suggesting he may be hitting them right at defenders. Statcast measures “expected slugging percentage” based on exit velocity and launch angle, and Soler has the seventh-greatest difference between his expected slugging percentage and his actual slugging percentage.
What has truly changed is how many of his fly balls are leaving the yard. In 2019, 28 percent of the flyballs Soler hit left the ballpark. This year, it is just 8.7 percent, and that’s with a higher flyball rate than in 2019. Statcast suggests the stadium could be a factor - had he hit in Wrigley Field this entire season, his expected home run total would be 11, not his current total of 4 measly dingers.
But he hit half his games in Kauffman Stadium in 2019, so that can’t explain why he’s hitting so poorly this season. Let’s look at the average distance of the balls he is connecting on. In 2019, Soler averaged 348 feet on his flyballs, seventh-most among hitters with at least 50 flyballs. This year he is averaging 317 feet on his flyballs, the same as light-hitting infielder César Hernández. What gives? Is Jorge Soler not eating his Wheaties?
Could it be the deadened ball? A ball that doesn’t travel as well could affect a hitter like Jorge Soler if balls that would have been home runs in the past are falling into gloves on the warning track. But the data on the effects of the new ball are unclear. Average flyball distance was down in April, but home runs-per-fly ball were up over past Aprils. And this still wouldn’t explain why Soler has gotten so much worse than his peers despite using the same ball.
Could it be the weather? Unlikely. The Royals have played eight games with a game time temperature of 50 degrees or less. That’s a lot, but less than their Central Division rivals, like the Twins, who have played 14 games in such weather.
Whatever the reason, the Royals are dead last in the American League in production from their right fielders (.183/.239/.284), with Soler starting 27 of 47 games out there. They cannot continue to have a black hole at a position that is traditionally filled by a run producer. So what are their options?
With the return of Adalberto Mondesi, Nicky Lopez could move back to his more natural second base position with Whit Merrifield moving back to right field. Ryan O’Hearn can see some time at DH with Salvador Perez resting his legs there on occasion. The Royals could even call up red-hot Edward Olivares up from Triple-A Omaha to be in the mix.
Would the Royals bench their $8 million player? The money is a sunk cost, but it may be hard to bench a former home run champ knowing what he’s capable of once he gets it going. And it is hard to get back on track with sporadic at-bats. If Soler continues to struggle well into the summer, there will have to be a point where this is the only option, but the Royals may not be there yet.
Soler had limited value even when he was a home run champion because of his defensive limitations, but he has much less value now that he’s hitting well under the Mendoza Line. Home runs are cheap, so sluggers are in less demand, but it is hard to call Jorge Soler a home run hitter right now when he has fewer home runs than Michael Taylor. No one wants an $8 million player that can't hit or field, even with his past prowess, so forget about any kind of deal.
It may seem a bit premature in the season to flat out release Soler, but on the other hand he is hitting just .203/.291/.382 in 89 games since the beginning of the 2020 season. Perhaps it is a bit unfair to lump these two seasons together with the weirdness of the entire situation, but Soler has been struggling for awhile now. Most likely the Royals would bench him first before resorting to flat out releasing him, and it’s not like there are a ton of great hitters at Omaha that need to get at-bats, so Soler may still be one of their best options for now. We will see how long that remains to be true.
Stick with him
This is the most likely scenario for now. Soler may get a day off or two to clear his head - and we should give him some kudos for being able to stay on the field, an issue that plagued him early in his career. But he looks lost at the plate right now, and it is getting worse - he is 1-for-his-last-27 with 14 strikeouts.
Perhaps the Royals are counting on him warming up when the temperature rises. Maybe getting back into the rhythm of a more normal baseball season will get his bat going. The Royals don’t have a ton of great options to turn to, but if Soler continues to hit like this, anything will look like a better option.