As in all other aspects of life, baseball is about timing. I had that universal truth reinforced at the Cubs game Friday when I headed out from the suite I’d been invited to in order to hit the head and find my buddy Danny Rockett. I didn’t end up finding Danny, who had moved out to the bleachers by then, but I ran into another familiar gentleman on my way down. We shook hands and discussed his upcoming trip to my hometown. I told him my son was looking forward to it and he said he’d be bringing his grandson with him.
I texted my wife of picture of me with this guy and told her that a random fan had stopped me and asked me to pose, which she thought was creepy. Somehow I doubt Billy Williams texted his own wife to tell her about a blogger/fan he now has to watch out for during his autograph signing in Indianapolis in a couple weeks.
Regardless of who was more starstruck by whom in that serendipitous run-in, the fact remains that several different strings of fate had to be woven together to create the rope that pulled me to that moment and allowed me to spin this yarn. It’s no different for the guys I was there to watch ply their trade on the field below me as I consumed poutine tots, grilled salmon, Philly cheesesteaks, and bleu cheese-crusted beef tenderloin from the cushy confines of the Assurance Club.
When you really think about it, so many things need to line up in order to strike a baseball and have it land in or out of the field of play for a hit. For starters (or relievers), the pitch has to be one that’s good enough to induce a swing. That swing then has to be timed so as to make relatively square (which is a weird term since both bat and ball are round) contact and then the ball needs to be hit in a direction that finds enough space to allow the batter to reach base safely.
In the case of a home run, you add in factors like launch angle, batted-ball velocity, the distance and height of the outfield wall, speed and direction of the wind, etc. The list goes on and on, but I think you get the point, which is that a lot has to come together for a hitter to make the most of his talent. And I have been quite vocal in the past when it comes to my concern over Jorge Soler’s ability to do that on a consistent basis.
For those of you who haven’t already read it and who won’t deign to click now, the distilled version is that I think it’s going to be harder for Soler to reach his ceiling because he’s got a small window through which to crawl just to reach the living room. He’s doesn’t have speed and he’s not much with the glove, so the value he adds when he’s not at the plate is pretty meh. And there are stretches in which he’ll just look completely lost up there too.
Please note that I’m not condemning the young man, just reiterating the concerns I have when it comes to him being a viable everyday outfielder for a team that expects to compete for a World Series. Of course, the dent in the lower-left corner of the left field videoboard might beg to differ.
The overhang in the suite seats makes it hard to really judge a fly ball, though there was no doubt on any of the three the Cubs hit Friday afternoon. Soler’s in particular was fun to watch because it immediately left my field of vision and didn’t return until it clanged off the board and dropped to the bleachers below. I immediately checked the Feed feature of the At Bat app to get the specs, which were, well, impressive.
When you hit a baseball hard enough to propel it 108 mph with 30 degrees of loft, it’s going to go a long way. That’s pretty much the sweet spot.
“That home run right there, I would be really pleased on any given par five to hit that particular drive,” Joe Maddon said after the game. “That thing was far, loud and far. He’ll keep doing that. He’s getting some confidence. You can see it, the way he’s moving. His confidence is just riding right now. All these guys will keep getting better.”
In all honesty, though, Soler really had nowhere to go but up after the month he’d been having. The burly Cuban’s struggles had led many to suggest a trip back to AAA Iowa to work on his confidence. Others, present company included, were lamenting the fact that the Cubs hadn’t traded him in the offseason before his value tanked. And while a handful of games does not a turnaround make, Georgie Sunshine has certainly done a lot in the last week to brighten the outlook on his future.
After belting a pair of home runs and looking like he was putting things together over the first couple weeks of the season, Soler absolutely fell off the face of the earth, statistically speaking. From April 17 – May 19, he compiled a .153/.231/.203 slash line with a .203 wOBA and a wRC+ of only 19. Oh, there’s also the matter of the zero home runs and one RBI. That’s bad. Really bad. Like, well below replacement-level bad. Hence the grumbling. Even his plate approach, which has generally been lauded, was a mess. Soler was striking out (29.2%) more than three times as often as he was walking (9.2%).
In the seven games (yeah, yeah, SSS and blah, blah, blah) since, however, Soler is hitting .333/.462/.810 with a .521 wOBA, 233 wRC+, 3 home runs, and 6 RBI. And while he’s still K-ing at a 26.9% clip, the walks are up to to 15.4% in that same time. The key at this point will be to foster the 24-year-old’s confidence in such a way that the recent performance doesn’t slide back into the realm of that which preceded it.
Easier said that done, I know, but that’s the kind of thing Maddon and this Cubs team seem so adept at doing. Jon Lester spoke after his Friday start about the season being a roller coaster and of needing to make it less of a thrill ride and more one you’re comfortable taking your 5-year-old on. I love me some loops and corkscrews, but it’ll be a cold day in hell before I’m not puckered up all over when that car’s getting cranked up to the top of the hill and then when it’s plummeting down. Lester was talking about evening those things out, which is exactly what Soler needs to do if he’s to be more than a 4th outfielder in the future.
The hot streaks are great, don’t get me wrong. It’s just that when he’s not absolutely flaring, Soler goes all blue dwarf and actually brings his team down with his flailing. I don’t really think we’re ever going to see a Jorge-centric model of the Cubs’ universe at any point, but I know a lot of us would be really happy just to see him fall into a smooth orbit moving forward.
I’m going to reserve any definitive judgment until such point as we’ve got enough of a sample to feel comfortable with proclamations, but I can safely say that if Jorge Soler can play anywhere near his current level this Cubs team is the most thrilling in baseball. And that, my friends, is a ride I’ll gladly wait in line for.