After Kyle Schwarber collided with Dexter Fowler and the worst was confirmed, the overwhelming sentiment was that Jorge Soler needed to step up and fill the void left in left field. The reality of the Cubs’ roster was that if Schwarber were healthy, Soler was going to be, at best, a platoon bat. And while having him as a platoon bat is a luxury most teams do not have, Soler’s ability goes well above that of a platoon left fielder. It was an opportunity for Soler to push himself back into the forefront of the conversation among the young hitting talent on the Cubs’ roster. As we sit a month later, Soler is not only not running with his opportunity, he’s being relegated to spot start duty…even with Matt Szczur going on the disabled list, further eroding the depth in the Cubs’ outfield.
As we sit after a 7-0 week against two of the better teams in the National League, it is fair to ask what is wrong with Jorge Soler. The answer to that question, though, is quite a bit more complex than just looking at the numbers. Because looking at a .181/.274/.278 line would tell you that he’s regressed as a hitter…and context would tell you that’s not entirely true.
After the series with the Washington Nationals, Jorge Soler’s walk rate is 10.7%. That is his highest rate since he was in AA Tennessee and AAA Iowa in 2014. He’s consistently worked deep counts and has gotten himself into favorable hitting situations. Of his 81 plate appearances before Sunday’s game, he had seen 20 three ball counts. And in those three ball counts, he’s taken 9 walks. It’s been known for a while that Jorge is willing to accept his walks.
His strike out rate has also improved. After two strike outs on Sunday, it’s at 22.6% (and one of those was more related to the umpire than Soler, to be fair). Last season, Jorge Soler saw 71 plate appearances go to a full count. In those 71 plate appearances, he took 16 walks (22.5%). He was hit by a pitch in another. That left him with 54 official at-bats where he worked a full count. He hit .148 and struck out 28 times (51.9%). So far this season, Soler has worked 14 full counts, walking 7 times and striking out once.
In short, the strike outs and walks have improved for Jorge Soler in the early going. Of course all of the small sample size caveats and disclaimers apply. He’s had 84 plate appearances to this point. With the small sample caveats, it is important to realize that luck has a disproportionate affect on results of batted balls, as well.
According to Statcast, Soler is second among regular Cubs hitters in average exit velocity (92.7 mph) to Anthony Rizzo (92.9). He’s still hitting the ball hard. One interesting number is .462. That is Soler’s batting average on balls hit with over 100 mph exit velocity (he did reach on an error on one of those balls). For comparison sake, Anthony Rizzo went into Sunday hitting .741 on such balls. Part of the reason is launch angle. In an era where shifting is king, even hard hit balls on the ground are likely to turn into outs, and he has hit 4 balls at that rate on the ground. The other side of launch angle can also be a negative factor. On Saturday, Soler hit a ball about 109 mph at an angle of 38.64 degrees that turned into a fly out off Gio Gonzalez. So elements like a strong wind blowing straight in can knock down a very well struck high fly ball. Both of Soler’s home runs this season were hit with lower exit velocities than the ball hit on Saturday afternoon. And although their launch angle was lower, that ball hit at 109 mph during Sunday’s game would have left the yard on almost any other day.
It isn’t all rosy when looking at the contact Soler is making, however. For starters, he’s going the other way more. Great…well, not really. He’s 2-13 (.154) with a sacrifice fly when he goes to right field. And an examination of the balls in play to right field kind of explain the issue. They are, for the most part, lazy fly balls.
The way teams have been attacking Jorge Soler this season is playing a key role in how he’s hitting. To this point, teams are hyper focused on throwing Jorge pitches down and away. And that makes sense. Since he’s been in the league, teams have consistently worked him away with breaking pitches. Unfortunately for opposing teams, Soler began laying off the breaking stuff away late last season and into the playoff run. That’s actually carried over into this season pretty nicely. The counter to his ability to lay off the breaking stuff is throwing him off-speed stuff low and away. He has seen over twice as many off-speed pitches (by proportion) in 2016 as he has since he was called up. Teams are throwing him fewer challenge fastballs and fewer breaking balls away. He’s shown the ability to lay off those pitches or do damage to them. The low and away off-speed stuff is still a struggle for him, though. And when you look at the pitch chart, it shows in his exit velocities.
Many of Jorge Soler’s weak pop outs, fly outs, and ground balls the have come on pitches in the lower, outside portion of the zone. As a young hitter, it’s imperative for him to continue to adjust to the way pitchers are attacking him. As of right now, there is no reason for teams to go away from what’s working because he hasn’t shown an ability to drive those pitches the other way for anything other than weak outs.
There is only one sure fire way for Soler to improve. He needs to play…and play consistently. In the 30 games the Cubs have played thus far, Soler has made one plate appearance as a pinch hitter 10 times. He’s 0-7 with 3 walks in those appearances.
For Soler, it’s a struggle. He’s made some positive strides in his development as a hitter. There are some pretty clear signs of growth in the data. But against big league pitching, it’s a constant adjustment. Would Jorge Soler be hitting off-speed stuff more consistently right now if he’d had more consistent at-bats over the last month? Any answer to that would be speculative, at best. One thing is sure, though, and that is that he cannot get better at handling the way pitchers are working to him when he gets one appearance late in the game against the back end of someone’s bullpen. That simply doesn’t work.
Because his defense is still a work in progress, a bat being a work in progress hurts Jorge’s chances to get consistent playing time. Especially on a very good team that is playing with a real chance to win every single day. He needs to play. But in order to play, he needs to have more consistent and more positive results. It is very much a Catch-22 for a team with so many options to fill 8 spots in the line-up each day. What can be said, definitively, is that Jorge Soler is not broken. He’s developing. The Cubs just aren’t the team with the patience to keep running him out there to figure it out, anymore. If and (more likely) when he figures it out, he makes this team’s line-up that much deeper. Until that time, it will not be a surprise to see more of Kris Bryant in left field and more of Javier Baez at third base. Those two young players are red hot right now.
Feature Image from CBS Chicago