The Return of Soler

SolerSince the All-Star break, the Cubs have been dominant, steam-rolling the rest of the league on the way to an absurd 36-13 post-All-Star-Break record heading into Tuesday night’s action against the Brewers.

The primary headlines over this stretch have gone, deservedly, to the exploits of guys like Kris Bryant and Kyle Hendricks, who are each making their case for some end-of-year hardware. But lost, to some extent, in the glut of stellar second-half performances has been Jorge Soler. Since returning from an extended leave of absence due to injury on Aug. 5, he’s been nothing short of fantastic.

Heading into his injury, Soler was batting a meager .223 AVG/.322 OBP/.377 SLG with 5 HR and 5 2B over the course of 152 plate appearances. Granted, some absolutely terrible luck played into those undesirable numbers – illustrated by a .265 BAbip. But also of concern was his power, or lack thereof. For such a big, strong guy, his .377 slugging percentage was pretty unimpressive.

Since returning from injury, he’s looked like an entirely different player. In almost exactly half the playing time that he saw in the first half (25 games, 17 starts, 77 plate appearances), he’s already cracked 5 HR, 4 2B and has posted an impressive .313/.390/.597 slash line.

It’s worth noting that his BAbip has also jumped, and sits at .356 in the second half, to date. That’s much closer to the .339/.361 BAbip numbers he put up in 2014 and 2015, respectively. Perhaps luck – of which he had absolutely none in the first half – is finally on his side (or at least not working against him) once again.

Looking at the difference in some of his advanced numbers between the first and second half, a couple of things stand out. First, he’s pulling the ball way more. In the first half of the season, he was spraying the ball to pull, center, and opposite fields at a breakdown of 36.5 percent | 37.5 percent | 26 percent.

While that’s a nice spread, it wasn’t working out for him. Perhaps because of bad luck, or perhaps because he wasn’t hitting to his strength. Since returning, he’s pulling the ball a flat 60 percent of the time, going up the middle 24 percent of the time and only going to the opposite field 16 percent of the time.

It’s interesting, because the general rule is that you want players to use the whole field. But, for some players (See: Bryant, who pulls the ball 45 percent of the time, and only goes oppo just more than 19 percent of the time), pulling the ball simply plays to their strengths.

Similarly, his ground ball percentage has skyrocketed, while his line drive percentage has plummeted. In the first half, he was hitting line drives 21.9 percent of the time, hitting grounders 34.4 percent of the time and hitting fly balls 43.8 percent of the time. Since returning, those numbers have adjusted to 12 percent LD/52 percent GB/36 percent FB.

Again, that’s kind of weird. Ground balls, while they have a significantly higher success rate, in terms of dropping in for hits, than fly balls, are far less ideal than line drives. Line drives tend to be the most successful, and for Soler that number has dropped significantly in the second half. In this case, it’s likely the drop in fly balls has helped his success to a point, but the ground ball jump is somewhat confusing.

To me, these contradictory numbers say more about sample size and luck than anything else. What I think we’re seeing with Soler is this: His line drive/ground ball/fly ball numbers, as well as his pull/oppo numbers, are gaudy in odd ways because of a relatively small sample size. But, the result of the balls he’s making contact with are greatly improved because his string of downright awful luck (exemplified by the BAbip numbers we discussed earlier) seems to have come to an end.

Where does that leave Soler? To me, he’s still got some work to do. Without a doubt, bumping the line drive numbers back up will help him improve even more as an offensive player. At only 24 years old, he still has the ability to be an absolute offensive powerhouse in this league. But, in the short term, fans needn’t be worried about his mediocre first-half numbers. It appears that was more the result of bad luck than anything else.