'Ready to do damage': Soler leads Braves

September 11th, 2021

ATLANTA -- isn’t dynamic enough to draw comparisons to Ronald Acuña Jr. But the power-hitting outfielder has certainly been talented enough to capably help fill the void created by Acuña’s season-ending knee injury.

Soler has spent the past five weeks enjoying a power surge that rivals the one that carried him to a 48-homer season for the Royals in 2019. But he has also shown the knack to deliver the timely hit, like he did with a key single during the five-run fifth that carried the Braves to a 6-2 win over the Marlins on Friday night at Truist Park.

In the process, Soler has rewarded the Braves for not primarily using him as a right-handed pinch-hitter since being acquired from the Royals at the Trade Deadline.

“We talked to the guys from Kansas City and they were the ones who were like, ‘He’s swinging the bat pretty good, you probably ought to get him in [the lineup],'” manager Brian Snitker said. “I’m sure glad we did. He’s had some huge hits and some really good at-bats.”

Soler’s two-out single scored three runs when it rolled under Marlins center fielder Bryan De La Cruz’s glove. The De La Cruz miscue was one of two errors in the inning that doomed the Marlins and propelled the Braves toward a win that put them 4 1/2 games ahead of the second-place Phillies with 22 games remaining.

Atlanta’s bid to win a fourth consecutive NL East crown was significantly bolstered at the July 30 Trade Deadline, when the Braves acquired Soler from the Royals, Adam Duvall from the Marlins and Eddie Rosario from the Indians. Two weeks, earlier they had started their outfield reconstruction by acquiring Joc Pederson from the Cubs.

Pederson has become a clubhouse leader, and delivered a walk-off single against the Nationals on Thursday. Rosario has provided some value since coming off the injured list and Duvall has homered in 12 of his 37 games for the Braves. But from an offensive perspective, the most valuable outfield addition has been Soler.

“It’s been a great experience,” said Soler through an interpreter. “It’s great to join a team that is winning like that. For me, it’s been an awesome experience.”

Soler is batting .285 with 10 homers and a .914 OPS in 36 games for the Braves. He had hit .192 with 13 homers and a .658 OPS in the 94 games he played for the Royals before the trade.

When the Braves acquired Soler in exchange for Minor League relief pitcher Kasey Kalich, they knew they were taking a risk on him defensively as the 29-year-old slugger had primarily been used as a designated hitter over the past few years in Kansas City. But, while Soler hasn’t looked like a Gold Glove candidate, he hasn’t been a liability for Atlanta in right field.

The Braves also took a chance by placing Soler in the second spot of the lineup. By putting Soler in front of reigning NL MVP Freddie Freeman, they have allowed him to see a slightly higher percentage of fastballs (49.7 percent vs. 47.6 percent) than he did this year for the Royals.

“I think it's been a great experience being able to hit in front of Freddie,” Soler said. “Hitting in front of a guy like that, I think pitchers are forced to throw me more pitches in the zone. I've just been really looking for good pitches to drive and really been focusing on waiting for those good pitches up in the zone.”

Though the percentage hasn’t been significantly different, pitchers are certainly forced to attack him more carefully than they did while he spent this season’s first four months with the Royals. He has responded productively. His .373 on-base percentage for the Braves easily trumps the .288 OBP he had for Kansas City.

Soler’s pre-trade walk rate (10.6 percent) was slightly lower than his post-trade walk rate (12.6 percent). More impressive is the fact that his pre-trade strikeout rate (26.9 percent) was significantly higher than his post-trade strikeout rate (19.4 percent).

“If it was me, I’d want to hit in front of Freddie,” Snitker said. “But [Soler] isn’t expanding the zone and he’s taking his walks. I’ve been impressed with that about him. He’s selective. He’s patient and he’s on the attack and ready to do damage.”

Travis d’Arnaud doubled to begin the decisive fifth and Ehire Adrianza fueled the inning with a RBI single that chased top NL Rookie of the Year candidate Trevor Rogers, who allowed a season-high four runs in just 4 1/3 innings. Right-handed reliever Zach Thompson struck out Ozzie Albies before allowing Soler to send his go-ahead single through the middle of the infield and into center field.

Soler’s bases-clearing single backed an encouraging effort from Ian Anderson, who matched a career high with nine strikeouts while allowing just two runs over five innings. Anderson hadn’t recorded a strikeout in either of his two previous starts after spending seven weeks on the injured list because of right shoulder inflammation.

“[Soler] has been awesome,” Anderson added. “You kind of get that vibe again that we’re going to get the big hit or we’re going to make the big play. He’s definitely been a big part of bringing that back.”