This is unconventional. The odds of it happening sit somewhere between slim and none, leaning much closer to none. And yet, I’m here today to tell you that Jorge Soler should hit leadoff for the Kansas City Royals in 2017.
When the Royals traded star closer Wade Davis to the Cubs in exchange for Soler, what got talked up about him was his power. Power typically sits in the middle of a lineup, and for good reason. When a player hits the ball out of the park, the rule book indicates that any player on base ahead of them gets to score as well. Therefore, having runners on base ahead of power hitters is typically a good practice. It makes sense. And yet, here I am advocating for Soler to hit leadoff.
While Soler does have a lot of power potential, something underrated about him is his developing plate discipline. In 2014 and 2015, Soler swung at 31 percent and 32.8 percent of pitches outside the strike zone respectively. That’s really not awful actually, but it’s also nothing special. In 2016, that number dropped to 25.5 percent, a figure bested by only three Royals with at least 100 plate appearances during the 2016 season. When I saw that figure and looked at his on base percentage compared to his average, I started thinking that Soler might fit at the top of the order quite well.
His power and potential for more, along with his plate discipline, are joined by some offensive traits that aren’t quite as promising. He strikes out a lot. He improved from 2015 to 2016, but he still whiffed 25 percent of the time. That might not resonate given what I told you about his plate discipline, but a big reason why he strikes out so much is he has trouble with off speed pitches, even those that are in the zone. If Soler is going to take the next step to become an elite hitter, his ability to pick out pitches in the zone to swing at will have to improve.
So now we see that one of his biggest strengths offensively is his ability to lay off bad pitches and work a walk while one of his biggest weaknesses is off speed pitches, and I got to thinking that Soler needs to hit in a spot in the order where he’ll see more fastballs. The way to do that is to either get him in the lineup behind speedsters who will be threats to steal or he can be put at the top of a lineup where pitchers often use less of their repertoire early with the intent of maybe saving an off speed pitch for later in a game in order to help them get through a lineup a third or even a fourth time.
Given the Royals current roster makeup, I’d also advocate for hitting Jarrod Dyson in the leadoff spot with Soler second, but I’m not so confident Dyson is going to be around once the games begin in a few months, so that’s why I suggest the idea of hitting him at the top of a lineup.
Think about the approach Alcides Escobar took quite often as a Royals leadoff hitter. He went up to the plate with “ambush” on his mind. We saw all the first pitch swinging. More often than I understood, a pitcher would give him a fastball that he was trying to get over to the plate to get strike one of the ballgame. Escobar would swing regularly and would end up on first base because he was given a pitch to hit. Now picture that situation with Soler at the plate and his power. It’s the top of the first and the pitcher wants to get ahead 0-1, only instead of a single to left center, Soler is able to put one in a gap or even over a wall. That’s a heck of a way to start a game.
And sure, pitchers will adjust, but let’s go back to why pitchers don’t throw out their whole repertoire early. It’s nice to have something held back in reserve that a team hasn’t seen. So even if Soler is getting hammered with sliders in his first at bat, that gets the Royals a look at the opposing pitcher’s slider long before he wants to show it off. Sure, that’s almost in the category of moral victory, but it’s a positive that can come out of a negative.
And even if he does strike out, is it really that big of a deal as the leadoff hitter? The idea that all outs are the same is an incorrect premise. A strikeout with a runner on third and one out is a terrible out. But a strikeout with nobody on and nobody out is just a regular out, and one that does take at least three pitches to record. And you might be saying that he won’t be leading off every time he comes to the plate. While that’s true, think about who will likely be hitting in the eighth and ninth spots in the batting order. My guess in this scenario is it’ll be Escobar (.297 career OBP) and either Whit Merrifield or Raul Mondesi. Neither of those two are going to get on base all that much. Even when he doesn’t lead off an inning, there’s a pretty decent chance he’ll either be up with a runner on and two outs or nobody on at all.
And Soler is really an okay base runner. While he probably has average speed at best, he does a nice job on the base paths of running smart. He’s not going to go out and steal you 40 bases at the top of a lineup, but if he’s on first base and a ball is hit to right field, he’ll take the extra base about half the time. I would think that would even increase given the much larger dimensions of his new home park compared to his old one.
No, the leadoff spot is not what the Royals acquired Soler to fill. He’s in Kansas City now to be a middle of the order presence for at least the next four seasons and to help bridge the gap between the current run of great Royals baseball and the next run of great Royals baseball. But you can make a darn good argument that his best path to success is to hit at the top of the lineup to take advantage of his strengths and minimize his weaknesses.