How should the Royals handle Jorge Soler?

The Royals have lost seven games in a row, including all six so far in this seven-game home stand (yikes you read that right). After Saturday evening’s game, the Royals are 16-16, 2.5 games behind the Chicago White Sox, and two games behind the Cleveland Indians, who swept the Royals in their most recent four-game series at Kauffman Stadium.

Safe to say, things are rough right now for the Royals and Royals fans, and unfortunately, the struggles of Jorge Soler so far this season hasn’t helped things either.

Soler came out in a big way in 2019, as he set the Royals single-season home run record with 48, and has been a Royals favorite thanks to his light-tower power and ability to crush baseball on an exit velocity end. Currently, Soler ranks in the 98th percentile in average exit velocity in batted balls, 95th percentile in max exit velocity, and 99th percentile in hard hit rate, according to Baseball Savant. Thus, when it comes to pure, batted ball metrics, Soler still show signs of power potential in the heart of the Royals lineup this season.

Unfortunately, while the exit velocity and hard hits have been there this year, Soler’s production overall has been paltry at best. After Saturday evening’s game, Soler is currently posting a triple slash of .196/.270/.346 with a wOBA of .267 in 126 plate appearances. While Soler’s strikeout rate is slightly down from a year ago (31.7 percent this year in comparison to 34.5 percent last year), his strikeout rate still ranks in the bottom 13th percentile, and his whiff rate also ranks in the bottom 16th percentile as well. Furthermore, Soler isn’t walking as much to counteract the high number of strikeouts, as his 7.3 percent walk rate is 3.6 points lower than a year ago, and would actually be the lowest walk rate of his career since his rookie campaign in 2014 (when it was 6.2 percent), according to Fangraphs.

Thus, Dayton Moore and the Royals are in a bit of a dilemma with Soler. While it is still only May, and Soler has a history of being a slow starter (more on that in a bit), how long should the Royals hold onto him, especially since he will be a free agent after this season? The Royals do need a healthy and productive Soler in order to compete in the division. That being said, would the Royals be better off trading him this year, especially if the season continues to trend south for Kansas City? Or should the Royals hold onto him and maybe try to figure out something in order to keep him in Kansas City for at least a couple of more seasons?

Let’s take a deeper look at his Soler-dilemma for the Royals, and what they should probably think about doing going forward this season.

Lots of hard hits, but a lack of home runs

Most of Soler’s value comes from the long ball. In 2018, before his season was cut short due to a broken toe, Soler posted a HR/FB rate of 17 percent. In 2019, his record-setting season, he posted a rate of 28.1 percent. Last year, despite struggling through an oblique issue, he posted a rate of 22.9 percent, which was second-best rate in that category in his career. Thus, there was some thought that if fully healthy, Soler would once again put up home run numbers in the 30-40 range at the very least in 2021.

Unfortunately, despite having hard hit rates and exit velocities that rank in the top five percent of the league, Soler only has two home runs all year, with one coming on Opening Day at Kauffman Stadium. Currently, his HR/FB rate is 7.4 percent, which is not only 15.5 percent lower than a year ago, but also his lowest mark since 2017, when he struggled immensely in his first season as a Royal. When it comes to home run totals, he is currently tied with Michael A. Taylor, who is known more for his glove and speed than home run power, and Ryan O’Hearn, who has 88 fewer plate appearances than Soler this season, going into Saturday’s game.

So what gives with Soler’s lack of home run production thus far?

Well, some of it could be contributed to a regression in barrel rate and launch angle, as well as an increase in groundballs.

Even though Soler’s average exit velocity is 2.3 MPH higher than 2020, his barrel rate is only 11.8, which is 7.1 percent decrease from a season ago. Soler has also seen a slight decrease in launch angle, as it is down to 14.8 percent, but that’s only a 0.7 degree difference from the past two years. Additionally, it is still 4.2 degrees higher than 2018, which was still an overall productive season pre-injury. So while the launch angle decrease may contribute to his regression in production, it is hard to believe that it’s a “major” factor.

The groundballs though are a bit of a concern, as his GB/FB ratio is up to 1.07, the first time it has been over 1 since 2018, when it was 1.38. He has also seen a decrease in line drive rate, for according to Fangraphs batted ball data, it is only 17.6 percent, which would be his lowest line drive rate since 2016. Therefore, a takeaway from this data is that Soler is hitting the ball hard, but he’s not necessarily hitting balls effectively to fall for either hits or home runs, and that’s why is overall production metrics are down across the board.

An issue that could explain the decrease in line drives and increase in groundballs is that he seems to be trying to pull everything. According to Baseball Savant batted ball data, his 55.9 percent pull rate is not only seven percent higher than 2020, but also the highest rate of his career. Soler has excelled lately when he is able use his power to the opposite field, as he posted an oppo hit rate of 22.2 percent in 2019 and 2020.

This year? That rate is only 10.3 percent, the lowest of his career so far.

Here’s an example of Soler pulling a Shane Bieber pitch on the outside of the strike zone which he should try to take to the opposite field, but doesn’t. Even though he hit the ball over 100 MPH, it is pulled on the ground to the shortstop and becomes an easy ground out for the Cleveland defense.

Now, let’s take a look at him last year in an at bat at Guaranteed Rate Field against the White Sox, where he goes to the opposite field with a ball on the outside of the plate back in 2020. By going with the pitch, he’s able to produce more favorable results, as evidenced in the GIF below.

