The 2021 MLB Trade Deadline that the Braves put together could be considered to be among the most impactful that MLB has ever seen. At the time, it was lauded primarily because Alex Anthopoulos traded for some useful players without giving up any meaningful long-term assets. However, what ended up happening was that those assets fueled a playoff berth and then a run through the postseason for the ages. One of the key players among the set of these acquisitions? Look no further than 2021 World Series MVP, Jorge Soler.
The Braves found themselves in a really rough spot with their outfield: Marcell Ozuna was first getting hurt and then embroiled in a domestic violence case, while MVP candidate Ronald Acuña Jr suffered a season-ending knee injury. Remember when Abraham Almonte and Guillermo Heredia were getting a bunch of at-bats out there? Yeah, it’s best not to think too much of those days.
After trading for Joc Pederson a few weeks before the Trade Deadline, the Braves were not content with their outfield depth and, among a flurry of other moves, they grabbed Jorge Soler from the Royals in exchange for relief prospect Kasey Kalich on July 30th. Kalich was a ranked relief prospect towards the end of Atlanta’s top prospect lists, but to get a guy with the kind of power upside that Soler possesses, even for a couple of months, the deal was a no-brainer.
There are two very distinct categories for this: preseason, and midseason, right after Soler was traded. Before the 2021 season, ZiPS had Soler projected as a designated hitter that would post a .246/.342/.495 line with 30 homers on his way to a 2.4 fWAR season. Soler was coming off a disappointing 2020 in which he underhit his xwOBA a fair bit en route to a 108 wRC+ and 0.6 fWAR, which came on the heels of a 3.6 fWAR season in 2019 (136 wRC+, 48 homers). The basic idea was that Soler hit enough to be a well above-average player, but provided essentially no other value in the field or on the bases, which made him more of an average contributor overall. One specific concern for Soler coming into 2021 was that he spent his 170-odd PAs in 2020 being very passive, swinging at below 60 percent of strikes he saw. That, combined with some added whiffs in the zone, shot his strikeout rate way up in a weird way, and it wasn’t clear whether it was a blip or some kind of new issue.
Fast-forward a few months, and things were weird. Soler had -1.1 fWAR in his 360 PAs with the Royals, which combined some terrible outfield defense with a 79 wRC+. He stopped his 2020 passivity at the plate, but had started to chase a fair bit instead. As a result, Soler kind of looked like a lottery ticket on both ends: first, could he bounce back offensively, light tower power and all, and second, could he actually play in a DH-less NL and not kill a team with his defense?
After the trade, the Braves indicated that they were interested in Soler because of his pre-trade hot streak (a wRC+ of over 200 and six homers in his last 37 PAs), and in pretty expected fashion for this front office, he was a clear xwOBA underperformer — as a Royal in 2021, Soler had an above-average .347 xwOBA but a ghastly .289 wOBA. He was literally the biggest xwOBA underperformer among all players with 250+ PAs at the Trade Deadline, and second to just Ozuna among players with 200+ PAs. (The PA cutoff had to be dropped to 75 or more to drop Soler out of the top 10 underperformers, where he was still 11th.) So, there were plenty of reasons to be bullish on Soler’s offense for the final two months of the season, and you could just close your eyes when he had to take the field.
As it turns out, the Braves were very, very right.
2021 Stats: Jorge Soler - .223/.316/.432, 27 homers, 70 RBI, 74 runs, 101 wRC+, -0.2 fWAR
If you were somehow completely unaware of what Soler did in a Braves’ uniform, you could absolutely be forgiven if you saw Soler’s stat line from the 2021 season and uttered some version of “Eww.” The batting average was ugly. The power output was okay, but not great considering he was a designated hitter and corner outfielder for the season, and the overall wRC+ and WAR numbers... well, they leave something to be desired.
However, again, this was a tale of two seasons for Soler (and also a tale of xwOBA underperformance in Kansas City tanking his overall line). When he was with the Royals as their designated hitter and occasional outfielder, he was truly not good. In 360 plate appearances with Kansas City, he slashed .192/.288/.370 with 13 homers. Through the first three months of the season, he posted wRC+ of 87 (eww), 25 (beyond gross), and 91 (eww again). For a guy that was strictly a designated hitter, you do not want to see that. However, in July, he did go on a good run and post a 132 wRC+ and saw his power return consistently, which is why the Royals actually found a taker for him instead of having teams run for the hills when his name was mentioned in trade talks. Notably, Soler did have a terrible xwOBA in May and a mediocre one in June, before xwOBAing .431 for July; he consistently underhit prior to the trade.
Once he became a Brave, it was an entirely different story. In 242 plate appearances, Soler slashed .269/.358/.524 with 14 homers. His wRC+ for the months of August and September? 136 and 126. He was so disciplined at the plate and adept at drawing walks that he was the Braves’ primary leadoff hitter for a while, which is a sentence I never thought I would write in 2021 or, well, ever. In short, bad with the Royals... really good with the Braves. He still underhit his xwOBA by a bit in August, but finally did the reverse in September (and then by even more in the postseason). Defensively, he was not good, though he also wasn’t horrendous. For a guy that was primarily a designated hitter going back to 2017, and for a team that just needed production, the Braves could and did live with it — and moreover, while he racked up some negative defensive value, it never really killed the Braves.
