The 2018 Kansas City Royals are not a good baseball team. It is an objective truth. They come into Wednesday with the American League's worst record (8-21) and run differential (minus-64). The Royals have scored the third fewest runs (102) and allowed the second most runs (166) in baseball this year. They're bad.
Outfield Jorge Soler has been very good so far this season. That is an objective truth. The 26-year-old, who came over from the Chicago Cubs in the Wade Davis trade, went into Wednesday's game with the Boston Red Sox (GameTracker) hitting a robust .306/.434/.494 (155 OPS+) with three home runs. His three-run 13th inning homer gave the Royals a win Tuesday night (KC 7, BOS 6).
Soler was of course a very highly regarded prospect a few years ago -- the Cubs signed him to what was then an international record contract worth $30 million in 2012 -- though he struggled in various big league stints in recent years. The Cubbies didn't really have a spot for him, so they flipped Soler for an elite closer. A perfectly sensible move.
Last season, his first with the Royals, Soler battled an oblique injury and spent most of the summer in Triple-A, where he hit .267/.388/.564 with 24 homers in 74 games. His big league time didn't go well -- Soler authored a .144/.245/.258 (34 OPS+) in 35 games with Kansas City -- so, over the winter, Soler changed things. From Maria Torres of the Kansas City Star:
(Friend and Dodgers international scout Mike Tosar) encouraged Soler to depend on sight. It seemed like a simple message, but Soler had been told countless times already to stay back. He'd still load early and his swing would always be too long.
But the way Tosar described the concept — "Use your eyes to stay back, use your eyes to get behind the baseball" — was the clearest explanation Soler had ever received.
Soler has always had power and the ability to strike the ball with authority. He's a physical specimen at 6-foot-4 and 215 lbs., and his bat speed is not lacking. Pitching recognition issues and an occasional overaggressiveness at the plate short-circuited his offensive production over the years though, which led to some thought he'd stalled out.
This year, Soler has upped his walk rate -- his 17.0 percent walk rate going into Wednesday's game was 12th highest in baseball, on par with guys like Carlos Santana (17.3 percent) and Joey Votto (16.9 percent) -- and, not coincidentally, he's not chasing out of the zone nearly as often. His swing rate on pitches out of the zone (O-Swing%) is dropping and, thanks to the fact he's swinging at better pitches, his hard contact rate is going up:
Soler's swing rate on pitches out of the strike zone is a mere 19.2 percent, 17th lowest among the 177 hitters with enough plate appearances to qualify for the batting title through Tuesday's games. The league average chase rate is 28.9 percent. Soler is well below that. He's not swinging at balls and he's hammering anything in the strike zone. A good combination, that is.
The season is still young, of course, and eventually pitchers will adjust to Soler and his new ultra-patient approach, and it'll be up to him to adjust back. Even though it feels like he's been around forever, Soler is relatively inexperienced at the big league level, and he's still finding his way. Thanks in part to a change in his offseason training, he's made real progress with his plate discipline, and the early returns are excellent.
The Royals may not be any good this year, but Soler developing into the impact bat so many expected him to become back in the day would qualify as a huge win for the franchise going forward.