Biggest steal of '21 Deadline? Ask Atlanta

August 8th, 2021

We can be forgiven for having our attention elsewhere at roughly 4:16 p.m. ET back on July 30 (16 minutes past the Trade Deadline), when news broke that the Braves had acquired from the Royals. Elsewhere, Kris Bryant was suddenly a San Francisco Giant. Javier Báez was a Met. Craig Kimbrel was a White Sox. Soler wasn’t the only outfielder the Braves traded for that day; the acquisitions of Adam Duvall and Eddie Rosario were reported minutes apart from one another, and Atlanta’s trade for Joc Pederson kicked off Deadline season back on July 15.

But with a week and change of hindsight, Soler is the early frontrunner for the steal of the 2021 Deadline.

Soler has been a shot in the arm to a Braves club that needed it following Ronald Acuña Jr.’s season-ending ACL injury. Beginning with its first game after the All-Star break on July 16, Atlanta alternated wins and losses for a Modern Era record 18 games in a row in a never-ending, .500-baseball malaise. Obviously Soler is only one week into his Braves career, but the early returns? Promising: A .360/.467/.720 slash line with three homers and six runs scored in seven games.

That’s way too small a sample, but those who watched the Royals in recent weeks can tell you the Braves’ timing couldn’t have been better. Soler started 2021 so poorly that he barely qualified as a trade candidate, finishing May hitting .178/.257/.314 with just four homers in 195 plate appearances. June (.205/.341/.329, two homers) wasn’t much better, either. Neither were Soler’s first 12 games in July (.167/.231/.278, one homer). Even on the last-place Royals, there were questions about whether Soler should still be in the everyday lineup.

But something clicked when Soler homered in Milwaukee on July 20 -- just 10 days before the Deadline -- and then homered again the following day. Since July 20, well, Soler has looked a lot more like 2019’s American League home run king. Per Statcast’s expected wOBA metric (which combines a hitters’ quality of contact with strikeouts and walks), Soler is MLB’s hottest slugger.

Highest xwOBA, since July 20
Min. 50 PA
1) Jorge Soler (ATL): .554
2) Rhys Hoskins (PHI): .508
3) Bryce Harper (PHI): .500
4) Joey Votto (CIN): .484
5) Miguel Cabrera (DET): .432
xwOBA: How hitters should fare, based on quality of contact + BB’s + K’s

The expected stats back up Soler's scalding real-life numbers since July 20: .309/.424/.818 (.503 wOBA) and nine homers in 16 games.

Credit the Braves for getting Soler right as he became a human microwave, but they probably recognized that he’s been swinging above his numbers most of the season. Soler’s peripherals are actually quite close to his 48-homer 2019.

2019: 50% hard-hit, 16.6% barrel rate, 26.2 K%, 10.8 BB%, .393 xwOBA
2021: 51.5% hard-hit, 14.2% barrel rate, 26.3 K% 11.0 BB%, .357 xwOBA

Soler ranks among the top 15% of big league hitters in hard-hit rate and barrel rate (the best contact for hitters), and it’s hard for a player to keep slugging below .400 when he's striking the ball that well. True, Soler gives away at-bats with strikeouts, but he did that in 2019, too, when he led the AL in both homers and punchouts (178). Even with the whiffs included, Statcast still thinks he’s been as unlucky as any full-time hitter.

Largest “unlucky gap” b/w expected and actual wOBA, 2021
Min. 250 PA
1) Michael Conforto (NYM): 53 points
2) Jorge Soler (ATL): 51 points (Expected: .357; Actual: .306)
3) Elvis Andrus (OAK): 47 points
4-T) Paul Goldschmidt (STL): 41 points
4-T) Aaron Judge (NYY): 41 points
MLB average wOBA: .314

Is luck the only explanation for Soler's terrible start? Perhaps he’s starting to make his own luck, too. Three days before he was traded, Soler cited a recent adjustment he made in which he loaded his hands earlier before unleashing his swing. That seems to have locked Soler back into the most productive launch angles, and with his raw power, good things are going to happen when he laces hard line drives and barrels.

MLB hitters are slugging under .200 on balls topped straight into the ground (typically infield singles at best) and balls Statcast classifies as “hit under” (in the air, but with either too low an exit velocity or too high a launch angle to do damage). They’re slugging over 1.100 on balls in the “sweet spot” zone (8-32 degree launch angles), and over 2.500 on barrels (liners and fly balls with the most juice behind them). If Soler was late on pitches, that could explain why, despite the hard exit velocities, he was putting unproductive balls in play. That’s clearly turned around in the last 2 1/2 weeks.

Late timing could also explain why Soler wasn’t punishing pitchers’ mistakes like he did in 2019 ...

Soler’s swing/take run value vs. "heart" pitches, 2019-21
2019: +15
2020: +2
2021: -8
“Heart:” Pitches one baseball’s width inside borders of the strike zone

... at least, not until recently:

Soler vs. “heart” pitches, through July 19: .447 SLG, 5 HR in 123 AB
Soler vs. “heart” pitches, July 20-Aug. 6: 1.182 SLG, 6 HR in 22 AB

Soler won’t keep homering every other game, and his below-average track record as an outfielder means he could start losing plate appearances and become a platoon option against lefties when Rosario returns from the injured list. But what if Soler really does settle in close to his 2019 form (12/1 AB/HR ratio) and swings well enough to command an everyday spot? That’s a new force to help replace what Atlanta thought it would get from Acuña and Marcell Ozuna in the heart of its lineup, and it only cost a 23-year-old Minor Leaguer in Kasey Kalich, who profiles more as a potential reliever than a future ace. 

The Braves just crept above .500 for the first time all season, but somehow they’re right there with the Phillies and Mets for the division lead. Both they and their new slugger (who's a couple months away from free agency) might be peaking at exactly the right time.