Jorge Soler Has Arrived

Ever since his exciting debut in 2014 that came over a small sample size, we’ve been awaiting a full season of strong offensive performance from Jorge Soler. Actually, we didn’t even require a strong performance, we just wanted a full season for once, gosh darn-it! Since that 2014 debut, Soler’s career high in plate appearances has been just 366, thanks to injury after injury. Finally, this year he has surpassed the 500 plate appearance plateau. Not only has he given us his first full season, but he has paired it with strong offensive performance for a true fantasy breakout.

The Cubs traded away Soler after the 2016 season and our hopes for a major offensive breakout were diminished when learning that the team he was traded to was the Royals. The change in home parks represented a huge swing in right-handed home run factors, so any optimism we had previously for his future offense would now have to be reduced. From a fantasy perspective, this was not a good landing spot.

In his first taste of Kansas City action in 2016, he recorded just 110 plate appearances and was absolutely terrible. He fully rebounded last year to a level we would have expected, but once again, injuries limited him to just 257 plate appearances. Without much speed and an unhelpful batting average, his low-20 homer pace with middling runs scored and runs batted in numbers still made him near replacement level in shallow mixed leagues while he was on the field.

Alas, all the potential we thought he had back in Chicago has been on full display this season as home run power has reached historically high levels. While his walk and strikeout rates have remained quite stable, two rates stick out as driving his ISO up to .290 and boosting his homer total above 40.

Jorge Soler Home Run Drivers
Season FB% HR/FB
2015 29.8% 13.5%
2016 43.3% 16.9%
2018 34.0% 17.0%
2019 40.5% 27.7%
I excluded 2017 because the sample size was too small.

Since his strikeouts have remained stable, that left only his fly ball and HR/FB rates as the potential drivers of his newfound elite home run skills. We see here that his fly ball rate has bounced around, but is near his career high and well above the league average. Furthermore, his HR/FB rate has skyrocketed, finally getting out of the mid-teens and into the high-20% range. That combination of increased fly ball rate and HR/FB rate is what has fueled his home run breakout (aside from the relative health for a change, of course).

Jorge Soler FB Pull%
Season Pull%
2015 16.2%
2016 21.1%
2018 26.4%
2019 23.7%
I excluded 2017 because the sample size was too small.

Interestingly, Soler hasn’t been pulling his fly balls more often and is basically pulling them at a league average rate. Often times we see big HR/FB rate breakouts driven by a sudden penchant for pulling flies, but that isn’t the case here.

Jorge Soler Fly Ball Averages
Season Exit Velocity (mph) Avg FB Distance (ft)
2015 91.8 325
2016 92.3 322
2018 95.7 341
2019 97.4 348
I excluded 2017 because the sample size was too small.

So if he’s not pulling his flies more frequently, he must be simply hitting his flies harder and further, right? Yup. His fly ball exit velocity has taken major steps up since 2015 and now sits well above the league average of 92 MPH. The extra oomph behind those flies has led to a rising average fly ball distance, which temporarily dipped in 2016. But since, it has surged to a career best 348 feet, versus a 323 foot league average.

The positive I see behind his HR/FB rate spike being driven by exit velocity and distance is this is purely the result of increased power, rather than change in approach. This now opens the opportunity in the future for him deciding to try pulling more of his flies, which would help him to maintain or even increase his true talent HR/FB rate level.

As usual, just because we can explain what’s behind a hitter’s power surge doesn’t mean it’s real. We can’t be certain Soler will continue to hit his flies this hard and this far given his less impressive history. What we could do, however, is remember his scouting reports and look back to the several minor league stints in which he posted 20%+ HR/FB rates. Even in a tough ballpark for homers, it provides optimism that this is a sustainable breakout and we could expect HR/FB rates over 20% moving forward.

Mike Podhorzer is the 2015 Fantasy Sports Writers Association Baseball Writer of the Year. He produces player projections using his own forecasting system and is the author of the eBook Projecting X 2.0: How to Forecast Baseball Player Performance, which teaches you how to project players yourself. His projections helped him win the inaugural 2013 Tout Wars mixed draft league. Follow Mike on Twitter @MikePodhorzer and contact him via email.

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