Jorge Soler has always had big power potential. His power was his carrying tool as a prospect, and he homered in his first big league plate appearance. Unfortunately, he’s had trouble making the most of his strength throughout his career. For years, Soler was an “if he can put it all together” kind of player. His raw power was enticing, but injuries and inconsistency kept getting in the way. From 2014 to ’18, he hit just 38 home runs in 307 games, a pace of 20 per 162.
Finally, in 2019, everything clicked. The 6-foot-4 slugger played all 162 games, walloping an AL-leading 48 home runs. He finished fifth in the league in slugging, third in isolated power, and 13th in wRC+. His wRC+ went up every month, and no player in baseball hit for more power over the final two months of the season. He lost the Silver Slugger at DH to an ageless Nelson Cruz, but all the same, Soler was finally living up to the hype. There was even talk of the Royals signing him to a long-term deal.
But that extension never came, and Soler’s performance over the rest of his Royals tenure dashed any dreams he might have had of a lucrative long-term contract. In 2020, his old problems came back to haunt him. He didn’t make the most of his power, hitting only eight home runs in 43 games, and injuries kept him off the field for several weeks in September. The following season started out even worse; in 95 games with Kansas City, he hit 13 home runs and posted a feeble 77 wRC+. At the trade deadline, the former home run king was sent to Atlanta for pennies on the dollar.
What happened next is the stuff of legend, at least in the Atlanta metropolitan area. Soler crushed 14 homers in 54 games, tied for eighth in the National League over the final two months of the season. He stayed hot through October, hitting another three home runs and earning World Series MVP honors. He wasn’t quite as dominant as he looked in the second half of 2019, but he re-established himself as a legitimate power bat. It was enough to net him a three-year, $36 million contract with the Marlins that winter.
Sadly, his 2022 campaign was an all-too-familiar story. Yet again, it turned out Soler had not, in fact, “finally put it all together.” He managed only 13 home runs and a 98 wRC+ in 72 games before injuries ended his season in mid-July. It seemed as if Soler was cursed to flirt with greatness over and over but never quite live up to his potential, a punishment almost Sisyphean in nature. It makes you wonder what he did to anger the baseball deities in the first place— steal fire for mankind? Lead a Titan rebellion? Hit a home run on a 3–0 pitch?
Regardless, here we are, closing in on the halfway mark of the 2023 season, and Soler looks like a demigod once again. We’re forced to question if this is just another flash of brilliance or if he has overcome his curse at long last. He is on pace for 47 home runs, one fewer than his 2019 total but in a lower power environment. He’s striking out less than usual and walking more than ever, and his 149 wRC+ ranks tenth in baseball and sixth in the National League. Not only is he putting together the best performance of his career, but he’s also been one of the most dangerous hitters in the game:
There’s no question that Soler’s performance is real; you can’t BABIP your way to 21 home runs in 69 games. His barrel rate, xwOBA, and xwOBAcon all rank in the top 5% of the league, just as they did in 2019. He is also hitting more balls in the air this year, which is definitely a positive development. Groundballs aren’t of much use for a player like Soler, so his 0.72 GB/FB ratio is good to see. Furthermore, he has been more selective at the plate this season, and his patience is contributing to his success. This is the right approach for a player like Soler, who generates most of his production with home runs and free passes. You can’t walk if you’re swinging the bat, and you’re only going to hit dingers if you’re swinging at the right pitches.
Long story short, Soler has been a tremendous hitter this year, and he’s doing exactly what he should do to remain a tremendous hitter: drawing his walks, limiting strikeouts, and barreling up the baseball. That being said, there is something slightly off about his quality of contact numbers. His maximum exit velocity ranks among the best in the game, but his average exit velocity is his lowest since 2018; it’s closer to average than elite. The situation is similar with his barrel and hard-hit rates; he barrels the ball with the best of them, but his hard-hit rate is more middle-of-the-pack. I don’t mean to suggest this is a problem, because Soler is still doing what he needs to do to succeed, but it’s certainly strange. How often does a power hitter record fewer hard-hit balls during the best season of his career?
