Sam Mellinger

Jorge Soler obliterated a baseball. MLB hasn't seen this sort of turnaround in a while

Royals' Ned Yost: Soler has chance to be a .280 hitter

Kansas City Royals manager Ned Yost thinks that Jorge Soler has a chance to be a .280 hitter. Yost spoke on May 3, 2018.
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Kansas City Royals manager Ned Yost thinks that Jorge Soler has a chance to be a .280 hitter. Yost spoke on May 3, 2018.

Happened again. Jorge Soler is what happened again. This used to be a bad thing, you know. Meant he was injured, or demoted, or misplayed a ball in the outfield or made another out. A year ago, few made outs more consistently.

Now, only eight big leaguers are making outs less consistently. The pitch wasn't bad. Change-up, outside corner. But it was just a touch too high. The ball had the severe misfortune of catching the barrel of Soler's bat. He was expecting a fastball, but when it hung up, he kept his weight back just a tick longer and swung the swing of someone who doesn't just want to hit a home run but is playing some sort of side game. Extra points are awarded for distance.

The ball hit the fourth step up behind the fountains in left field at Kauffman Stadium, then bounced over the railing, settling in a strip of grass not far from where the broadcasters do the postgame show. They used to have a pickup truck there. Nobody ever hit it.

"Above the water," Soler said through an interpreter.

The ball left Soler's bat at 108 mph and traveled 441 feet. No Royals player has hit a ball so far. Only 3 percent of the 995 home runs hit before Thursday went farther. He is hitting .312 with a .435 on-base and .538 slugging percentage. He is 26 years old, so this should be the beginning of the best years of his career, and it's hard to watch without contrasting it to tire fire of 2017.

Soler was so unplayably awful last season that you are tempted to overplay the adjectives, so let's start with something that's true: last season, his first with the Royals, he hit .144 with a .245 on-base percentage and .258 slugging percentage across 110 plate appearances. One-hundred forty-four men have hit that poorly in 100 or more plate appearances this century.

Fewer than 10 percent of them managed even a .700 OPS the next season. Fewer still became consistently productive, and, perhaps most descriptively, 50 did not play a single big-league game the next year. Most never played again.

None of the 144 has hit as well as Soler has managed through the season's first five weeks. Still a long way to go, but what we're seeing here so far has no real precedent this century, and perhaps even further back, a guy going from that bad to this good.

"I'm not sure I've seen it," Royals manager Ned Yost said. "Not on any team that I've had."

The Royals are 9-22, even after beating the Tigers on Thursday. The compartmentalizing has begun, about who is doing well and can be flipped at the July 31 deadline (Mike Moustakas and Kelvin Herrera) and who is struggling but irrelevant to the future (Blaine Boyer and Lucas Duda).

Of the guys most likely to be around if the Royals start winning again, nobody is having a better start than Soler. His first season will always be part of his story here, because he came in the trade for Wade Davis that perhaps more than any other move demonstrated the Royals' reluctance to choose between trying to win or trying to build.

Soler was injured, demoted, recalled and then demoted again. When he played, he stunk, and everyone knew it. Internally, the Royals always had modest expectations for Soler in 2017. But they didn't think he'd be that bad.

He started over in the offseason, rebuilding his swing and confidence. Internally, the Royals always had higher expectations of what Soler could be in 2018. But they didn't think he'd be this good.

"For me, that guy's incredible," shortstop Alcides Escobar said. "He changed everything. Changed his approach, his defense, changed everything."

Entering Thursday's games, only five American League hitters had a higher walk rate. Only 17 were hitting the ball hard more consistently, per FanGraphs.

Bad enough to be demoted twice last year. Good enough to be a real part of the future this year.

Soler is a noticeably better defender than a year ago. Better reads, particularly at the point of contact. He's better coming in, and better with his feet. He made a diving catch on a ball to his right on Sunday. The day before, he misplayed a ball into a triple. He is far from perfect. Still below average. But closer to it than before.

Kansas City Royals' Mitch Maier and Rusty Kuntz have been impressed with outfielder Jorge Soler's off-season weight loss and conditioning, which has made him more flexible and quicker on his feet to run down balls in the outfield.

"He's growing," Alex Gordon said. "He's put a lot of work into it. Constant work, and preparation has helped. He's really taken a lot of pride in getting better at it."

He's growing. That's a good way to put it. After the home run on Thursday, they were laughing in the dugout. Soler really has come a long way in his study of baseball. He was once a grip-and-rip slugger, trying to make everything a highlight, but this year he is essentially attached to an iPad to scout opposing pitchers.

They want him to do his own scouting reports. There's value in the process, in being the one to come up with the answers instead of the one given the answers. The other day in Boston, he presented what he found to coach Pedro Grifol, about how the starting pitcher attacked with various pitches in various situations.

"That's really, really good," Grifol said, in Yost's telling of the story. "There's only one thing wrong. You did it for a left-handed hitter, and you're a right-handed hitter."

Yost said Soler's shoulders dropped, but he did the report for right-handed hitters, too, and on Tuesday night hit the winning home run in the 13th inning. The goof on the scouting report is a point of laughter now, and Soler is in on the joke, a wide smile across his face when you ask if it was just a rookie mistake.

"Sí," he said.

He's learning. He's not all the way there. But so much closer than he used to be.

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