Why Jorge Soler is worth keeping for the Royals in 2019 (and maybe beyond)

Without a doubt, Jorge Soler is the most polarizing player on the Kansas City Royals roster this season. In many ways, Soler may be one of the best pure power hitters to play in Kansas City in quite some time, not an easy feat considering Kauffman Stadium typically plays to pitchers, not hitters (Kauffman has the fifth-lowest HR rate in MLB this year). Currently, Soler leads the team in home runs with 17 and is one pace for 42, which would surpass Mike Moustakas’ current club record of 38 which he set in 2017. Furthermore, the 27-year-old Cuban slugger sports an OPS of .803 and an ISO (Isolated Slugging) of .269 to go along with majestic home run swings that awe the Royals faithful, as we saw on Sunday afternoon against the White Sox.

However, despite Soler’s early power displays in 2019 through 65 games and 266 plate appearance (he did have flashes in 2018 before he missed the remainder of the season after only 61 games due to a broken toe), there are considerable doubters of Soler and his future in Kansas City. In many ways, while his power numbers are solid, he has been a low-walk, low-batting average, low-OBP and high strikeout hitter in 2019. His strikeout rate is near 30 percent (about 7 percent higher than average), his walk rate is 6 percent (nearly 2 percent below average), and his BB/K ratio is at 0.20 (nearly 18 points below average). Thus, it’s not surprising that Soler’s .241 average, .293 OBP and 0.5 WAR entering the series against the Tigers fails to impress more pessimistic Royals fans. Additionally, considering his limited defensive ability, and the fact that he will be a free agent after next season, many feel the Royals should trade Soler at some point this year while his value is growing, especially since he has an inconsistent history of production in his career between the Cubs and Royals organizations (he is in his 6th MLB season).

While it may be tempting to dismiss Soler’s production as hollow, and agree that Dayton Moore should trade Soler at some point this year, I do think Soler is worth keeping for at least the remainder of the 2019 season. In the following paragraphs below, I will look at some reasons why Soler should stay in Kansas City, and why him challenging Moose’s record will not only be good for Soler and the Royals, but the Royals fan base as well.

An advanced look at Soler’s hitting in 2019…

I know some people may believe that Soler has declined as a hitter from 2018, and it’s easy to think so when you look at some of his “skill” metrics, and advanced production numbers in general. His BB/K ratio was higher last season (0.41), his wRC+ was higher (123), and he had a better batting average (.265) and OBP (.354) as well. So, it would be easy to say “Yeah, Soler is hitting more dingers, but he is not a better overall hitter in the process!”

I will refute that and say that even though his average and OBP are not ideal, that his approach and his batted ball data suggest that he is actually more productive this season than last, and he is setting himself up for a strong remainder of the season as well.

First off, here’s a table showing off Soler’s career plate discipline percentages season by season.

Even though he hit for higher average last year, you can see that Soler is actually making more contact this season. His contact percentage is up 4.1 points, and his swinging strike percentage is around the same as a year ago (0.1 percent better actually). This probably is due to a more aggressive approach Soler has incorporated this season. Last year, Soler only swung at 43.8 percent of pitches he saw. This year, that percentage has grown to 49.3 percent. Some more “Moneyball” inclined analysts may say that is a detriment, and yes, in some ways it is, especially when it comes to swinging at pitches out of the strike zone (31.1 percent, an increase from last year). But on the flip side, he is swinging at more pitches IN the strike zone as well (74.7 percent) and thus making more contact IN the strike zone (84.6 percent) than he did a year ago. The results so far display that the aggressive approach is actually benefiting him more than a “take more pitches” approach, which seemed to be the case in his first two years as a Royal.

(Footnote: this kind of change in approach is something the White Sox’s Yoan Moncada has incorporated as well, as he has become more aggressive early in the count after trying to be more patient last year and leading the league in strikeouts. Interesting correlation: both Soler and Moncada are Cuban and I wonder if they worked together in the off-season.)

Soler is making more contact this year, which is good, but also it’s how Soler is making contact that is having a big difference this season as well. Let’s take a look at his statcast data from Baseball Savant.

The biggest difference from a season ago to 2019 has been Soler squaring up on the ball more than a year ago and hitting the ball harder and with more of a launch angle as well (thus producing more home runs this season; he’s already surpassed his HR total from all of 2018 by 8). His barrel percentage is currently 12.5 (2.2 higher than last year) and his exit velocity is 90.3, his highest mark since his rookie call up with the Cubs in 2015. Furthermore, his hard hit percentage is at 42.3 (1 percent higher than last year), and his launch angle is 14.3, almost 4 degrees higher than a year ago. Hence, it’s no surprise that Soler is hitting the long ball with more frequency and greater authority this season than he ever has at the MLB level, despite playing home games at a park that suppresses HR power.

