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The Jorge Soler Trade and Trusting Process over Results

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MLB: Washington Nationals at Atlanta Braves Jason Getz-USA TODAY Sports

A few days ago in St Louis, new addition Jorge Soler did this:

A ball 106 mph off the bat and 26 degrees of launch angle that 93 times out of 100, goes for a hit. That night it went for an out. I remember watching that play thinking what incredibly bad luck.

But for Jorge Soler, it wasn’t unusually bad luck. Unfortunately for him, it was par for the course in 2021.

By every metric we use to judge players, Soler is having the worst full season of his career. His batting average, on-base percentage, wOBA, wRC+, and WAR are all at career worst for any season where he’s played more than 35 games. Of course, this is why it cost so little to acquire him at the trade deadline. Bad defensive outfielders who are two month rentals and in the middle of the worst offensive season of their careers, don’t usually bring back blue-chip players. And so the Braves sent Kansas City a minor-league relief prospect and the Royals sent Atlanta Jorge Soler. Braves sent little in value and in return got a negative WAR player who they only control for two months.

Makes sense.

But a deeper look into Soler’s 2021 profile tells a much different story. The key to Soler’s offensive profile is power. And it is prodigious power. During his excellent run in Kansas City from 2018-2020, Soler had a .525 slugging percentage and a .266 ISO, which led to almost a 130 wRC+. He mashed the ball. But in 2021, that hasn’t been the case. Before he was traded to Atlanta, Soler had a .370 slugging percentage and .179 ISO for the Royals. That’s a drop of 150 points in slugging and a 100 points in ISO, which for a guy who lives off power, is devastating. But those are the results. The process told a different story.

Baseball Savant allows us to see what a player should be slugging (xSLG) based his batted ball profile (exit velocity, launch angle, etc) in a neutral environment. Essentially it uses quality and qauntity of contact to tell the story instead just the results, which can be swayed by variables outside the player’s control. You can take that xSLG% and subtract it from a players actual SLG% to get a leaderboard of players whose results are most being impacted by these outside variables relative to their skill level. In 2021, Jorge Soler has a SLG% of .397. and a xSLG% of .486, a difference of 89 points. That difference is the highest number in all of baseball, minimum 200 balls in play.

MLB: Cincinnati Reds at Atlanta Braves Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports

And it’s not just SLG. Soler’s current wOBA is .301. His xwOBA is .350, which is a difference of 49 points. That’s the highest number in the NL and the second highest number in all of baseball, minimum 200 balls in play. You can see now why the tweet at the top was so noteworthy. Based on the quality and quantity of his contact, Soler’s 2021 season wasn’t really all that different from his great run in Kansas City. He just wasn’t getting the outcomes. By his expected numbers, Soler should be having the same offensive success this season as Trey Mancini and his 125 wRC+. Instead, he’s sitting at a 92 wRC+.

There’s no doubt in my mind Alex Anthopoulos and his team saw these numbers before the trade deadline. The situation is similar to the batted ball profile the Braves saw in Marcell Ozuna before the 2020 season that gave them the confidence he could produce at a high level, despite just mediocre results his previous years in St. Louis. The Braves saw much more in Soler than his 2021 results, and given the cost to acquire him, made a no-brainer trade.

And it appears they were right. The trade, and trusting process over results, is already paying off. Since joining Atlanta, Soler has a .656 SLG%, a .313 ISO and a 190 wRC+ and has been planted in the middle of their order, batting in arguably the most important spot, second. You could say he’s mashing again, but really, he never stopped. Results vary, but skill level doesn’t and the Braves trusted if Soler kept destroying baseballs the way he has all year, the result would follow.

The way he hits, and given how comfortable he’s looked in the outfield, Soler is a guy I’d love for the Braves to look into extending. Even if the defense is a concern long term, the prevailing opinion acorss baseball is the DH is coming to the NL in the next CBA agreement. The Marcell Ozuna domestic violence situation obviously muddies those waters, but I think the team has to move forward as if Ozuna will never take another at-bat for them. Soler fits right into the void left, and probably at a discount.

But guys who hit the ball like this, while owning a double-digit career walk rate, are not easy to find. Braves made an excellent deal trusting in his batted ball numbers over his results and now have their eyes set on another NL East title, in large part because of how much he deepens their lineup. Nice trade Alex.