What went right? What went wrong?
Well, the “what went wrong” part of Soler season could easily be surmised by just gesticulating wildly at his stats with the Royals over the last couple of seasons and saying “all of this”. He went from posting a 136 wRC+ during the 2019 season, where he connected for 48 homers to a very, very mediocre 2020 campaign and a first half of the 2021 season that was just downright bad (yay/boo xwOBA underperformance). He wasn’t hitting at all, even though he actually was hitting.
Conversely, he bounced back in a big way in a Braves uniform, where he saw his consistent power production return as the misfortune receded. His walk rate remained steady at 11.1 percent, which is in line with his career norms and the 27 homers he hit during the regular season were the second most of his career. One big area of improvement for Soler was his strikeout rate: after striking out a little less than a third of the time during the previous four seasons, Soler’s strikeout rate went down to 23.6 percent in 2021. As a Brave, he cut both his chase rate and his whiff rate on pitches in the zone. If he can maintain that and get some more bounces to go his way, he could have a stellar 2022 season.
Road to the Title
Jorge Soler’s 2021 Postseason stats: .242/.342/.606, three homers, six RBI, 145 wRC+
Honestly, if I was blindly guessing what Soler’s numbers were in the 2021 season, I would have gone over on a lot of them because of how big his moments were. However, in the NLDS against the Brewers, he was pretty ordinary before he tested positive for COVID-19 prior to Game 4. Soler didn’t return from the COVID-19 version of the Injured List until Game 5 of the NLCS against the Dodgers, and even then it was only for a pair of pinch-hitting plate appearances.
Then, the World Series rolled around and Soler made up for lost time in a big way, on his way to a World Series MVP trophy. He led off Game 1 of the World Series with a home run (the first time that was done in MLB history), his go-ahead homer just over the glove of Yordan Alvarez notched the stunning comeback win for the Braves in Game 4, and his mammoth three-run shot over the train tracks in Houston is already being considered by some as one of the most iconic swings in franchise history. I know most of you already watch this on loop each day, but here it is again for easy access.
Overall, Soler had six hits in the World Series, with three of them being homers, each iconic in its own right. That is how you win a World Series MVP right there.
It probably goes without saying that Soler finished the 2021 campaign with some massive WPA and cWPA totals, which is made more impressive by him carrying a substantial WPA deficit from his time with the Royals. His Game 6 homer is a top-10 play in Atlanta Braves history by cWPA, while his Game 4 homer also makes the top 50.
Watch his three championship dingers together:
Also, while nothing like his World Series rampage, Soler’s effort on September 25 in San Diego is also worth remembering. In this game, he:
- Drew a leadoff walk
- Singled in the third, bringing the tying run to the plate as the Braves were down 3-0
- Hit a game-tying, three-run homer in the sixth
- Hit the go-ahead double in the 10th to notch the win.
Just an insane effort, and a bit of a preview of what was to come!
Outlook for 2022
It is a bit tricky to guess whether or not the Braves will bring back Soler in 2022, even though I think it is fair to say that most of the fanbase would love to have him back (along with many of the guys that the Braves acquired at the Trade Deadline, for that matter). His resurgence with the Braves is going to have a lot of teams interested in signing him given his free agent status. The Braves absolutely should strongly consider making it happen not only because of his overall production, but because he affords some protection at DH if/when Marcell Ozuna is handed a lengthy suspension by the league. They can slot him in at DH (assuming it is added to the National League, which seems extremely likely) while Ozuna is out and if he mashes and Ozuna returns, one or both of them can spend some time in left field to keep their bats in the lineup. There are a lot of “ifs” with Ozuna and how the Braves handle that situation, but Soler flexibility as an insurance policy is very appealing.
However, it would not be shocking if Soler doesn’t sign anywhere quickly. As of now, there is not a DH in the National League and some NL teams may be hesitant to sign a player like Soler until that is set in stone. He may be better served to wait until the CBA negotiations are over so that more teams may be willing to compete for his services. Expect the Braves to be interested, but it wouldn’t be a shock if another team manages to give him an offer he can’t refuse.
At the same time, Soler may want to jump on a sizable deal if he gets any offers, rather than waiting anything out. Good-not-elite bats with no defensive or baserunning value have been maligned by the market in recent history, and for all of his heroics, Soler’s posted a good-but-not-elite xwOBA since his definitely-elite 2019. His fWAR/600 as a Brave didn’t clear 2.0 by very much, so while he may get somewhat of a boost because his 2019 did happen and wasn’t that long ago, it’d be curious if he got a massive deal in free agency as opposed to a one-year prove-it-for-longer offer, or some other kind of short deal that minimizes team risk if he reverts to something akin to his 2020 form.