In fact, if you look at compare his HR spray charts from 2018 (left) and 2019 (right) side by side, you could see Soler has hit more home runs in deeper parts of the park, showing that his power doesn’t only translate to Kauffman Stadium, but it will translate to any opposing ballpark the Royals visit this season.

Ignore the higher batting average and OBP from a year ago: Soler is a better hitter than he was a season ago and if his BABIP stabilizes (it’s at .278 now; it was at .340 a year ago), than it’s possible he can get back into that .250 average and .320 OBP range which would make his numbers a lot more palatable.

Kansas City Royals right fielder Jorge Soler runs down an out on Houston Astros’ Brian McCann in the fifth inning during Friday’s baseball game on June 15, 2018, at Kauffman Stadium in Kansas City, Mo.

Other factors affecting his value…

One interesting development that the Royals have incorporated with Soler in 2019 is making him the primary DH and taken him out of the field completely. After 31 games in the outfield (mostly right field) this season, Soler has transitioned to the DH with the call up of Nicky Lopez, which shifted Whit Merrifield from second base to right field. The move served two purposes: to preserve Soler’s health and to mask his inadequacies in the field.

For the first point, it makes sense: Soler has only played more than 100 games once in a season (2015), and the 65 games he has played this year is already a single-season high for him as a Royal. Considering how foot injuries can prolong, the Royals decision to make him the primary DH was a smart one in terms of preserving his health so he could not only set a career high in games played this year, but also do more what he does best: hit the ball with authority.

Defensively, it’s not like Soler is atrocious by any means. For outfielders who have played at least 700 innings in the American League between 2018 and 2019, Soler actually ranked tied for 8th (with Carlos Gomez) out of 13 right fielders according to Fangraphs’ Def category which is fielding runs above average plus positional adjustment. His -6.2 mark was better than Texas’ Nomar Mazara (-7.6) and Detroit’s Nick Castellanos (-22.9, which was last), just to name a couple. You can take a look at the graph below.

But make no mistake, Soler still struggles as a defender, and if you take into consideration of his Def over his career, he has accumulated a -28.6 Def over a 2800 inning career in the outfield. At 27 years old and with an injury history, it is almost a foregone conclusion that Soler will probably spend the rest of his career as a primary DH in the majors, whether it’s with the Royals or some other AL club.

And this is what makes the “trade Soler” talk difficult. Basically, Soler his limited to half the teams in MLB, and right now, out of the 17 qualified DHs in the American League, Soler currently ranks 10th with a WAR of 0.5 and an Off (batting plus baserunning runs above average) of 2.7. Considering his limitations in the field and the fact that he doesn’t stick out of the flock of DHs currently, it’s hard to imagine Moore and the Royals getting a package in a trade that would be of fair value.

What the Royals should do with Soler…

The Royals should keep Soler…at least through the 2019 season.

Here’s why I say AT LEAST THROUGH THE 2019 season.

First off, at this point, the Royals are sellers, and other MLB clubs know this. In this day and age of prospecting and everyone trying to find fantasy keepers in the minors, prospects are valued more than ever before (I mean, look at how many Royals prospect blogs and Twitter accounts there are out there). Maybe 10-15 years ago, Soler would net a decent prospect package. But in today’s MLB, Soler would go for a fringe prospect at best at this point in the season, which would be a waste for the Royals considering Soler’s contract is pretty reasonable, he’s still only 27 at a position that isn’t affected by age as much, and he is showcasing the best hitting and power of his career.

If the Royals do intend to trade him, they should wait until the winter to do so. After all, by that point, he will be more valuable. He’ll have a complete season under his belt (fingers crossed). He will have big numbers (hopefully he surpasses Moose’s HR record) and he will be going into the last year of his contract, which will make him an easier asset to sell. Thus, those factors give the Royals an advantage in trade talk with Soler if they wait until after the season than if they try to trade now or by the deadline, where they will not have as much leverage with other clubs.

As a Royals fan, what do I want the Royals to do with Soler? I would like for the Royals to keep him and see if they can sign him to a 2-3 year extension at a reasonable price after this season . I think he could be an extremely productive DH, and from just a fan perspective, though he has his warts as a hitter, there is no Royal that’s more fun to watch at the plate currently than Soler. I think that has value for fans, even if statistically it doesn’t make much sense. I think a 3-year, $27 million or even $30 million extension would be completely reasonable for both parties should Soler finish as projected (most projections think at minimum he can be a 2.0 WAR player as a DH this season, and if he continues in a 3-year span to be in that 2.0-3.0 range annually, he would make the contract justified). I get that he may just be a slightly more athletic Steve Balboni, but in some ways, that wouldn’t be a bad thing if the Royals continue to build around him in the lineup with speed and high average hitters (which they are doing and have done in Moore’s tenure anyways).

Soler is off to a great June (.933 OPS; 3 homers) and is coming off a solid May (.808 OPS; 7 homers). Let’s hope Soler stays healthy and the K faithful can continue to experience more #SolerPower in 2019.

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