2018 was rough for Kansas City Royals fans in all regards. Just three years removed from a World Series title, the Royals fell back to earth in epic fashion. After a failed “one-last-push for the playoffs run” in 2017 with the old core responsible for pennants in 2014 and 2015 (i.e. Eric Hosmer, Lorenzo Cain, Mike Moustakas, etc.), free agency hurt the Royals’ prospects in 2018 in more ways than one. Not only did the Royals lose their top, home-grown stars (i.e. Hosmer and Cain), but Dayton Moore didn’t do the best job either bringing in the reinforcements, filling the club with retreads (John Jay, Rosell Herrera, etc.) who failed to have much regular impact on this club.
The result? A 58-104 record, tied for the second-worst record in club history along with the 2004 Royals (though the 2018 Royals were two wins better than the record-setting 2005 club). And if the record wasn’t bad enough, watching the Royals play proved to be a slog as well from a baseball fan’s perspective. Other than Whit Merrifield and his remarkable consistency day in and day out, the Royals were a bummer to watch. Sure, Adalberto Mondesi and Ryan O’Hearn showed signs of breakout, but that was in the twilight of the second half when the season was pretty much lost at that point. Alcides Escobar’s final hurrah in KC was anything but graceful (or productive), and while it was nice to give Mike Moustakas a proper send-off before he was traded to Milwaukee, he was always on borrowed time in 2018 in Kansas City, and it was hard for the Royals fan community to invest in a guy who would be jettisoned at any moment. Add that with the atrocious starting pitching of Jason Hammel and Ian Kennedy, and 2018 proved to be a season to forget for Royals fans, especially those who were spoiled by those magical back-to-back seasons of 2014 and 2015.
2019 projected to be more of the same: the marquee moves in the off-season were signing Homer Bailey (which turned out okay) and outfielder Billy Hamilton (which did not). Unlike 2018, where Royals fans were caught off-guard by the sudden regression to Tony Pena-era baseball (i.e. competing for a 100 losses), it almost seemed like a sure thing that the Royals were going to be battling in the cellar in the American League Central, and perhaps the American League as a whole. Heck, one could figure that the reason the 2019 theme was “Always Royal” was in order to put a positive spin on what was expected to be a tough, rebuilding year, as if Royals marketing were trying to say “Yeah, we are going to suck, but hey…at least our fans are always there, right?”
The record in 2019 may be the same as in 2018. With a tough stretch of games against the A’s, Twins (twice) and Braves, it will be hard for the Royals to avoid that 104 loss mark against so marquee clubs jockeying for playoff position. That being said, unlike 2018, which was forgettable by June, this year has been at least entertaining, engaging, and enthralling, despite the lackluster record.
And one big reason for Royals baseball being worthwhile in 2019 is Jorge Soler…
I have written about Soler on this blog before and for good reason: the guy has absolutely mashed this year. And despite the astronomical numbers and records he has broken in his first full season in Kansas City, there were many Royals fans who had their doubts about Soler when he was traded for Wade Davis back in 2016. Many claimed he wouldn’t stay healthy. Many claimed that he struck out too much. Many claimed that he was bad defensively. Whatever the reason, it seemed like Soler, despite the potential he sported when he was signed out of Cuba by the Cubs in 2012 after defecting a year earlier, would never be embraced fully by the Royals faithful as we entered Spring Training in 2019.
And yet here we are in September and #SolerPower is a thing with Royals Twitter. Furthermore, not only has Soler smashed the Royals single-season home run record, once set by Moose not too long ago, but he is likely going to finish as the American League Home Run leader by season’s end. Blame the “juiced” balls all you want. The fact that Soler is doing this while playing half his games in a pitcher-friendly park such as Kauffman Stadium is nothing short of amazing. After all, going into this year, it seemed highly unlikely that Royals fans would ever see a 40-plus home run hitter in their lifetime. Now, it’s possible that Soler could reach the 50-mark by season’s end.
And I’m not the only one excited about this. All of Royals nation is feeling the glow of #SolerPower in 2019.
