By: Chris Larson
A little over two years ago, the Kansas City Royals and Chicago Cubs made a trade with one another in, which then Royals closer, Wade Davis, went to the Windy City, in exchange for fringe prospect/potential power hitter, Jorge Soler. At that point, the Cubs saw very little in terms of promise in the way that Jorge Soler had been swinging the bat and he basically looked like he was going to turn more into a DH as opposed to an everyday outfielder, which doesn't work for a National League team.
Last year, the trade looked as though it was heavily in the Cubs favor, especially given the way that Wade Davis performed for Chicago at the back end of their bullpen. Davis did a phenomenal job and was one of the best relievers in the game and raked up plenty of saves before hitting free agency this winter. On the other hand, Jorge Soler had the worst offensive season of his career and was put on the shelf right from the start of the season with a strained left oblique. Soler's struggles at the big league level got so bad, that he was again later optioned back down to the minors, for more development.
Following all of that, many around the game, particularly those in the Royals organization, were left wondering if this would be a trade that would ever benefit them or give them the everyday DH/part-time outfielder that they saw in Jorge Soler when he originally was on their radar. However, so far this year some of those concerns have been laid to rest and it looks like Soler could be coming into his own.
Soler, 26-years old, has vastly changed his approach at the plate and really found ways to improve his swing against opposing pitchers. According to an article written by Maria Torres for the Kansas City Star earlier this month (Link: http://www.kansascity.com/sports/mlb/kansas-city-royals/article210258879.html), Soler was often seen using an iPad during his time away from the field to help identify weaknesses in an opposing pitcher's delivery and basically receive an abundant amount of analytical information that only technology could educate him about. Rather than relying on his old methods for swinging, Soler revamped his entire swing, the approach he took to the plate every time he stepped up for an at bat, and worked an endless amount of hours this past offseason on all of this.
While it's important to note those changes, it is also important to identify certain statistical information which can help to illustrate the improvements in Soler's offense. The only true way to find out if a hitter has improved or not is to look at these various metrics and compare them in the past as a means of developing an established argument.
For starters, let's take a look at Soler's strikeout percentage this year compared to last season. So far this year, Soler is striking out 25.8% of the time through 213 plate appearances. Last season in 110 plate appearances or 35 games, Soler struck out 32.7% of the time. That is a drastic difference even though the sample size this season is nearly double what it was last year. Not only does that help to illustrate how Soler is working the entire plate better, it also indicates that he is becoming a more disciplined hitter and really waiting for the pitches that he wants to hit.
Furthermore, Jorge Soler has learned how to work the entire field when he steps up to the plate for an at bat rather than automatically hitting the ball to a specific zone of the field. Take a look at this chart as an illustration:
Focusing on the first column, the number of pitches that Soler is pulling has decreased this season compared to last, which shows that he is hitting the ball to both sides of the field rather than solely to the right side as a right-handed hitter. In addition, the number of balls traveling to centerfield has increased, which illustrates that Jorge Soler has developed more power in his swing, while the number of baseballs that have gone to the opposite side of the field has slightly increased as well. All three are good signs for someone that is just starting to reach their peak.
Beyond those analytical measures, let's also talk about Soler's first-pitch strike percentage (F-Strike%) as well as Soler's swings and misses percentage (SwSr%). Compared to last year, Soler is striking out less on the first pitch that he sees (64.6% of the time compared to 62.9%), but has seen a slight uptick in his swing and miss percentage (13.5% last season compared to 15.1% this year). Furthermore, Soler's eye for the swing zone has increased as illustrated by his swing at pitches outside the zone (O-Swing%), which is currently 28% compared to 23.1% last season. Finally, Soler has also improved at swinging within the zone, which can be calculated as (Z-Swing%). So far this season, his Z-Swing% is at 67.2% which is up quite a bit from 60% last season. All of the technology that Soler has relied on this past offseason and so far this season has benefitted him in his vision and methodologies to recognize certain weaknesses in opposing pitchers delivery.
While Soler's plate discipline has increased, much of the offensive weight lifting that Jorge Soler has provided for the Kansas City Royals has come in the form of power. To start off, just take a look at Soler's slugging percentage last season compared to this year. In the 35 games last year, Soler had a slugging percentage of .248, while so far this year through 49 games, Soler's slugging percentage has been .451. As is the case with any hitter, the higher the slugging percentage, the more productive a hitter is when they are up to bat. So far this season, the average slugging percentage among 160 qualified hitters, is .436. Soler is above that which is a very good thing.
Lastly, let's end the discussion by discussing Soler's soft, medium, and hard contact percentage rates, which are illustrated by the chart below:
As discussed earlier, Soler's power has really started to show quite a bit more often this season compared to last which is absolutely indicated by his hard contract % in the chart above. As a hitter becomes stronger and has more confidence in their swing, that value is always going to go up. In addition, Soler is showing less middle-of-the-road and light power on many of the hits that he is getting, which is something to note. Ever since scouts first saw Jorge Soler, they saw him as a definite power hitter and someone that would likely go yard more often than not, which is one of the prime reasons why he was seen as a Designated Hitter (DH) by the Chicago Cubs.
As is the case with anything in baseball, it is unknown if Soler's current pace will continue or if he will keep this up all season, but the early signs of improvement so far this year have been very encouraging. The Royals have to be hopeful that Jorge Soler pans out to be the hitter that they traded for and Soler will start to feel better about himself as time wears on and he starts to see the results of all of his hard work. As they often say, practice makes perfect, and in this situation, that may very well be the case.