The Royals overall have been off to a surprising start as they are 9-7 through the first 16 games of the season. That being said, the Royals offense has been off to an up and down start through the fist 15 games of the 2021 season, as they are posting a wRC+ of 95, which ranks them 16th in the league, according to Fangraphs. While it’s not necessarily a bad place to be, the Royals will need to be slightly better if they indeed want to be a playoff team in the American League by season’s end.
On a positive note, Salvador Perez is once again mashing at the plate for the Royals (he is posting a wRC+ of 164 through 63 plate appearances), and Whit Merrifield continues to be a productive force at the top of the Royals lineup (133 wRC+), per usual. However, the rest of the Royals lineup, especially in the middle of the order, has been more inconsistent, much to Royals fans dismay.
Specifically, the Royals have not gotten stellar production from Jorge Soler and Hunter Dozier to begin the 2021 season.
In order for the Royals to compete, the Royals will need both Soler and Doz to be productive forces in the middle of the lineup, much like they were in 2019.
Two seasons ago, Soler and Doz were a Kansas City non-steroid equivalent of Oakland’s “Bash Brothers” from the late 80’s and early 90’s. Soler set the Royals home run record with 48 dingers that season, while Dozier hit 26 home runs and posted an .870 OPS in his first fully healthy season at the big league level. Unfortunately for both players, as well as the Royals, both Soler and Doz missed time due to injury in 2020, and there was hope that, if fully healthy and recovered, that the dynamic power duo could one again produce in the Royals lineup much like they did when baseball last had fans in Kauffman Stadium back in 2019.
So far this year though, the numbers have been pretty bleak for Soler and Doz.
Currently, Soler is posting a wRC+ of 72 in 58 plate appearances, which is mostly hurt by a strikeout rate of 37.9 percent, which is the second-highest rate on the team (only Kyle Isbel’s 42.9 percent strikeout rate is higher). As for Doz, his strikeout rate is lower than Soler’s at 30.8 percent, but he has demonstrated absolutely no power thus far at the plate this season. His ISO at .028 is the lowest of any Royals hitter with 10 or more plate appearances, according to Fangraphs, and his 7 wRC+ is also the lowest of players in the same category (the next lowest hitter in wRC+ is Andrew Benintendi, who still is 47 points higher than Dozier in wRC+).
Thus, with these metrics being known, should Royals fans panic or be pessimistic about Soler and Dozier’s outlook for the remainder of the season?
Well, not quite. There are some concerning signs, certainly, regarding the two Royals power hitters, especially when diving deeper into their profiles so far this season. However, there are some promising signs, and it is far too early to be counting out Soler or Doz just yet.
Nonetheless, that doesn’t make stomaching Soler and Doz’s struggles easier to stomach.
Soler: Less fastballs; More breaking balls; More struggles against the latter
This year, pitchers have had a pretty distinct strategy when it comes to attacking Soler at the plate: increase the breaking balls, decrease the fastballs.
Let’s take a look at his pitch percentage by season, and notice the gap between the red line (fastballs) and blue line (breaking balls) decrease since 2019:
It is not a surprise that pitchers have been less apt to throw the fastball against Soler, this season especially considering what he did against the pitch in 2019. During his record-breaking season, Soler posted a .455 wOBA, and a .766 xSLG (expected slugging) on fastballs. In fact, 31 of his 48 home runs in 2019 came on fastballs, including this Royals record-setting one against the Tigers’ Daniel Norris.
Against fastballs this year, according to Baseball Savant, Soler is posting a .384 wOBA and a 94.7 MPH exit velocity on fastball batted balls. While his xSLG (.406) is down from 2020 (.493), he is at least showing that on fastballs, he can still be a dangerous hitter, even if he is not matching his astronomical 2019 metrics just yet. His exit velocity is actually 2.8 MPH higher than his EV from 2020, so it is possible that Soler could see a boost in his production metrics on fastballs once he is able to iron things out a little over the course of the season.
Unfortunately, while some of Soler’s advanced metrics on fastballs suggest that a bounce back could be on its way soon, the same cannot be said on breaking balls. For the second straight season, he has seen an increase in breaking balls seen at the plate. However, he has also seen an increase in whiff rate on the pitch, as it has gone from 55.3 percent to 61 percent from 2020 to 2021, respectively.
One of the big reasons Soler experienced a major break out in 2019 was that he was at least able to neutralize the breaking ball somewhat that season after struggling against it throughout his career, even back to his Cubs days. After posting a .195 wOBA and 47.1 whiff rate on breaking balls in 2017, and a .272 wOBA and a 52.5 whiff rate on breaking balls in 2018, Soler increased his wOBA to .302 and decreased his whiff rate to 45.2 percent in 2019. Thus, after the 2019 campaign, it seemed like Soler had done what was needed to at least lay off breaking balls out of the zone more than usual, which often put him in hitter-friendly counts where he would not only see more fastballs, but more hittable ones in the zone where he could put some serious power behind (which he did with frequency in 2019).
Unfortunately, the past two seasons, Soler has really struggled against the pitch, as displayed by his .190 wOBA, which is 107 points lower than even his wOBA on breaking balls in 2020. That being said, pitchers seem to be more apt to throw him the curve ball this year, even in counts where it would fastballs would be more typical. Here’s an example of Dylan Cease of the White Sox throwing him a breaking ball on a 3-2 count, and even though it’s out of the zone, Soler whiffs on it to end the inning.
On a plus side, Soler is still hitting breaking balls hard, as he is posting a 50 percent hard hit rate, and a 93.8 MPH exit velocity on the pitch, despite the lackluster whiff and wOBA rates.
