Jorge Soler isn’t just a big, strong man swinging a big stick in the middle of the Royals lineup. Make no mistake, he’s definitely that.
He’s also entering each game with the mentality of a card counter ready to sit down at a blackjack table with the intention to take the casino for all it’s worth. His calculated gambles have paid off in big ways this season.
When a player stands 6-foot-4, weighs 230 pounds, somehow gives off the appearance of being formed out of solid rock and remains athletic for his size, it’s easy to overlook his mental acuity. His mind has been the weapon which has hurt opposing pitchers as much as his muscle this season.
After hitting the go-ahead home run that led the Royals to a 6-4 win Monday night against the Seattle Mariners at T-Mobile Stadium, Soler entered Tuesday night’s middle game of the three-game set having hit 19 home runs and having tied the franchise record for most home runs through the first 72 games of the season.
“It’s part of growing,” Royals manager Ned Yost said. “It’s all part of getting here and learning how to establish yourself. It was the same thing with (Eric Hosmer) and (Mike Moustakas) and (Lorenzo) Cain and (Salvador Perez) and all those guys when they first got up.
“None of them really understood what it meant to have a plan of attack because they were just so talented. In the minor leagues, they didn’t need it. When you get here, you’ve gotta have it. There’s a huge difference.”
The Cuban native has played 100 or more games in the majors just once since making his debut with the Chicago Cubs in August 2014.
Royals coaches, Yost, Soler’s teammates and Soler will point to him having been healthy as a huge factor in his success this season. After all, injuries limited Soler, 27, to a total of 96 games the previous two seasons with the club.
Work he’d put in with quality control coach/catching coach Pedro Grifol and hitting coach Terry Bradshaw started to pay off more consistently. He’d been trending in a similar direction last season before he broke his foot.
Last season, he’d hit nine home runs with 28 RBIs and a .466 slugging percentage in 61 games before his season abruptly ended on June 16 due to a left toe fracture.
The progress he’s made as far as his approach at the plate has been as important to him having a career year as his health.
“I’ve been doing the same thing I was doing last year, just studying the pitchers with Pedro and Terry before the games, spending a lot of time and creating an approach,” Soler said with quality control coach/catching coach Pedro Grifol serving as translator. “It’s been working for me, and I’m prepared for the ballgame.”
Prior to each game, Soler will sit down with Grifol and go over how the opposing pitchers have been pitching him lately as well as how they’ve approached similar hitters to him and constantly breaking down his own strengths and weaknesses.
Soler is on pace for 43 home runs this season, which would surpass the franchise record of 38 set by Mike Moustakas in 2017. While he’s strikeout rate has been 29 percent this season, he’s also entered the day tied for fourth in the American League in home runs, third in RBIs (51) and 15th in slugging percentage (.520).
“He’s going up to the plate now where he’s feeling like, ‘I’m a pretty damn good hitter, and I’m a pretty damn good power hitter,’” Grifol said. “So that’s what it’s all about. It’s about preparation. It’s about self-confidence. Obviously, you have to have ability. But if you’re up here and you look like that, you’ve got ability. Now you’ve got to put the confidence and the preparation together.”
His his film study with Grifol and Bradshaw has allowed him to be more aggressive and take calculated risks at the plate. A prime example has been his willingness to attack the first pitch. Nine of his 19 home runs have come on the first pitch of an at-bat.
It’s more than going to the plate hacking. He and Grifol talk almost daily about the importance of the “conversion counts.”
“We have to win the 0-0 count,” Grifol said. “The difference between 1-0 and 0-1 in about 150 points (on a batting average), so we have to win 0-0. If we find ourselves in a 1-1 count, we have to win 1-1. We have to win the 2-2 count. He understands that.”
If it were as easy as hunting a first-pitch fastball, pitchers would’ve given Soler such a heavy dose of off-speed pitches that he’d have been seeing curveballs and sliders in his sleep by the end of April.
Soler knows he can’t just go to the plate swinging. Pitchers are too good. They’ve got devastating arsenals of pitches and they’re smart enough to make him look foolish if he took that approach.
“He’s got to be able to non-fastball and good as he hits fastballs, which is what he’s done,” Grifol said. “The ball he hit (Monday night) was a slider, off the plate a little bit but he’s got some long extremities so he’s able to cover the plate.”
Soler is also learning to adjust as team’s change their plans because of his game-changing power. In some cases that means being disciplined enough in his plan to take walks, something he’s still working on — his walk rate this season is just 6.8 percent.
In the previous series at Minnesota, Soler hit a monstrously-hard home run off Twins ace Jake Odorizzi in the second game of a three-game series, and then didn’t get a pitch from the middle of the plate in for the rest of the series. In those last two games, he walked twice and struck out just once.
Teammates pointed to Soler’s presence as one of the ways they’d make up for the loss of All-Star catcher and leading home run threat Salvador Perez to season-ending Tommy John surgery during spring training.
So far he’s proven them right to have confidence in him.
“You just see it when you watch (batting practice), you see how easily he hits balls out of the ballpark,” Royals outfielder/infielder Whit Merrifield said. “He’s got a good eye. He’s always been a pretty patient hitter. He’s always done a relatively good job of laying off pitches out of the zone. When he swings as aggressively as he does, it’s going to come with some strikeouts. It was just a matter of time before he sort of put it together.”