2019 was a year of many firsts: the first time four different teams exceeded 100 wins in the same season, the first time the Washington Nationals played in (and won) a world series, and the first time a Royals player has ever led the American League in home runs. Jorge Soler had a breakout year as he finally got his first full season of playing time, clubbing 48 homers and posting a 136 wRC+, good for the 20th best offensive season in baseball. Still, even breaking the franchise home run record by 10 and exceeding all AL players not named Mike Trout by 7 homers, Soler’s season can certainly be brought into question as a product of the unprecedented home run rate in 2019 that has raised arguments of a juiced ball. However, Soler’s 2019 season was more than just legit; when viewed in perspective with his career progression so far, it puts him firmly among the Royals most valuable assets. This should prompt the Royals to offer Soler an extension with his future value, either for the team or in a trade, in mind.
The skill that Soler demonstrated to the greatest degree in 2019 was his ability to hit baseballs very hard. Last season, Soler fell in the 96th percentile of both average exit velocity and hard hit percentage. He led MLB with 70 barrels, the highest quality of contact as tracked by Statcast. What’s even more telling: no player with as many batted ball events as Soler had a higher hard hit percentage, barrels per batted ball event rate, or barrels per plate appearance rate. Soler posted career highs across the board in quality of contact stats, propelling himself to the upper echelon of MLB leaderboards in the process. Why is this so important? The ability to hit the ball hard is one of the strongest indicators of hitting success: of the top 10 players in baseball in barrels/PA% in 2019, only one had a wRC+ below 135.
While several players posted similarly impressive quality of contact statistics with nearly as many batted ball events as Soler, it is notable that Soler played in all 162 games in 2019 and posted such impressive numbers over the entire season. For the first time in his career, Soler saw a full season of regular playing time, and he largely demonstrated the player he was expected to become as a prospect, even if that player was projected to arrive a couple years sooner. If anything, Soler improved through the season, exploding in the second half with a 173 wRC+. Especially considering the fact that they were posted over the course of a full season instead of the partial seasons we’ve seen from Soler in the past, his impressive 2019 statistics are highly suggestive that he can sustain his 2019 production.
Also indicative of future success for Soler are his peripheral statistics. First, Soler posted strikeout and walk rates that are nearly identical to his career numbers, and while he does strike out at a considerable rate, he walks at a well above average rate to compensate. The stability of these statistics indicates that neither of these numbers are going anywhere, and the ability to reach base via the walk is an important part of Soler’s profile as a hitter that is also indicative of future value. Moreover, plate discipline statistics are one aspect of hitter performance that is relatively stable with age, indicating that when Soler does age past his prime years he will still provide offensive value through his ability to get on base.
The other peripheral statistic that is highly encouraging for Soler is the .294 BABIP that he posted in 2019. BABIP is generally indicative of a hitter’s luck, and Soler’s BABIP in the bottom third of qualified hitters despite his impressive hard contact numbers indicates that he may still have some better offensive production in him by no avenue but a bit more good fortune. BABIP is also generally affected by a player’s speed, but Soler ranks in the 53rd percentile of sprint speed, certainly not slow enough to sink his BABIP that much. Given his elite hard contact and not terrible speed, Soler’s 2019 BABIP was low, and nothing but some good fortune may improve his offensive numbers yet.
There are several concerns with Soler, and though they don’t shoot down his value altogether, they do hold some merit. The most prevalent of these is that Soler is more a product of the juiced ball than anything else; this is especially fair upon consideration of the fact that he posted his best season largely via a home run explosion in the most lucrative year of home runs that baseball has ever seen. This opens the door to several other concerns: how sustainable is this success, and how valuable is Soler in a league where a lot of players can hit a lot of home runs? Ultimately, we don’t have a definitive answer to any of these concerns, but Soler’s 2019 results and hard contact numbers are hard to ignore, and not just anybody can put up such a season, so even still it’s hard to overstate his value.
With all of this in mind, it’s important that the Royals explore a contract extension with Soler before the 2020 season. All things considered, it’s highly likely that Soler maintains or improves upon this level of offensive production in the years to come, and a long term deal that provides a team with more control and Soler with more long term financial security is almost certainly in the Royals’ best interests. With similar production to his 2019 season, Soler is worth far more than even the $11M he’s slated to earn in 2020, and a contract worth around $10-15M a season would provide the Royals with a cost controlled asset in Soler that could also be a valuable trade asset.
A prospect that makes a trade for Soler appealing is the home run numbers he could post with a home ballpark other than Kauffman Stadium. While the Royals’ home ballpark is a hitter-friendly environment overall, it is the second most pitcher-friendly stadium in MLB when it comes to the likelihood of hitting a home run. Factoring in the fact that 27 of Soler’s 48 home runs this season came on the road, it’s easy to imagine that he could hit even more home runs when playing half of his games in a stadium where home runs come more easily. The prospect of Soler playing the majority of his games in a stadium like Rogers Centre or Guaranteed Rate field, where home runs are far more prevalent, is very interesting, especially considering that Soler has never had a home run friendly home ballpark in his MLB career.
Ultimately, an extension of Jorge Soler is in the Royals’ best interests as a means of securing a valuable asset to the team who may also serve as a valuable trade piece. Securing Soler on a long term contract provides Soler with contract stability and it provides the Royals with control and flexibility for their best player in 2019. Whether Soler is the designated hitter on the next Royals contender or a trade piece that nets future value, he’s an important asset to the Royals, and should be treated accordingly.