What makes Soler so fascinating from a baseball fan’s perspective is that he is a throwback power hitter in so many ways: a more athletic and powerful Steve Balboni of sorts. His triple slash is .258/.347/.560 going into Tuesday’s game against the A’s. His wRC+ is 131 and he is worth 24.1 runs above average according to Fangraphs’ Off statistic. According to Baseball Savant, he ranks in the 97th percentile in terms of exit velocity, hard hit percentage and xSLG percentage, and he is in the 94th percentile in xwOBA. There is no doubt about it, when it comes to connecting to the ball with power, there is no purer hitter in this regard in Major League baseball today.
That is not to say Soler is without flaws. His defense continues to be woefully bad, which is why his WAR is only a 3.0 despite his astronomical offensive metrics. Soler struggles to read fly balls (his jumps rank in the bottom 4th percentile according to Baseball Savant), and due to his injury history, he tends to look rusty and hesitant when it comes to making plays. When it comes to judging him on a pure “sabermetric” end, there are certainly a lot of other hitters in the American League who have more impressive offensive and defensive resumes than Soler in 2019.
But this year, the Royals haven’t had to depend on Soler much in the outfield. In perhaps the managing decision of the year from Royals manager Ned Yost, making Soler the full-time DH proved to be the right call, though it was questionable at the time. After all, not many managers are willing to limit a relatively young player like Soler to the DH position, especially in this era of “maximizing player value.” And yet, despite the move, Soler not only has embraced the DH role, but he’s stayed healthy for a full year, something that he has failed to do in years past both in a Cubs and Royals uniform.
And by staying healthy, not only has he continued to hit dingers, but hit them in impressive fashion and on frequent occasion, as he did on Monday night in Oakland, not exactly the easiest place to hit the long ball.
There are some baseball purists out there that will prefer Whit Merrifield’s more well-rounded game or Hunter Dozier’s more solid offensive approach (i.e. higher batting average). That is not to take anything away from those two, who have also made this Royals baseball season worth watching despite the crappy record. Even though they will be talked about as possible trade fodder, it would be nice to see Dayton Moore hold onto them for at least another year, as they, along with Soler and a healthy, rejuvenated Salvador Perez, could provide a potent punch at the top of the Royals lineup. Whit and Doz’s merits are well-noted, and certainly contributed to keeping the Royals must-watch TV for hardcore baseball fans (or at least when the Royals were up to hit).
But while I like Whit racking up hits or Doz continuing to prove his own doubters wrong from a year ago, they still pale in comparison to what Soler has done this year. Soler has brought excitement to the K. He’s the guy everyone stops their conversation for when he’s up at-bat. #Solerpower is an experience plain and simple, whether it’s from a seat in the View level or in front of your television with Steve Physioc and Rex Hudler boring you about something in between pitches. And that anticipation and impact he has had this year has made the Royals worth watching, not easy in a season where most casual Royals fans stopped following this club after the All-Star break in preparation for Chiefs preseason.
2019 will forever be the season of Jorge Soler. Jorge Soler made the Royals fun. Jorge Soler saved the Royals from another miserably joyless season like 2018. And I hope Jorge Soler is not just back in 2020, but he continues to be a Royal for the foreseeable future. I hope Jorge Soler can be to Kansas City what David Ortiz is to Boston: a game-changing Latin American Designated Hitter who can make a tremendous impact not on the field, but in a city that is primarily white. I think about how great it can be if Kansas City can embrace Soler like Boston embraced Big Papi…as we all know how well that worked out for the latter parties.
Maybe that’s just a pipe dream, the pipe dream that Salvy and Soler, two Latin American players are the life force of the Kansas City baseball scene.
But it’s my pipe dream as a brown Royals baseball fan.
Whether that dream lives up to fruition, at the very least, let’s hope Soler continues to make these last couple weeks of the 2019 season fun. And let’s hope he can do it by hitting some more long balls, be it on the road or at Kauffman Stadium. After all…baseball at the K is not quite over yet.
The Royals still have some more #Solerpower to go around.