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Jorge Soler: Selectively selective

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He knows what he wants

World Series - Atlanta Braves v Houston Astros - Game One Photo by Carmen Mandato/Getty Images

Jorge Soler is not big on swinging. That’s not to say he abhors it, or anything, but he prefers to wait. Among the 362 batters with 200 or more PAs this season:

  • Soler had 76th-lowest chase rate (21st percentile);
  • Soler had the 135th-highest swing rate on pitches in the zone (63rd percentile); and
  • If you combine those, only 90 batters swung at a lower rate of pitches than Soler (25th percentile).

Being in the bottom quartile in swing rate isn’t anything too special, and it’s not like Soler has cracked the “swing at strikes, take balls” code to any kind of extreme degree. The point is, he just doesn’t swing that much, and that’s okay. The chart below uses z-scores to visualize Soler’s o-swing and z-swing rates among his peers with 200 or more PAs; a z-score is basically just “how many standard deviations above/below the mean is this stat.”

The red dot is Soler

Again, Soler isn’t unique here, though he is in the least-populated clique of guys with above-average z-swing rates and below-average o-swing rates, which is also the best clique to be in. The overall scatterplot here has an R-squared of about 0.25, which makes sense — patience, or a lack thereof, is probably somewhat independent of pitch location as a general tendency, but the best hitters tend to do a great job of being in that upper-left quadrant, while some guys are in the bottom-right quadrant and it’s sad for everyone.

(As a bunch of side notes: the two breakaway dots in the upper left are two Giants — Brandon Belt, who had an awesome 2021 offensively, and Curt Casali, who definitely did not. In general, correlations between swing rates, contact rates, zone rates, etc. and offensive outcomes are weak-to-nonexistent, because major league hitters often have non-fungible skillsets, i.e., the guys who make worse swing decisions can survive because of how well they hit the ball when they connect, etc. Getting to the majors is dependent on having some skillset that works, but what that skillset is can vary wildly. Correlations between more complex derived metrics, like z-swing less o-swing, tend to be slightly better in terms of relationship to wRC+ or xwOBA, but we’re still talking a range generally below 10 percent. As such, while I find this stuff interesting, I’m not under any impression that it’s a make-or-break aspect of a player’s profile. Most players with sufficient MLB exposure have some combination of plate discipline and contact quality that works for them, or that they’re having a hard time improving on.)

So, Soler doesn’t like to swing… at least not in most cases. There’s one place, though, where Soler loves to hack: the first pitch! Remember how Soler was in the 25th percentile in overall swings? Well, on the first pitch, he’s in the 75th percentile, 87th out of those 362 players.

The red dot is still Soler

Soler isn’t the most extreme guy-who-swings-at-first-pitches-and-then-not-really-at-other-pitches-as-much, but he’s up there. He’s got nothing on psychopaths like Corey Seager (one of only two players whose swing rate on the first pitch is more than three standard deviations above the mean, while his overall swing rate is only 1.2 standard deviations above the mean), or even someone like Vladimir Guerrero Jr., who has a basically-average swing rate overall but is nearly two standard deviations above the mean in chasing the first pitch. Still, the existence of weirdos like Juan Soto (overall swing rate more than 2.5 standard deviations below the mean; first pitch swing rate only 0.8 standard deviations below the mean) notwithstanding, Soler has the 11th-biggest gap in baseball between his swing rate on first pitches, and his swing rate overall. By the way, he isn’t even the most distinctive Brave in this regard, as Ronald Acuña Jr. (barely) holds that mantle. Acuña swung at pitches at a rate one standard deviation below the mean prior to his injury, but swung at the first pitch a bit more often than average (+0.33 z-score), compared to Soler’s z-scores of -0.65 and +0.71, respectively.

By the way, moreso than the o-swing/z-swing thing, swing rates between first pitches and other pitches are correlated with an R-squared of right around 50 percent, so when Soler and some other guys take differential approaches to swinging in those two situations, that’s also pretty unusual. Give it up for Soler twice — he bucks the trend in terms of o-swing/z-swing relationship, and in terms of first pitch swing/all pitches swing relationships.