In 2019, Soler’s average exit velocity and hard-hit rate both ranked in the top 3% of the league. They were both in the top 7% the following year and the top 21% the year after that. Yet this year, his average exit velocity ranks in the 65th percentile and his hard-hit rate in the 64th. His hard-hit rate is essentially the same as it was last year, when he finished with a 98 wRC+; the last time his average exit velocity was this low, he was still just a struggling former prospect.
So what’s going on? Why isn’t one of the best power hitters in the game hitting the ball hard on a more consistent basis? For one thing, Soler is making more contact on pitches outside the strike zone. His O-Contact% is up to 59.6%; his career average entering the season was 49.1%. Pitches outside the zone are harder to crush, so Soler has a much lower exit velocity on pitches put into play from outside the strike zone. But his average exit velocity is lower than usual on pitches in the strike zone, too, so this explanation isn’t sufficient. It’s further evidence as to why he is more successful when he’s more selective, but it doesn’t explain why his average exit velocity is so low.
Another theory is that Soler is getting under the ball more often this season. When a hitter is trying to limit his groundballs, he will inevitably end up with more lazy pop flies as well. Indeed, 30.2% of Soler’s batted ball events have been classified as “under” this year, significantly higher than his career average. Unsurprisingly, those batted balls have a much lower average exit velocity. But his exit velocity isn’t just down on low-quality contact; it’s surprisingly low on barrels and solid contact, too. In other words, even the pitches he is seeing and hitting well aren’t coming off the bat quite as hard.
Ultimately, the best way to understand Soler’s low exit velocity and hard-hit rate is to split up his season into three chunks. The Marlins’ DH got off to a hot start over his first 20 games before falling off the pace. He had a dreadful 11-game cold stretch in late April and early May before busting out of his slump. Ever since, he’s been nigh unstoppable. Over his last 38 games and counting, Soler leads the NL in home runs, OPS, and wRC+. It’s also over his last 38 games that things started getting weird.
During his first hot streak, Soler did everything you’d expect from a red-hot power hitter. From Opening Day through April 23, he had a 95.4-mph average exit velocity. His walks were up, his strikeouts were down, and he was hitting tons of fly balls. He hit five home runs and eight doubles in his first 20 games. Then, during his cold stretch, he struggled in almost every respect. From April 24 to May 5, his average exit velocity was a meager 86.8 mph. His plate discipline was awful, and he couldn’t stop hitting the ball on the ground. He also couldn’t get a hit to save his life; you don’t need to understand advanced analytics to know a 0 wRC+ is atrocious.
When Soler caught fire again, he regained his plate discipline and stopped hitting so many groundballs. Yet his high exit velocity never came back. Over his last 38 games, his average exit velocity is 88.3 mph, barely higher than it was during his slump. Despite that, his power has returned in full force. He has 15 home runs since May 6, and his barrel rate is back in elite territory. Soler isn’t crushing every pitch he sees, but when he gets one, he really gets one. His performance on Monday night against the Blue Jays is a perfect example: he demolished a third-inning pitch from José Berríos for a home run but then weakly flew out in each of his next three at-bats:
Indeed, Soler’s magic formula is all about making the most of his barrels. And how is he doing that without added exit velocity? The only way he can: elevation. The most significant difference in Soler’s numbers between his two hot streaks this season (besides exit velocity) is launch angle, and specifically, launch angle on barrels. Overall, his average launch angle has actually gone down during this latest stretch, but he’s hitting his barrels higher in the air. He has hit nearly all of them in or around the sweet spot between 24–32 degrees — the optimal launch angle for home runs. It’s possible he’s sacrificing a tiny bit of bat speed so as to control the path of his swing better. If that is in fact his strategy, there’s no arguing with the results.
Soler has barreled 18 balls during this hot streak, 14 of which have left the yard. His 1.713 wOBA, 1.523 xwOBA, and 2.444 ISO on barrels is nothing short of ridiculous, and for a three-true-outcomes hitter, it doesn’t really matter what happens on the rest of his batted balls. By maximizing the quality of his barrels, he maximizes his potential as a hitter. His average exit velocity might be down, but his stock as a slugger has never been higher.