PHOENIX -- As the Braves bid for a fourth straight National League East title, it appears they may spend the rest of the season filling their leadoff spot with Jorge Soler, who accounted for one of the three homers tallied in a 6-1 win over the D-backs on Tuesday night at Chase Field.
“I like Soler there,” Braves manager Brian Snitker said. “I figured he’d want to drug test me after he looked at the lineup.”
Though Soler’s experience as a leadoff hitter consisted of a game he played for the Cubs way back on May 2, 2015, he does seem to be the Braves player currently best fit for this role. The early results have been encouraging as Atlanta is 2-0 with the big slugger at the top of its lineup.
Austin Riley and Ozzie Albies hit two-run homers before Soler hit his fifth-inning solo homer in this latest Atlanta victory. Riley’s first-inning blast secured his first 30-homer season and guided the Braves to a win that kept them three games ahead of the second-place Phillies with 13 games to play. Their magic number is 10 to clinch a fourth straight division crown.
“Yeah, I saw the Phillies snuck one in there tonight,” Riley said. “We’ll just come out and continue to take care of business tomorrow."
The Braves have been successful, despite not having a legit leadoff hitter since Ronald Acuña Jr. suffered a season-ending knee injury on July 10. Joc Pederson didn’t hit enough when he held the role for a couple weeks in July and August. As for Albies, he is a free swinger whose .766 career OPS as a leadoff hitter proves he seems limited at the top of the order.
Albies’ .282 on-base percentage as a leadoff hitter this year was suboptimal. But he ranks second in the NL with 70 extra-base hits and he entered Tuesday with a .985 OPS with runners in scoring position. So, while his physical stature might be more like that of a leadoff hitter, his game seems to make him a better fit in the middle of the lineup.
“It kind of felt like we had to maximize Ozzie better and I like him hitting [third],” Snitker said.
Albies moved to the third spot on Monday, when Snitker made the outside-the-box decision to move Soler to the leadoff spot.
With the need to move Albies, Snitker gambled on Soler continuing to be both dangerous and patient at the plate. The Cuban slugger had produced a .360 on-base percentage and .515 slugging percentage through 43 games with the Braves entering Monday.
“The thing about Soler that's been so impressive is he'll take a walk,” Snitker said. “He doesn't come out of the strike zone a lot. He’s had some really good at-bats and what I'm looking at is not a small sample size anymore.”
Two seasons removed from hitting 48 homers for Kansas City, Soler has hit 11 homers in the 45 games played since he was acquired from the Royals. He had hit 13 homers in 94 games before the trade. But the more telling change is his improved plate discipline.
Soler had a 26.9 percent strikeout rate and 10.6 percent walk rate with the Royals. Since joining the Braves he’s had an 18.8 percent strikeout rate and an 11.2 percent walk rate.
“It’s not prototypical or how you would draw it up, but I think a lot of things are changing in the game,” Snitker said.
Soler had been batting second, which allowed him to bat directly in front of Freddie Freeman. He’s still reaping those benefits as Freeman is now batting second, a spot where he’s had a lot of success.
The reigning NL MVP entered Tuesday having hit .320 with a .973 OPS in 488 plate appearances in the lineup’s second spot.
With Soler and Freeman, the Braves have two of the game’s better power hitters sitting at the top of their lineup. The duo can provide instant offense via the home run or serve as table setters for Albies and Riley, who now fill the third and fourth spots, respectively.
“Shook it up a little bit and two wins,” Riley said. “So, let’s roll with it.”