Jorge Soler ended his 2015 season, which was a mixed bag overall, on a pretty high note with an amazing October that helped carry the Cubs through the NLDS. But since? Things haven’t been so good. First, he became the odd man out in the four-man outfield. Then, when Kyle Schwarber went down with his season ending injury, Soler still struggled to receive regular playing time. And to be honest, it was fair for Joe Maddon not to trust him—he hadn’t looked good at the plate or in the field at any point since the beginning of spring training. It even prompted idiots like me to build a case for sending Soler to Triple-A to play every day.
The Soler situation was on full display in the first week of May, which saw the tall outfielder get the call to start in just one of the six games the Cubs played that week. He pinch-hit in the other five games, combining for a tepid 1-for-9 with a walk, seeing his season slash line dip to .182/.282/.288. It was around this time that I, being an idiot yet again, yet again made the case on BPWrigleycast—the official podcast of BP Wrigleyville!—that Soler should be getting reps on an everyday basis, even if it means going the minors for a bit.
But of course, I was wrong. Since that stretch of six games, Soler has started 17 of the Cubs last 23 games—compiling 64 plate appearances and slashing .250/.344/.464 with three doubles and three home runs. He’s still striking out 29.6 percent of the time in that recent stretch, which is bad, but he’s done all this while keeping his batting average on balls in play right around .300. It’s a strong indication that these numbers could be sustainable.
This isn’t by accident, either. Soler has been better at a few of the things he’s historically done poorly, and it’s been a huge help in turning things around for him. I wrote before the season on what Soler needed to do to earn playing time, and there are a few notes of interest:
“In the playoffs, albeit a small sample, Soler showed off the batting eye that the Cubs fell in love with back in 2012 and that could one day make him a superstar at the plate. He only swung at 24 percent of pitches seen outside the strike zone, compared to the 34.9 percent rate during the regular season. His contact rate in the zone dropped to just 75 percent—again, small sample size—but the ability to lay off the pitches away from the zone made all the difference in the world. In the postseason, he hit 9-for-19 with six walks and just five strikeouts, hitting three doubles and three home runs.”
From Opening Day until May 6th, Soler continued down the dark path with a 34.4 percent rate of swinging and missing outside the zone—good for a 65.6 percent contact rate on outside pitches. From May 7th until now, the 34.4 percent has dropped to 28.2 percent. While roughly six percentage points may not seem like a big number, it brings him closer to the rate we saw from Soler in October—24 percent—than to the one we’ve seen from him otherwise.
And here’s the big bullet point: Soler is laying off the bad pitches. His problem areas have always been inside and low-and-away, which is nothing new for right-handed sluggers. Any fans that watched Alfonso Soriano with the Cubs knows what I’m talking about—right-handed hitters often have struggled in these zones throughout history. Lately, he’s letting these pitches go more frequently, and it’s resulting in either better pitches to hit or a leisurely stroll down to first base.
It’s, of course, a small sample because he’s had less than 100 plate appearances since his bat has started to heat up, but the numbers are still intriguing. Prior to May 7th, Soler swung at 40.6 percent of pitches low-and-away and inside when pitchers had two-strikes on him. Of the pitches he swung at, he made contact in those zones just 15.3 percent of the time—2-for-13 on simply making contact. But since the transformation, Soler has seen 19 pitches with two-strikes in the low-and-away and inside zones, but has swung at just three of those pitches. Only three. The swinging percentage down from 40.6 to 15.8 percent.
With that in mind, one last tidbit from my aforementioned piece on Soler’s hitting tendencies:
“So where does that lead things? Well: If Soler can simply lay off some of the pitches low of the zone there’s a good chance he’ll provide tremendous value with the bat. With in-the-zone contact rates and a percentage of pitches in the zone similar to Fowler, there’s no reason Soler couldn’t be more like Fowler as an overall hitter.”
For what it’s worth, surmising that Soler’s stat line could look more like Fowler’s was something that I wrote considering Dexter Fowler, circa 2015. Last season, Fowler hit .250/.346/.411 with 17 home runs and 29 doubles in 690 plate appearances. Soler has hit .250/.344/.464 in his last 64 PA’s. So, the comparison really wasn’t far off base. If that’s the kind of line the Cubs get from Soler, I doubt there would be many that complain.
Being able to not swing at those tempting sliders low-and-away, and the hard fastballs inside that Soler has seen many-an-umpire get trigger-happy over, would be a huge step forward for the 24-year-old beast that once drew comparisons to Vladimir Guerrero. Sometimes we may be spoiled by seeing kids like Kris Bryant figure it out and make an immediate impact at the major league level. Soler is proving to take more time, and that’s okay. It’s clear what he needs to do and, most importantly, he’s starting to do it. Positive results will follow.
Lead photo courtesy Kamil Krzaczynski—USA Today Sports.