Soler and Franco are producing intriguing, but slightly frustrating, seasons (and in different ways)

Without a doubt, designated hitter Jorge Soler and third baseman Maikel Franco have been two of the Royals’ most dynamic hitters during the first 22 games of the shortened Major League season. After Sunday’s loss, both Soler and Franco are tied for the team lead in home runs with five (along with utility player Whit Merrifield). However, Soler and Franco have reached that mark by different approaches this season, which is interesting since both Soler and Franco worked with Miami hitting coach Mike Tosar and Royals assistant coach Pedro Grifol this off-season. Tosar is often credited for helping Soler finally tap his potential as a hitter in 2018 and 2019 in Kansas City, with his franchise-record of 48 home runs being a testament to Tosar and Soler’s collaboration in the off-season.

Despite Franco joining the Tosar, Soler, and Grifol team in Miami this Winter, Franco’s approach has been much different so far from Soler, who has gone through his own peaks and valleys as a hitter this season so far (which has included more valleys as of late, unfortunately). And while Franco’s power has been much welcomed to this Royals lineup, he has also produced some frustrations to Royals fans who are looking for an approach that could produce perhaps some more consistent success.

So, let’s take a look at both Soler and Franco, their different hitting approaches and metrics this season, and what that could mean for the Royals lineup for the remainder of 2020 and perhaps even in 2021.

There is no question that Soler was perhaps one of the best stories of the 2019 Kansas City Royals. While the Royals lost 103 games and struggled through year two of a rebuilding campaign in Ned Yost’s final year as manager, Soler dazzled Royals fans with his extraordinary power and improvement at the plate which resulted in a club record of 48 home runs (as well as a new season record for Cuban-born hitters). Soler was initially seen as a free-swinging bust in his first season with the Royals in 2017, as he posted a 32 wRC+ and -0.9 WAR in 35 games and 110 plate appearances. Furthermore, it only made things worse in the eyes of Royals fans that Soler was traded for fan favorite Wade Davis, who was known for his closing expertise during the Royals’ World Series campaign in 2015.

However, in 2019, Soler seemed to validate himself in the eyes of Royals fans. Not only did he hit a club record for home runs, but he also improved across the board as a hitter: he posted a wRC+ of 136 and a WAR of 3.6 as the Royals’ primary DH, and he also played in all 162 games and put up a 679 plate appearances. Thus, Soler addressed two issues Royals fans had with him: he showed a better ability to recognize and pounce on hittable pitches (he posted a decent 0.41 BB/K ratio for the second straight season), and he also stayed healthy, something he struggled to do in both Kansas City and Chicago.

Expectations for Soler were high but slightly tempered going into 2020. People expected some kind of regression in the home run power (after all 48 would be tough to match, even in a non-COVID affected 162 games season). However, fans and experts expected Soler to continue to develop his batting eye, which saw monumental gains in 2018 and 2019 thanks to Tosar’s tutelage and Grifol’s mentoring on the Royals bench. And thus the hope was that perhaps Soler could be a more complete hitter in 2020, even if he didn’t hit as many dingers.

Unfortunately, Soler has struggled immensely with making contact and striking out, which has been especially amplified by a nightmare road trip which wraps up Monday against the Twins. Take a look at this tweet which listed his numbers on the series:

And if that wasn’t scarring enough, Soler also made Royals history in this Twins series, but this time in the wrong way from his home run record a year ago:

What’s interesting is that with all the strikeouts, many Royals fans may be thinking that Soler is back to his free-swinging days as a Cub and early Royal. In fact, it’s quite the opposite: Soler may not be swinging enough.

So far in 2020, Soler is posting a swing rate of 39.4, according to Statcast data, which would be the lowest rate of his career and nearly 5 percent lower than 2019. And while he is chasing balls out of the strike zone less at 23.9 percent (in comparison to his career chase rate of 256 percent), he is unfortunately swinging at less strikes as well, as his 57.9 zone swing rate is 10.2 percent lower from 2019. And this has had an effect on his whiff rate, as he is swinging and missing 34.5 percent of the time, two points higher a year ago.

What’s intriguing about Soler’s metrics is that when he does make contact, he is hitting the ball as hard as ever. His exit velocity ranks in the top eight percent of the league, his expected slugging ranks in the top seven percent of the league, and his barrel percentage ranks in the top one percent of the league. Soler isn’t weaker as a hitter when he gets a hold of a ball…it’s just that he’s not swinging enough or not getting enough pitches to put his power to use.

