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Why is Jorge Soler struggling?

Jorge Soler is showing a patient approach at the plate, but he may have gone too far.

MLB: Kansas City Royals at Tampa Bay Rays
Jorge Soler is taking walks and hitting fly balls, but those fly balls are not finding enough gaps or bleachers to offset his proclivity to punch out.
Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Jorge Soler used to be an intriguing prospect for all the right reasons. When he first arrived stateside from Cuba in 2012, Soler was the proverbial toolbox. This Fangraphs profile would have led one to believe there was no limit to Soler’s potential. Everyone who’s seen the man on TV knows he has a linebacker’s physique, but Soler was more than just a hulking future slugger. He was a well-rounded prospect, showing the tools to hit for average as well as power, with a strong throwing arm to boot.

The big question, as it often is for toolsy young prospects, was his plate approach. While his pitch recognition skills needed work, that was not a surprise considering he hadn’t played for nearly two years as he waited to come to the U.S. His plate approach may not have been refined at the time of his arrival, but with more experience against live pitching, those skills could develop to the point that Soler could unleash his massive power on baseballs across the country.

Now, in 2017, Soler is an intriguing player for all the wrong reasons. After a sizzling debut with the Chicago Cubs in 2014 (148 wRC+ in 97 plate appearances), Soler stalled out during the rest of his time in Chicago, posting a 96 wRC+ in 2015 and 106 wRC+ in 2016. Being a roughly league-average hitter is one thing, but combining average hitting with poor defense (-8.2 UZR from 2015 through 2016) and an inability to stay healthy (just 187 games played from 2015 through 2016) is a poor plan for reaching adequateness, let alone stardom.

Soler received the gift of a fresh start heading into 2017 when he was traded from Chicago to the Kansas City Royals in exchange for relief pitching savant Wade Davis. Surely the Royals saw the same potential in Soler that convinced the Cubs to give him a $30 million contract despite Soler not having played any games the prior two years. While Soler hadn’t exactly shined during his time in Chicago, he wasn’t a disaster either. There was reason to believe that with everyday at-bats, Soler could take further steps toward fulfilling his massive potential.

But it hasn’t happened, at least not yet. Soler is currently sporting a disastrous .164/.292/.273 batting line, his lineup spot has been usurped by Jorge “Don’t Call Me Emilio” Bonifacio, and if the Royals didn’t have one of the worst offenses in baseball, he’d likely be back in Triple-A.

MLB: Detroit Tigers at Kansas City Royals
Soler has been giving many more high fives to teammates who do something good than he has received for his own exploits.
Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports

So what’s gone wrong for Soler? The easy answer would be to say that his plate approach never developed and move on to talking about players who are actually good big-leaguers.

But the numbers don’t necessarily bear that narrative out, at least on first glance. Here are Soler’s walk rates since his debut in 2014:

2014: 6.2 percent

2015: 7.9 percent

2016: 11.7 percent

2017: 15.4 percent

If the narrative is that Soler is an unrepentant hacker, the story is not really supported by his free pass rates.

But drawing walks, while a fantastic skill, isn’t enough. Soler earned his spot on top prospect lists because he projected to have enough raw power to supply a small village. Walks are nice, but they’re even nicer if they allow a batter to tap into elite clout.

Of course, we are now smack dab in the middle of the fly ball revolution, and Soler has done his best to be one of the revolutionaries. After posting a pre-revolution fly ball rate of 29.8 percent in 2015, Soler boosted his fly ball rate to 43.3 percent in 2016 and is sitting at a whopping 47.2 rate in 2017.

MLB-average hitting, poor defense, and poor health is a poor recipe for stardom. But a boatload of fly balls and walks combined with elite raw power is the start of something interesting.

Fly balls and walks are only part of the picture, though. Soler is currently running a 29.2 percent strikeout rate, which is untenable for all but the most talented mashers. Soler is also not hitting the ball hard when he does make contact; his hard-hit rate has gone from 36.3 percent in 2015 (aka pre-fly ball revolution) to just 30.6 percent this season. Oh, and his infield fly ball rate is a catastrophic 11.1 percent. It’s tough to be a decent major league player when roughly two-fifths of your plate appearances end in automatic outs.

Let’s go back to the plate patience piece of the puzzle. While Soler has been patient at the plate, his approach may have gone beyond what’s needed to be effective. Here are his O-Swing rates by year:

2015: 31.4 percent

2016: 28.1 percent

2017: 24.0 percent

So Soler is swinging at fewer pitches outside the strike zone. That’s good! But here are Soler’s corresponding Z-Swing rates:

2015: 68.8 percent

2016: 67.6 percent

2017: 60.2 percent

Again, this isn’t totally surprising. Drawing more walks means taking fewer swings, which means taking more strikes, which means more strikeouts.

But despite his patience, Soler isn’t necessarily working his way into a lot of great hitting counts. This season, Soler has seen only ten 2-0 counts, four 3-0 counts, and seven 3-1 counts (14 plate appearances total). On the other hand, he’s seen 75 pitches while behind in the count and has a nearly 60/40 split between 0-1 and 1-0 counts. That means he’s taking a lot of strikes, especially early in his plate appearances.

Right now, Soler is displaying the difference between plate approach and pitch recognition. His current approach at the plate is a good one: take a lot of pitches, look for ones to drive, and hit the ball in the air when they come. But there’s no evidence Soler has made progress in pitch recognition. While he’s laying off the pitches he shouldn’t chase early in the count, he’s also laying off the pitches he needs to swing at early in the count. This is leading to a lot deep counts, walks, and strikeouts; it’s not leading to a lot of hits and home runs, which are kind of important.

Here is the point in the article where I give you all the qualifiers. Soler is still only 25 years old, and he still has the massive power potential that made him such an intriguing prospect. He’s adjusting to a new team, league, and ballpark. He’s on a bad Royals club that will have every chance to give him plate appearances down the stretch this season. He has some track record of being an average hitter, and his struggles in 2017 have come in just 65 plate appearances after he missed a month with an injury.

Qualifiers notwithstanding, the clock is ticking on Soler as a potential impact player. He looks like he has the right idea of what he should be doing at the plate: look for a pitch to drive and hit it in the air when he gets it. But it’s looking more and more like Soler just does not have the pitch recognition skills to pull it off.

All stats current as of May 31, 2017.

Jeremy Klein is a writer for Beyond the Box Score. You can follow him on Twitter at @papabearjere.