With the 2021 season having come to a close, we are looking back at the year that was for members of the Texas Rangers.
Today we are looking at position player Nick Solak.
2021 was a disappointing season at the major league level pretty much across the board. While the team was expected by everyone — including the organization — to be bad, the hope was that some young, unproven players would take strides forward, establish themselves in the rotation or as regulars or as reliable relievers. Guys would show that they were pieces the team could, if not build around, at least count on to be contributors going forward.
And from that standpoint, 2021 was a letdown. Oh, sure, a few players showed they were worthy of major league jobs. Dane Dunning looked like a guy who, if he’s healthy, you can pencil into back of the rotation for the next half-decade. John King will have a lengthy major league career if his arm holds up. Nathaniel Lowe looks like a second division regular.
But there were no breakouts, no guys who leapt out and established themselves as potential cornerstones. And a number of guys who you were thinking could at least meet the Nathaniel Lowe “second division regular” standard flopped in 2021, putting into question whether they are going to be major leaguers going forward.
Which brings us to the sad case of Nick Solak. Acquired from the Tampa Bay Rays in the middle of 2019 for Pete Fairbanks, Solak came to Texas with a scouting report that said he was a capital-H Hitter with high makeup and questions about his defensive position. It was each team moving a piece from a position of depth, with the Rays dealing from what was a glut of upper level infielders to get a reliever they felt could fortify the major league pen in the midst of a playoff run, and the Rangers moving one of their myriad of hard throwing righty relievers for a bat they hoped they could be a plug-n-play option for the lineup.
Solak hit the ground running for Texas in 2019, slashing .293/.393/.491 over 33 games while playing some DH, some third base and some second base. There were high hopes for Solak in 2020, and while second base, the position Solak played coming up through the minors, was occupied by Rougned Odor, there was room in the outfield for Solak.
2020 did not go well for Nick Solak. Well, it didn’t go well for the Rangers in general, either, but it particularly didn’t go well for Solak. Playing a mix of left field, center field and second base, with a smidgen of third base and DH sprinkled in, Solak didn’t hit, slashing .268/.326/.344 in 58 games.
But it was the COVID-19 season, and things were weird. It was just a couple of months of action. We can give him a bit of a mulligan over 2020.
2021, though? 2021 wasn’t any better for Solak.
It started off well. The Rangers designated Rougned Odor for assignment right before Opening Day, opting to make Solak the everyday second baseman. And Solak tore shit up for the first month, slashing .293/.375/.535 in April.
Solak had a 587 OPS in May. Then a 518 OPS in June. Then a 443 OPS in July. Nick Solak, the guy who, if nothing else, was always going to hit, wasn’t hitting. At all.
The Rangers finally went ahead and sent Solak down in late July, though it was a move that maybe should have come a fair amount earlier, particularly with reports indicating that Solak’s struggles were affecting him mentally, making the downward spiral that much worse. Solak spent a month in AAA, slashing .353/.409/.459, before returning in late August when the COVID-19 outbreak among the Rangers thinned the major league ranks. Solak slashed .290/.367/.387 in 35 games post-promotion — not great, but better than what he did before he was sent down.
And so we come to 2022, one of those much-dreaded crossroads seasons for Nick Solak. At the age of 27, as a guy with a profile of having limited defensive utility but the ability to hit, Solak is going to start the year as a platoon left fielder, primarily facing lefthanded pitchers. And he’s going to have to do something he hasn’t done the past two years — actually hit, particularly against lefties.
For his career, Solak has a 788 OPS against lefthanded pitchers, versus a 667 OPS against righthanders. Both splits are boosted by his 2019 performance, but especially his performance against lefties, as he posted a 1000+ OPS against southpaws in 2019. He hit okay against them in 2020 and 2021 — definitely better than he did against righthanders — but not enough to make him a lefty masher.
What we heard about Solak in 2021 is that he couldn’t hit anything but fastballs, which was true, at least to a point. Solak had, in 2021, a .350 xwOBA against fastballs, compared to .243 against breaking balls and .238 against offspeed pitches.
The thing is, though, that almost everyone hits better against fastballs. Among players with at least 200 plate appearances ending in any fastball (four seamer, sinker, or cutter), Solak’s .350 xwOBA was 126th out of 224 batters. That’s, well, middle-of-the-pack.
Funny thing, though...if we take sinkers out of the mix, then among players with at least 200 PA against a four seamer or cutter, Solak’s .379 xwOBA ranks him 77th out of 207 players.
Sinkers, though? Solak struggled mightily against sinkers. While the actual results weren’t terrible — he had a .333 wOBA against sinkers — his .287 xwOBA was 229th out of 250 batters he had at least 50 PAs end in a sinker.
Offspeed pitches killed Solak as well in 2021 — he had a .223 wOBA, and his .238 xwOBA was 199th out of 213 batters with at least 50 PAs ending in offspeed pitches.
Breaking balls? Also bad, albeit not quite as bad. .243 xwOBA, 176th out of 218 batters with at least 100 PAs.
So Solak mashed four seamers and cutters, and was helpless against everything else. Even in today’s four seamer heavy era, that’s not a recipe for success.
Donnie Ecker, the Rangers’ new bench coach and “offensive coordinator,” did some great work in San Francisco using some (relatively) innovative concepts, such as having batters take batting practice against actual game velocity pitches with movement. Maybe Ecker and Tim Hyers, the Rangers’ new hitting coach, can help get Solak hold his own against pitches other than four seam fastballs.
Whether that happens or not likely will determine what happens for Nick Solak’s major league career going forward.