And that’s mostly because pitchers have adjusted. Soler has truly been respected as a hitter in 2020, and that shows in the metrics. Soler has only seen a meatball percentage (balls with a high percentage of being hit for power) of 3.7 percent, which is 1.5 percent lower than a year ago. But, to make matters worse for Soler, he’s not pouncing on those meatballs, as his 57.1 meatball swing percentage is 24 percentage points lower than 2019. If Soler want to capture that 2019 magic, he has to be more aggressive, but in more pronounced ways. He’s taking way too much in his at-bats, especially early in the count (30.3 first pitch swing percentage, which is almost 7 points lower than a year ago), and that seems to have had an effect on his overall plate discipline, as his BB/K ratio sits a 0.24 after Tuesday’s game.

While Soler’s problem may center on not swinging enough, Franco has been the polar opposite. After showcasing a more patient approach in Philadelphia a year ago, Franco has been more like Salvador Perez and less like Soler in 2020. Franco, according to Statcast Data, is swinging the bat 0.6 percent more than a year ago, and is walking less (3.6 percent to 8.4 percent last year) while striking out more (21.7 percent to 14.3 percent last year). In fact, his BB/K ratio of 0.17 is actually not just a significant decline from a year ago (it was 0.59 in 2019), but it would be his lowest ratio since his rookie season in 2014 in which it was 0.08.

However, Franco’s free-swinging approach has worked to his advantage thus far. He’s barreling the ball significantly better, as his 9.7 barrel rate is 2.8 points higher than a year ago. Furthermore, he’s making more solid contact as well, as his 11.3 rate is 6.8 points higher than his last year in Philadelphia. And he’s actually doing this while hitting less fly balls (11.3 FB rate) than 2019 (21.8), though he’s making up for it by hitting an insane amount of line drives instead. His line drive rate is 35.5 percent, which is 15.3 percent higher than a year ago. While that is most likely unsustainable, it does show the gains that Franco has made with Tosar’s tutelage this offseason.

That being said, while Franco’s productive start should be celebrated, there are a lot of metrics to worry about when it comes to determining if he’ll be able to sustain this production. He’s whiffing more than a year ago, as his whiff rate is 28.8 percent, which is 6.8 percent higher than a year ago. That rate has especially been hurt by him chasing more out of the strike zone as well. Last year, he only chased 33.9 percent of the time. This year? He’s chasing 35.9 percent of the time, and he’s only making contact on those chases 56.7 percent of the time, a 10.7 percent decrease from a year ago in that category.

And while Soler is posting elite barrel rate and exit velocity despite the swing and whiff issues, the same can’t be said of Franco. His barrel rate only ranks in the 59th percentile of the league and his exit velocity ranks in the 62nd percentile. While those are not bad rankings, they aren’t of the caliber of Soler, and it could mean Franco could experience a strong regression as pitchers adjust to him over the second-half of the 60 game season.

Soler and Franco are both exciting Royals hitters who have showed this season that they can change a game with one swing of the bat. That was evident in game one of the double header on Saturday, as Franco’s home run off of Jake Odorizzi re-energized the Royals and kept them in the game, even if the contest still resulted in a Royals loss.

However, as their metrics prove, both hitters will go though extreme peaks and valleys at the plate this year, and that undoubtedly will frustrate Royals fans at times (with it being especially the case with Soler the last four games). Soler’s overly-patient approach will result in hair-pulling backward strikeouts and perhaps flailing at breaking balls out of the zone in 0-2 counts. But his power metrics show that he’s still one of the most dangerous hitters in the league when he gets a hold of ball. Hopefully after the off-day, Soler and Grifol can work on a couple of things to help him become more aggressive earlier in the count, which could help him tap into that power.

As for Franco, he’s going to be a roller coaster. He’s obviously embraced a new, free-swinging approach as a Royal, and that is going to produce big, run-producing moments, as well as a lot of bad strikeouts and easy ground outs that could have been avoided by laying off waste pitches early in the count. But it’s important to remember that Franco is not a long-term solution, and Royals fans should just enjoy the roller coaster as it is, for it’s unlikely that Franco will be around after 2021, when he officially becomes a free agent.

Soler and Franco are definitely flawed hitters, albeit in different ways, which makes the frustration fascinating. And that most likely will affect their long term value, as both will be free agents after the 2021 season. Will Dayton Moore see upside in their approach, even if it may not be the most efficient long-term and produce vitriol from impatient Royals fans? Or will Moore explore trade avenues regarding the two, knowing that the Royals could benefit from trading them now when their value may be highest?

These won’t be easy questions for Moore to answer either this year or perhaps even next Winter. But as for now, Royals fans should just embrace the “up and down” hitting styles of Soler and Franco.

Because despite the agony they produce at times, when they are on…they are some of the most enjoyable Royals hitters to watch.

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