It will be interesting to see if Soler continues to embrace a more “oppo-middle” approach, which has seemed to be the case for him by his plate approach the past week. This approach has seen him trade more home runs for doubles, as he currently has 10 doubles for the year, which actually leads the team. Furthermore, Soler has seen a lot more of his doubles going into the left-center gap, which proved to be the case in his double against the White Sox on Saturday:

Soler’s numbers so far through the Royals’ first 32 games certainly are deflating, and he has not been the hitter Royals fans expected him to be thus far in the 2021 season. But he is hitting the ball hard, and the maintenance of those high exit velocities and hard hit rates should give Royals fans some hope that Soler will be able to turn it around soon…

Especially if he can start to hit the ball to the opposite field more like in 2019 and 2020.

Another Slow Soler Start? Or is this a product of the changed ball?

While Soler’s start isn’t encouraging, he has had a history of under-producing in April and May in the past. Even in 2019, his record-breaking season, Soler did not really turn things on until June, and Soler didn’t truly become a power-hitting monster that season until July, honestly.

Let’s take a look at his monthly splits in 2019, according to Fangraphs data:

Notice how high the strikeout rate was in April, how low the walk rate was in May, and how low the BB/K ratios were during both months. Even in June, while his wRC+ slowly improved for a second straight month, his 29.5 percent strikeout rate that month was concerning. At the time in 2019, many Royals fans were concerned if Soler “should” be an everyday player in the lineup.

However, July happened, and Soler went on a record-breaking tear at the plate during the last three months of the season in 2019. A 150, 174, and 186 wRC+ marks over the last three months of play demonstrated how dangerous Soler was at the plate for the Royals, and gave Royals fans hope that they could have something special long-term at the DH position.

Let’s take a look now at his monthly splits thus far in 2021:

Right now, the May stats do not look good, but it’s still early, and things could turn around after this homestand, especially with the Detroit Tigers looming in the next road trip. Soler most likely will not be a 5 wRC+ hitter for the rest of the month, and his 94 wRC+ this April was actually better than his 2019 April, though Soler did hit for less power (.167 ISO compared to a .255 ISO in 2019) this season. Therefore, Soler may be on track for his 2019 pace, even if it may be frustrating for Royals fans, especially in the midst of this losing streak.

That being said, Brandon H. posted this interesting bit on Twitter, which looked at Soler’s spray charts last season and his first 123 plate appearances this year:

This is a really interesting correlation, and while it’s too early to make some conclusions, Brandon may be onto something. Is Soler’s lackluster production an effect of the “changed” ball, which isn’t flying as much as in years past (hitting is down across the league)? Or is Soler’s struggles tied to his history of starting slow, as well as the pitcher-friendly hitting conditions of April and May?

It will be interesting to see if this power suppression continues into June. Because if Soler continues to not see the ball fly when the weather heats up, then it is possible that Brandon’s assertion that Soler is being affected by the new ball may have some weight by then.

Position and Long-Term Questions

Right now, Soler has played 16 games in right field this year, in addition to 16 games at the designated hitter position. That total is double the amount of games he played in right field a year ago. In 2019, Soler only played 56 games in right field, and if this pace continues, it is likely that Soler will eclipse that 2019 mark when it comes to innings in the outfield.

That being said, that may not be a good sign for both Soler and the Royals.

First, Soler has always profiled as a below-average outfielder defensively. The Royals are in a better place defensively in the outfield with Andrew Benintendi, Michael A. Taylor, and even Jarrod Dyson, who profile as plus defensive players, according to outs above average via Baseball Savant. However, Soler is not in that same boat as those three, as he is posting a -1 OAA this season, and posted a -3 OAA mark in 2019. Furthermore, his OAA career data doesn’t paint a picture that he’s due to get any better defensively soon, especially at 29-years-old.

While it would make more sense for the Royals to have Soler be the designated hitter, Mike Matheny has not really found a consistent solution at right field in the wake of Kyle Isbel’s demotion to Omaha. The Royals have rotated Soler and Hunter Dozier in right field, and while the move makes sense, considering their offensive profile, they are minus-players there defensively. The Royals cannot afford to give anything up on the defensive end, especially with their infield defense woes and recent pitching struggles.

Unfortunately, the Royals may be forced to continue to play Soler so many innings in right field due to a lack of options. On the other hand, after Saturday’s game, it would not be surprising to see Jarrod Dyson perhaps earn more starts in right field in the coming days, which could move Soler back to DH, where he probably belongs long-term.

Soler’s defensive position is not the only question regarding Soler this season. Soler will be a free agent after 2021, and after Hunter Dozier and Salvador Perez extensions, and extensions to perhaps Adalberto Mondesi, and one of the Royals’ young pitchers looming, it is possible that Soler may be a luxury that the Royals may not be able to afford for 2022 and beyond. Yes, the Royals need offense throughout the lineup to be a playoff team long-term, but Soler’s inconsistency, high strikeout rates, and lack of defensive value may outweigh his power potential and production in the eyes of the Moore and the Royals front office.

If the Royals can get a cheap 1-2 year deal for Soler? Sure, the Royals will continue to roll the dice on “Soler Power”, especially if he can find some luck and fortune this season after such a rough beginning to the season.

But don’t expect the Royals to be more aggressive than that. Furthermore, if it seems like Soler will get something beyond that in the off-season from another team, and if the Royals are out of playoff contention by June or early July?

Well…don’t be surprised to see Moore trade Soler away for prospect by the July Trade Deadline, even if he is producing 2019-esque metrics again by that point in the season.

Photo Credit: Jason O. Watson/Getty Images

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