Royals working with Soler to improve defense

Toolsy outfielder has struggled going back on fly balls

April 25th, 2019

KANSAS CITY -- It’s no secret that has struggled on defense this season. The Royals' coaching staff knows there are plays Soler should have made that he hasn’t, and advanced metrics support that notion.

Statcast estimates that based on degree of difficulty, an average outfielder would have caught 79 percent of the balls hit his way. Soler has caught only 70 percent of them. That minus-9 differential ranks him No. 97 among qualified MLB outfielders. That is, simply, unacceptable.

“It’s a work in progress,” said Royals first-base coach Mitch Maier, who coaches the team’s outfielders.

Soler appears to have the most difficulty with balls he has to retreat on, as was the case twice in Monday’s game against the Rays at Tropicana Field when he banged into the wall and was unable to make the catches. And Soler has struggled with running efficient routes on balls in the gap.

“It’s mostly about route running and his anticipation and making that turn properly to grow his range,” Maier said. “The ball he caught in right-center from [Tampa Bay’s Joey] Wendle was a great play. But yeah, there are certain angles he could be better at.

“It’s tough [at Tropicana Field], because there is no warning track. You have to get used to it. The balls he didn’t catch were tagged. Sure, I’d like to get one of them. But I think he was a hair late on his break on that one.”

Royals manager Ned Yost said they’ll probably start positioning Soler deeper.

“It’s easier for him to come in for balls than go back,” Yost said.

Yost, though, believe Soler can become a solid defender with more playing time. Soler will get that opportunity.

“It’s easy when things aren’t going well for people to say, ‘Hey, just sit him,’” Yost said. “But he’s got to play. You have to live with the mistakes. He’ll get better. These are learning experiences, and as painful as it is, it’s the process.”

The Royals do believe Soler is making some progress. Before he got hurt in 2018, Soler had a habit of dropping routine fly balls.

“I think last year, there were some plays, some routine plays, that he messed up,” Maier said. “Now it’s the hard plays we want him to make. I feel comfortable now that the balls he gets to, he’ll make the play. The next level is to get to balls we don’t expect him to and become an above-average defender. He can throw, for sure. There are too many tools for him not to maximize his talent. The arm and the speed. People don’t walk around with that tool set.”

Yost, too, looks at the big picture with Soler, 27, who also has been inconsistent at the plate. He leads the Majors with 39 strikeouts, though he does have six home runs and 15 RBIs.

“I mean, for all his strikeouts right now, he is on pace for like 39 home runs and 100 RBIs,” Yost said. “There’s a lot going on behind the scenes that are positives that the dark cloud doesn’t see.

“It’s like this for every player. It takes about 2 1/2 to 3 years for them to get it. It was like that in Atlanta and it was like that in Milwaukee and it was like that for us here with the previous group. The guys came up in 2011 and it wasn’t until about the second half of 2013 until they got it. In the second half, we had the best record in baseball that year. And then it was, ‘Here we come.’ It takes time and knowledge and experience to fill into your talent.”