While Mark Teixeira rehabbed his wrist, Derek Jeter prepared to be on the receiving end of gift baskets, and Brian McCann, Carlos Beltran, Jacoby Ellsbury, and Masahiro Tanaka were being fitted for pinstripes, Yangervis Solarte was learning the secrets of baseball at the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. There is simply no other reasonable explanation for a 26-year-old with a career minor league slashline of .286/.336/.397 (over 2800+ PA) to be not only the best hitter on the Yankees, but one of the best hitters in baseball. As of this morning, Solarte is 18th in Major League Baseball with a 145 wRC+, just ahead of Miguel Cabrera, Edwin Encarnacion, and Mike Trout. And, while we hem and haw about the other shoe dropping, he has shown no real signs of slowing down.
Of course, some of the folk ahead of Solarte in wRC+ demonstrate just how early it is in the season. It’s safe to assume that Seth Smith, Brandon Moss, and Michael Brantley will not remain among the fifteen best hitters in the game through October. That should not color our expectations of Solarte, however. The same look of skepticism that many are giving Solarte was cast at Josh Donaldson and Matt Carpenter last season, and both were veritable MVP candidates at season’s end. I am not so bold as to compare Solarte to those gentlemen, or to suggest that he will finish the season on such a strong note – but it may be worth noting that neither Donaldson nor Carpenter were terribly heralded prospects, and both played their first full-ish seasons at age-26.
So, then, what exactly am I suggesting? In short, there is nothing in Solarte’s statistical profile that suggests any steep regression is incoming.
At this moment, Solarte is batting .317/.394/.493, with 5 home runs and the aforementioned 145 wRC+. He’s hitting, he’s hitting for power, and he’s getting on-base. Basically, he’s doing most everything one could ask of any hitter (aside from stealing bases, I suppose, but I digress). Taken at face value, this certainly reeks of a regression candidate – after all, in his best minor league season, Solarte posted an OPS over .750 once, in his second full-season trip through Double-A. He is also walking more than he did in the minors (11.5% in 2014, as compared to a full-season best of 7.2%), which is quite rare. We are scouting the box score here, though, and that is a big no-no – particularly when we have enough data to suggest that something sustainable has changed.
Let’s begin with his batted ball profile. Generally speaking, when someone is posting unexpectedly strong numbers, we look at BABIP – is he getting extraordinarily lucky with balls in play? The answer for Solarte is a confident ‘no.’ Sure, a .331 BABIP is between .030 and .040 points above-average; it is not, however, bizarrely high. That mark would have placed Solarte 33rd in baseball last season, and sits 50th thus far in 2014. Moreover, Solarte’s expected BABIP (or xBABIP) is currently .324, which is right in-line with his actual mark. Basically, he’s hitting the ball with authority (21.6% line drives), and he’s earning his base hits.
What about his walk and strikeout rates? At this juncture, Solarte is walking and striking out in 11.5% of his plate appearances – well above-average in both respects. As per Fangraphs, strikeout rate stabilizes at 60 PA, and walk rate does so at 120 PA. At 165 PA, Solarte has eked past both points, so it stands to reason that both numbers are at least mostly for real. He is also not swinging and missing (5.0% swinging strike percentage against the 9.3% league-average), nor is he swinging at pitches out of the zone (26.2% against 29.0%). His approach at the plate has been nothing short of excellent, and we know from his minor league track record that he has a propensity for avoiding the ‘K,’ as he struck out in only 9.4% of his minor league plate appearances.
In 2013, twelve players walked in at least 10% of their PA, and struck out in less than 15% – a fair, I think, approximation of what we can expect of Solarte at this point. Among those players, only Alberto Callaspo was below-average offensively (and just barely so), with a 99 wRC+. Callaspo has essentially made his career by taking walks (8.9%) and not striking out (8.9%), and he may well represent the sort of baseline that we can expect for Solarte – their approaches and swings are quite similar, in fact. And Solarte’s 2014 is almost eerily similar to Callaspo’s pseudo-breakout season in 2009.
Is it possible that this is a simple matter of smoke and mirrors? Sure. But there is far more going on here than simple luck, and players with similar high-contact, high-walk approaches tend to do quite well in the Majors. And breakouts come in all shapes and sizes. While I cannot state with any sort of confidence that Solarte will continue to produce fantastic overall numbers, I do think that Alberto Callaspo is as close to a perfect comp as one could have. And, based on his statistical profile, that may be selling him short.
And in the end, for a league-minimum salary and six years of team control, would anyone be disappointed with an Alberto Callaspo clone?