Baseball is a team sport, but a lot of times, that feels like a fairly nominal descriptor, given that most action in a game happens as a result of individual matchups. Regardless of a team’s desired offensive approach, the guys taking plate appearances are still individuals, generally with their own strengths and weaknesses. With that said, though, you can still kinda-sorta tease out team hitting philosophies here and there, and the recent-era Braves have a pretty clear one.

Since the team returned to contention in 2018, the Braves rank first in MLB in z-swing rate (and it isn’t even close, the difference between them and the second-place team is the same as the difference between No. 2 and what would be No. 13 in that ranking), but half-bizarrely, they’re also second-to-last in z-contact rate. They chase a fair bit too (10th), but the real message seems to be: try to kill strikes, even if you miss when doing so. Not surprisingly, they have the lowest rate of called strikes taken in this period (again, by a ton, as the difference between them and the No. 2 team is the same as the difference between the No. 2 and No. 11 teams). If there’s one uniform reason why the Braves have been such a strong offensive team, it’s because they don’t give pitchers that optimal outcome much — their CSW% (the rate of called strikes and whiffs per pitch) is the lowest in baseball since the start of 2018, narrowly edging out the Astros. (Note that low CSW% is not a cure-all for offenses; Cleveland, Pittsburgh, and the Mets also have very low CSW% rates in recent history. You still have to hit the ball hard and in the air when you connect.) Also, for those wondering, this whole high z-swing, low z-contact paradigm is not an artifact of mushing seasons together. Since 2018, the Braves’ ranks in z-swing have been 1st, 1st, 3rd, 1st, and their ranks in z-contact have been 14th (work in progress!), 30th, 29th, and 28th.

So, what does this have to do with Jorge Soler? Well, it’d be nice for this article if the net result for Soler was that, after coming over from the Royals, his z-swing went up and his z-contact went down, but yeah, not quite:

Jorge Soler, 2021 plate discipline stats by team, via Fangraphs

The z-swing did go up, but so did the z-contact. The o-swing dropped and the o-contact increased. This isn’t an immediate transformation story or anything, though it is kind of cool that Soler actively improved on his already-good “take balls, swing at strikes” approach after the trade. One thing that didn’t change much was Soler’s first-pitch swing rate — it ranged between 35 and 36 percent regardless of whether you’re talking his Royals stint, his Braves stint, or the two combined. But, keep that in mind in combination with his overall swing rate reduction with the Braves (due to less chasing). If you treat Braves-Soler as his own player, he would have the third-biggest gap between his first pitch swing z-score and his overall swing rate z-score, behind just Seager (who swings at everything) and Soto (who swings at nothing).

Given all of these things, it’s not surprising that the Braves moved Soler to leadoff. Even beyond his mighty xwOBA being grounds enough to bat him in the top part of the lineup, he was already pretty selective. And if you threw a get-me-over strike one, he’d be more than happy to show you the error of your ways, like here, here, and here.

This one lends itself well to a tl;dr:

  • Jorge Soler has an unusual, but effective, combination of swinging at a fair bit of strikes and fewer balls, which means he doesn’t swing much overall.
  • But he does like to swing a lot at the first pitch, which is also unusual for someone that swings as infrequently as he does.
  • After he came over to the Braves, he swung at even more strikes, which is a thing the Braves love to do.
  • But he also swung at fewer balls after the trade, which made his already-great approach even deadlier.

Oh, and by the way, the playoff version of Jorge Soler? Take all of the above, and take it to the extreme. I don’t know if Soler and his 145 wRC+ (.394 wOBA, .342 xwOBA) were the best version of himself in the playoffs… but they were definitely the most Jorge Soler version of himself. He swung at a bit fewer first pitches (from 35 percent to 34 percent), trucked his z-swing rate from an already-high 70 percent to way-higher 81 percent, and dropped his already-low chase rate of 23 percent to a much lower 18 percent. His average exit velocity in the postseason was over 96 mph, the second-highest average exit velocity in a postseason with 20+ PAs in the Statcast era (Joc Pederson is first at 96.8 mph in 28 PAs in 2020).