Jorge Soler fitting right in with new-look Braves

Atlanta Braves' Jorge Soler celebrates his home run during the fourth inning of a baseball game against the Baltimore Orioles, Sunday, Aug. 22, 2021, in Baltimore. (AP Photo/Nick Wass)
Caption
Atlanta Braves' Jorge Soler celebrates his home run during the fourth inning of a baseball game against the Baltimore Orioles, Sunday, Aug. 22, 2021, in Baltimore. (AP Photo/Nick Wass)

Credit: Nick Wass

Credit: Nick Wass

Last week, in the middle of the Braves’ 9-0 road trip, the team was locked in a scoreless tie with the Marlins in the eighth inning until a newcomer came through.

Slugger Jorge Soler, known more for his monstrous homers than quiet hits, singled to score outfielder Abraham Almonte and give the Braves a lead they wouldn’t relinquish. On Sunday, Soler sparked a three-run fourth with a solo shot off Orioles ace John Means, leading to his team’s 3-1 victory to finish the trip.

Soler and the Braves have proved an ideal match. Before the trade, Soler was hitting .192/.288/.370 with 13 homers and 37 RBIs with the rebuilding Royals. Since the deal, he’s hit .260/.383/.494 with five homers and 10 RBIs – mostly out of the second spot in the order and playing right field – for the surging Braves.

“He’s been awesome,” manager Brian Snitker said. “Really pleasant guy. I’d heard from guys with the Royals that really liked the guy. Thank God he is (nice) because as big as he is, I’m glad he’s not mean. But he’s fit right in, and he’s been a great. He’s worked his rear off. He’s very conscientious in his work. I can tell that. He’s not a guy that just shows up and plays. He puts a lot into it.

“He’s been a real pleasant guy from the first day I’ve seen him. I think he’s fit right in here really well. He’s been awesome. I’ve really enjoyed him.”

The Braves were 51-52, four games back in the National League East, on trade-deadline day July 30. They operated as buyers, acquiring four players, including Soler. They’re 17-5 since, flipping that four-game deficit into a 4-1/2-game advantage atop the division.

Soler, who looks every bit of his listed 6-foot-4, 235-pound frame, has helped rejuvenate his new club. The veteran has injected more power into a transformed lineup, one that once was borderline pathetic at the bottom and has since become a well-rounded group.

“When (Soler) got into the clubhouse, Chipper (Jones) and I both said, ‘Whoa. This is a large human,’” first baseman Freddie Freeman said. “He can hit the ball far in batting practice. He was putting balls in center field, no problem. Just a very, very strong man.”

Starter Charlie Morton, against whom Soler is 0-for-6 with three strikeouts, added: “He’s a big dude that hits the ball hard. That’s fun to watch. But I like seeing him in the clubhouse, too. He and G (outfielder Guillermo Heredia) are pals. They knew each other. They’re friends. G says he’s a good dude. He comes in, he’s happy, smiling. He says hi to everybody. He’s a real good clubhouse guy. Easy to root for.

“I knew from his time in KC, getting to pitch against him a little bit and see him play, I always liked the way he played. I’m glad he’s on our side.”

Despite his overall underwhelming numbers in Kansas City, Soler showed signs of a resurgence in July. He had six homers and seven RBIs over his past nine games before the trade. It also wasn’t lost on the Braves that Soler is only two seasons removed from a 48-homer, 117-RBI campaign in which he was the premier power hitter in the American League.

The Braves made a modest bet that he would improve their lineup, trading to the Royals pitching prospect Kasey Kalich and assuming the remaining $2.8 million on Soler’s deal. Thus far, the bet looks brilliant. Soler has teamed with fellow July acquisitions Joc Pederson and Adam Duvall to save the Braves’ once-depleted outfield.

Rather than sweat Soler’s defensive limitations – though the team feels its defensive alignments mitigate those concerns – the Braves have focused on what he can do: mash. And the promise he showed toward the end of his Royals tenure is translating to his new club.

“He was in a good place coming over here,” hitting coach Kevin Seitzer told the AJC. “And when he got here, Snit put him right in the lineup, and he continued to stay hot. But he has some tendencies to get a little bit long, get a little big at times trying to hit the ball 10 miles when all he has to do is touch it, and it’s got a chance to go over the fence.

“So trying to get him back staying in the middle of the field, that’s his strength. That’s where in ‘19, when he hit 48 homers, his big thing was staying in the middle of the field and not getting pull happy. The thing that’s really impressed me the most about him is his strike-zone discipline. He has a really, really good eye at the plate, and he sees pitches early. When you have that size and that power, and you see the ball well, there’s a chance some good things can happen.”

Seitzer noted one statistic when evaluating Soler: BABIP, or batting average on balls in play, which determines how often a ball that’s put in play results in a hit (which means, in simple terms, it also measures luck). Freeman, for instance, had a terrible BABIP earlier in the season when he was hitting balls hard but directly at defenders.

League average BABIP is around .300. Soler had a .229 BABIP over 360 games with Kansas City. It’s been better with the Braves, where he has a .268 BABIP in 95 plate appearances, but Soler hasn’t had good fortune overall.

“That’s just a lot of bad luck,” Seitzer said. “You put the ball in play, and somebody is catching it. He’s had some good at-bats. Him hitting 2-hole behind (second baseman) Ozzie (Albies), in front of Freddie, it’s scary when that lineup rolls over. So I just hope we can keep it going.”

If the redesigned lineup continues to work, the Braves could find themselves back in the postseason for the fourth consecutive year. As for Soler, improved production and winning will only help the soon-to-be free agent as he enters the market for the first time this winter.

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