Royals outfielder Jorge Soler can often be seen ducking out of the team’s clubhouse, the hood of a T-shirt pulled over his head and an iPad tucked underneath his arm.
The device has become a weapon for him.
It’s loaded with video, flush with scouting reports on opposing pitchers. Similar ones exist for every hitter. It’s the strongest lifeline they have in a baseball world revolutionized by analytics.
But it wasn’t until this season, a few games into an April during which Soler hit .316 with 17 walks, his most in a calendar month, that he ever made use of the tool. He’d already gained an edge in the offseason when he refocused his approach in the batter’s box with the help of a privately contracted coach. This seemed like the logical next step.
His dedication to studying has paid dividends. Soler has never put together such a well-rounded month in his career. Although he had yet to tap into his power — his eight extra-base hits through Monday ranked behind Mike Moustakas' 15 and Alcides Escobar's 10 on the team — he reached base 43.4 percent of the time and knocked 24 hits in his first 24 games this season.
Combine those figures with improved plate discipline and Soler has provided manager Ned Yost an analogy to chew on.
“He just reminds me a little bit — I was always kind of amazed and wondered why he was so selective and that was (Carlos) Santana in Cleveland last year,” Yost said in his Fenway Park office this week. “Even though he’d hit (.260) he’d still have a (high) on-base with 25 home runs. … Adam Dunn the same thing.
“This kid seems to me a kid that’s gonna be kind of more the complete package. A lot of walks, a lot of power and can hit for average.”
All it took for Soler to put it together was a push. He began the season in an 0 for 11 rut, wherein he struck out and walked three times each. He made moderately hard contact with pitches, but flyballs never landed for hits and he often rolled groundballs right at infielders.
Then he was handed an iPad, offered instruction and encouraged to study.
“I kind of know what the pitcher is gonna do with me, which isn’t something I did before," Soler said.
In the weeks since, he’s batted .353 (24 for 68) and reached base safely in 19 of 20 games. He’s worked counts so well he sees 4.48 pitches per plate appearance, good enough for sixth in baseball entering Tuesday. He saw an average of 4.01 pitches in his first full major-league season in 2015.
Soler offered a simple explanation for his success: "I’m just trying to stay focused in every at-bat and make good swings on pitches."
In doing so, he’s become the hitter the Royals thought they were getting when they traded closer Wade Davis to the Cubs in exchange for the 26-year-old outfielder in December 2016.
For someone who’s been limited by injuries to 271 major-league games since his debut with the Chicago Cubs in 2014, this 2018 campaign is a crossroads. Thus far, he’s embarked on the right path.
"He's a sponge. He's always wanting to learn," Royals coach Pedro Grifol said. "He has the talent to be a pretty good hitter."