By: Chris Larson
The Kansas City Royals might not be the most relevant team at the moment given where they are in their rebuild and the standings. After all, as of today, the Royals sit in fourth place in the American League Central, 29.5 games back of first place, with an overall record of 43-78. Kansas City has just 13 more games to go before they have been mathematically eliminated from the playoff picture.
Regardless of that factor, it doesn't mean that everything has been bad news for the Royals or that this season has been a waste by any means of the imagination. Every team experiences a rebuild to some degree or another at some point in time, with some teams experiencing a deeper rebuild such as the Kansas City Royals, compared to other teams in markets like Boston and New York. While that has been the case and Whit Merrifield has predominantly been the name that you hear linked to the Royals the most often, there is another individual that is having just as impactful of a season and someone that has been a huge catalyst for the Royals lineup.
That individual is none other than 27-year old rightfielder, Jorge Soler. Soler made his official MLB debut a little over five years ago and came over to the Kansas City Royals from the Chicago Cubs in exchange of reliever, Wade Davis. At the time, Soler was having a very hard time fitting into the overall picture of where the Cubs were and where they wanted to go moving forward. Beyond that, the Cubs started to have doubts about whether or not he would be a primary outfielder or would eventually wind up being a Designated Hitter down the road.
Well, as Soler has shown this season, he is more than capable of being an outfielder and he has quite a bat as well to back up his overall value to the Kansas City Royals. So far this season through 506 plate appearances, Soler is batting: .259/.349/.552 with 114 hits, 24 doubles, 35 home runs, 87 RBI, 53 walks, and 133 strikeouts. When you put all of that together, it is good enough for a (2.2) WAR, the highest WAR metric value that Solar has ever had in the big leagues, and combines for an overall oRAR (Offensive Runs Above Replacement Level) value of (28).
Furthermore, among right fielders around baseball with at least 400 plate appearances, Jorge Soler ranks second in home runs (35), second in RBI (87), fourth in Isolated Power (.293), sixth in wOBA (Weighted On-Base Average) (.371), and fifth in wRC+ (Weighted Runs Created Plus) (131). It's quite an accomplishment how high Soler ranks in those categories considering the other names ahead of him. For example, when it comes to home runs, the two NL Most Valuable Player candidates - Christian Yelich and Cody Bellinger - lead the way in home runs (Bellinger with 40 and Yelich with 39), while Bellinger ranks just ahead of Soler in RBI with (90). While he's certainly not getting nearly as much national attention as the aforementioned Cody Bellinger and Christian Yelich, those two instances show how impactful Jorge Soler has been this season for the Kansas City Royals and why he has legitimately made himself a pillar to build around moving forward.
Beyond all of those stats and figures, it's really interesting to evaluate Jorge Soler and his batted ball skills. According to the data provided by FanGraphs, among right fielders with at least 400 plate appearances, Soler ranks sixth in pull percentage (46.1%), twenty-second in opposite field percentage (21.3%), twenty-first in soft contact rate (13.6%), and fifth in hard contact rate (46.1%). From those figures, it's easy to draw the conclusion that Jorge Soler has changed his overall approach at the plate enough to add power to his swing and focus on becoming a pull hitter rather than a hitter that focuses on hitting the ball to the opposite field.
For a wider perspective, take a look at Jorge Soler's batted ball figures dating back to the start of the 2017 regular season, when Soler first became a member of the Kansas City Royals organization, compared to those figures from this year. The data showcased below is courtesy of FanGraphs.
As you can see, there's no obvious differences between the pull% and opposite field% rates. However, when you get to the soft contract and hard contact rates that where things get interesting. From the table, it showcases that Jorge Soler has experienced almost a 9% dip in soft contact and has increased his hard contact rate approximately 15%. The figures from this season are going to look different at the end of the year because there are still 41 games left to be played for the Royals, but the point of the improvements in both of those categories will still remain the same.
Another key thing to point out when looking at Jorge Soler's data sets from the past few seasons is the fact that he is now healthy and finally has solidified himself on the baseball field. Sure, Soler might be 27 years of age and finally reaching those peak seasons, but there have been different circumstances that might have affected his overall performance over that period. For instance, during the 2017 regular season, Jorge Soler was shuttled back and forth between Triple-A and the big league club a few different times and last year his season stopped in mid-June due to a left toe fracture. That fracture ended up keeping him on the 60-Day Disabled List (now called the Injured List) before making a rehab assignment at the end of August which resulted in Soler not being activated by the Royals until the offseason in November.
Given that, it's fair to also mention that in the equation of the success that Soler has experienced this season and the step forward that he has taken in his professional big league career. However, to continue the discussion, let's look at the type of pitches that Soler has seen not only this season, but in the past, as well as the average velocity on those pitches. Once again, thanks to the wonderful data collected by FanGraphs, which is showcased in the graphic below.
As you can see again, not a lot of substantial differences across the various data sets presented. It seems like Jorge Soler might be hitting fewer fastballs, but that's also because the amount of secondary pitches being thrown has increased across the league. The amount of sliders he is hitting has increased, while the remaining other pitch types have decreased from the previous seasons. When it comes to evaluating a hitter based on pitch type, it is going to fluctuate because it is dependent on what pitchers are throwing around the league, but the velocity is the area you want to focus on the most.
In terms of velocity, things have stayed pretty consistent for Jorge Soler dating back to the 2017 regular season with slight increases depending on the pitch type you might be looking at. Despite Soler changing his approach at the plate and becoming more of a pull hitter, the velocity amounts haven't followed suit, but still are right about average on most of the pitches showcased. Furthermore, as an extension to the talk of exit velocity, Jorge Soler does rank in the Top 30 in overall Hard Hit Percentage.
According to data collected by Baseball Savant, Soler ranks twenty-seventh in Hard Hit Percentage of at least 95 miles per hour, among batters with at least 50 batted ball events. Soler has hit (150) baseballs at least 95 miles per hour so far this season for an overall percentage of (48.4%). Beyond that, Soler is tied seventh when it comes to Barrels-Per-Plate Appearance %. In that category, Soler has a (10.3%) value tying him with Aaron Judge of the New York Yankees and C.J. Cron of the Minnesota Twins. On average, Jorge Soler has (16.8) Barrels-Per-Batted Ball Event putting him twelfth on the list in that category.
Although the Kansas City Royals might not be the most relevant team at the moment, that doesn't mean that nothing is going right for the team or that there haven't been bright spots that have come forward in what looks like another dismal season. While Whit Merrifield might garner a lot of the attention, Jorge Soler has been just as effective and the glue that has helped hold the Royals lineup together. With good health, the ability to have an everyday position, and the fact that he is beginning to reach those peak seasons, Jorge Soler has become the next best hitter that no one knows much about. However, as word gets out around the league about his impact, that's going to change and opposing teams are going to learn very quickly about the damage that Soler can do in various situations.