Therefore, Soler could see a bump in performance on breaking balls soon, if some of those hard hits can fall. Granted, while he may not be much better against breaking balls this year as in years past, even production similar to 2020 could be a huge factor for Soler when it comes to turning things around at the plate.
Dozier: Pressing and Chasing at the Plate
When looking at Soler’s percentiles so far this year, there are some things to be encouraged about his profile, as evidenced in the graphic below:
In addition to being in the upper percentiles when it comes to exit velocity and hard hit rate, Soler is also producing a stellar walk rate. Furthermore, his 62nd percentile chase rate also shows that his batting eye has continued to be sharp, despite his lackluster metrics. Therefore, it seems like Soler is going through one of his patented, but frustrating, slumps, and it should be a matter of time before he snaps out of it, as David Lesky of Inside the Crown mentioned on a Tweet tonight:
Unfortunately, the same hasn’t really been true for Dozier, as evidenced by his percentile charts below:
While Dozier has demonstrated power potential, as evidenced by his 91st percentile max velocity, according to Baseball Savant, he hasn’t really showed power consistency, as evidenced by his sub par average exit velocity (35th percentile) as well as hard hit rate (35th percentile). However, one of the more concerning developments this season has been impatience in the box, as highlighted by a chase rate that ranks in the 19th percentile so far this season.
Last season, Doz made a lot of gains in regard to developing his plate discipline, as he increased his walk rate from 9.4 percent in 2019 to 14.5 percent in 2020. In addition, Doz also decreased his chase rate from 26.9 percent in 2019 to 24.4 percent in 2020, which demonstrated the gains he made over that timespan in regard to honing his plate discipline. Thus, while Dozier did see a regression in power last year (.462 xSLG in 2019 to .381 xSLG in 2020), his improved batting eye made Royals fans feel hopeful that a bounce back could be in order in 2021, especially since he was affected by COVID out of the gate during the shortened 2020 season.
Unfortunately, Dozier is back to chasing out of the zone again, as his chase rate has risen to 32.9 percent this year, according to Baseball Savant, a nearly 8.5 percent increase. For the most part, Doz has mostly struggled against the fastball this year, as he is only posting a xWOBA of .176 and a whiff rate of 27.9 percent on the pitch so far in 2021. In 2019 and 2020, he posted xWOBA numbers of .361 and .388, which also included whiff rates of 13.7 and 17.4 percent, respectively. That kind of fastball regression from a two-year span to this year is concerning, and one has to wonder if Dozier is feeling the pressure after being rewarded an extension this off-season, or if he’s still feeling the effects of a thumb injury he suffered on Opening Day.
For context, here is Dozier ripping a fastball to the right center field gap off of Carlos Martinez and his fastball last year at Kauffman Stadium:
Dozier’s tremendous combo of power and speed makes him a triples machine, which was the case in 2019, when he accumulated 10 triples at the plate.
However, this season, instead of driving fastballs to the gaps for extra base hits, Dozier seems behind or late on the the pitch, which has led to either strikeouts or easy field outs at the dish. Here is an example of Dozier against the Blue Jays swinging and missing on a hard cutter down and out of the zone on a 3-2 count (notice Doz’s frustration after the whiff):
Dozier is definitely slumping. However, he also appears to be pressing and that is causing him to not be comfortable at the plate, a concerning sign in regard to his future performance. While Dozier was a beneficiary of an extension this off-season, many Royals fans are still curious if Dozier can put up another solid season like 2019. Doz had a decent 2020, as he posted a wRC+ of 104 in 186 plate appearances. That being said, if Doz wants to live up to his most recent extension, he will need to produce something closer to his 2019 totals, if not slightly above.
And as of now, Doz is not off to a good start, and one has to wonder what he needs to do to snap out of this funk.
Because unfortunately, there are not a lot of promising signs for him on the near horizon.
Outlook for Soler and Doz
Soler and Doz are in different situations financially in Kansas City. Soler will be a free agent after seasons end, and it seems unlikely that Soler will be back in Kansas City unless he gives the Royals a hometown discount, which seems highly doubtful, especially with the universal DH a possibility. Thus, the more Soler struggles at the plate, the louder the Soler doubters will become, especially since he most likely will not be part of the Royals’ long term plans.
As for Dozier, he is part of the Royals’ long term plans, or at least mid term plans for now. Dayton Moore would not have given Doz an extension if they did not think he could be an essential part of the Royals lineup both now and in the future. That being said, the main criticism of Doz has been that he has really only had one “great” season offensively, and with his injury history, it may be unlikely that he’ll be able to duplicate that again, especially since he’ll be 30 years old in August, not exactly a “prime” age.
Nonetheless, the Royals and Royals fans need to be patient with Soler and Doz, despite their early season struggles. While both hitters can have ups and downs, both can provide the kind of middle-of-the-order production that will be needed to take the Royals over the top. It’s hard to see the Royals competing in the AL Central without Soler and Doz fully healthy and producing in the lineup.
The Royals losing the first two games of the Rays series this week has demonstrated that the Royals will need all the offense they can get, especially after another rough Brad Keller start. Once Soler and Doz turn it around, the offense should really start kicking, which is exciting to think about considering Salvy, Whit and Carlos Santana’s solid starts at the dish.
That being said, it isn’t easy to be patient with these two, especially with the Royals struggling against this Rays in this recent series. Both Soler and Doz can swing and miss a lot and that can be frustrating for Royals fans, especially those used to the high-contact approach of those 2014 and 2015 Royals teams.
But the time will come for Soler and Doz…
Let’s just hope that time comes sooner rather than later.
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