If the playoffs had never happened, you might scoff at the idea that Jorge Soler is a foundational piece for the Chicago Cubs.
Soler? The guy that was one of the thirty worst players in baseball last year? The guy that couldn’t make contact, couldn’t take a walk, didn’t show the power he was supposed to show, and then ran circles in the outfield? That guy?
Yes, that guy. He’s one of next year’s best break-out candidates. Because of his age, and demonstrated skills to date, Soler is in a group that does well. And his biggest hurdle? He’s jumped it before.
Baseball keeps getting younger, but at 23, Soler was still young for a young league. Only 21 players managed 400 plate appearances last year, and the list reads like a who’s who of young stars.
Just the fact that he’s played so much at a young age and hasn’t been worse than replacement means that he’s got a great chance at a future. Of the 221 players that came to the plate at least 400 times before they turned 24 and were above replacement, 181 managed to average a win per season over the rest of their career. That means Soler has an 82% chance of being a regular.
Two wins per year makes you an average major leaguer, and 60% of those 221 young players were average major leaguers for their careers. Four wins makes you an All Star, on average. 18% of that group ended up averaging four wins a season.
So Soler, just by doing what he’s done so far, is very likely to be a regular, better than a coin flip to be an average major leaguer, and still has a one in five chance of being a star. Those rates compare favorably to a top ten prospect who has been unsullied by major league time. Recent research suggests that top ten position player prospects have a 53% chance of being regulars, and a 35% chance of being superior.
Maybe the shine has come off of Soler’s upside. Major league regulars on cheap deals are still worth something. And then there’s the particular way Soler has played so far.
He Has an Up the Middle Approach
In a long conversation I had with Joey Votto about aging, he said that he concentrated on having an up the middle approach, one that concentrated on hitting balls to the middle part of the field, because that would put him in the best position to have a long, productive career.
The aging curve we created to try and show how up-the-middle players aged compared to pull-happy players didn’t show what Votto thought it might. It looks like pull-happy players might even age a little better than the alternative. But there was an unexpected quirk! Young up-the-middle players surged forward and improved mightily until they hit 25 years old.
It’s an old-school truth, that going up the middle is the best approach, and now it pairs with numbers that prove that it’s really great for young players.
Last year, 40% of Soler’s balls in play went up the middle, compared to 35% of the league’s average. And his contact wasn’t soft. In fact, if you look at a list of guys younger than 25 that showed an up the middle approach but not as much power as they showed in the minor leagues, Soler hit the ball almost as hard as anyone. (Isolated slugging percentage is slugging percentage minus batting average, or a ratio that shows how many extra base hits a player hits.)
Hard, Up-The-Middle, Contact from Young Batters
Kris Bryant may have already finished breaking out, but the rest of the list is still exciting despite some hiccups along the way. They’re all young players that hit the ball hard up the middle and have showed better results in the past, and Soler checks those boxes harder than any of them.
He’s Fixed His Plate Discipline Before
Speaking of Soler’s minor league numbers, there’s another gem hidden within that should give the Cubs hope about his future.
As a Cuban teenager, Soler was forced to wait for his playing time. Then he had to get to America to get into organized baseball. At twenty years old, he was thrown into rookie ball, and he’d never really seen pitchers throw breaking balls with that kind of velocity and command before. The team was content to let him get acclimated to the American culture and game before asking him to do much those first two years.
Then they asked him to be more patient in 2014. He went from walking 8% of the time in his first two years to walking 14% of the time combined in 2014 — which included his first looks at Double- and Triple-A, at 22 years old. He almost doubled his walk rate from year to year, and did so at harder levels — that’s an impressive feat.
Jorge Soler had the seventh-worst strikeout rate in baseball last year — it just seemed like he couldn’t make contact. He didn’t walk much, either. Or show power, as his isolated slugging percentage was below the league average.
But he did hit the ball hard, up the middle, at a young age, and with a minor league track record that showed the capacity to make adjustments and hit for power. All of these things say that he’s likely to much better in the future.
Oh yeah, that, and the fact that he hit .474/.600/1.105 with three homers in 25 postseason plate appearances, and showed us what it can look like when he puts it all together: scary good.