When spring training ended, New York Yankees infielder Yangervis Solarte looked like a fringe major league player in the right place at the right time. With depth and age concerns at second base, third base and shortstop, Solarte's inclusion on the Opening Day roster was born of necessity, rather than dreams of future production.
Seven weeks later, the Yankees may have stumbled upon a future star. Heading into a series with the Chicago Cubs, Solarte owns a .313/.387/.500 slash line and has been one of the biggest surprises of the 2014 season.
The 26-year-old switch-hitter has evolved from a versatile utility man to switch-hitting dynamo in manager Joe Girardi's everyday lineup. Through Solarte's first 38 big league games—after spending eight years across minor league stops with the Twins and Rangers—production is evident.
Yet baseball history is littered with tales of flawed players that experienced major league success for a short period. While no one can take away the impact hits, home runs and excellent play provided by Solarte thus far this season, it's fair to wonder if it can continue.
Based on track record, Solarte is unlikely to continue to hit like a star. If you didn't know anything about his background or minor league career statistics, though, it wouldn't be unwise to project sustained success from this player.
In over 2,800 minor league plate appearances, Solarte owned a .733 career OPS. That number is unremarkable and usually enough to dismiss future stardom. Furthermore, his OPS figures actually dropped from .834 to .745 to .727 from 2011 to 2013, spanning his campaigns from age 23 to 25.
Then—seemingly out of nowhere—a different, more polished player arrived in Tampa, Florida, in February, with an approach that impressed Girardi and the Yankees brass.
"One thing we noticed from the start of spring training was the quality of at-bats," Girardi said at last week's Delta Dugout event at MLB Fan Cave. "When we were looking at our potential extra men, we considered him to be a versatile player, switch-hitter and with a sound plan at the plate."
Those at-bats, his plan at the plate and his quality approach have carried over into the regular season, helping to make Solarte one of baseball's best hitters through the first quarter of the year. With a 144 OPS+, New York's breakout star owns a higher mark than both Adrian Gonzalez and Mike Napoli.
Two aspects of Solarte's play suggest that early-season success isn't a fluke and more production will follow: plate discipline and line-drive rate.
Let's start with plate discipline, stemming from the approach Girardi referenced.
Heading into play on May 19, only 15 qualified hitters in baseball owned a 1.00 or better walk-to-strikeout ratio. With strikeouts at an all-time high, the ability to generate more walks than strikeouts is an exceedingly rare trait in hitters. Last season, only four players accomplished the feat over a full season, per ESPN.
|Plate Discipline Kings|
Solarte's inclusion in that group is remarkable when considering the star power alongside New York's third baseman. From Buster Posey to Andrew McCutchen to Joey Votto, three of the last four NL MVPs are present.
The ability to earn walks and work deep into counts shows that Solarte isn't a free-swinging, first-pitch hitter who is thriving on luck or the opposition taking him lightly early in counts. Thus far, Solarte is averaging 3.89 pitches per plate appearance. That number is identical to Victor Martinez's mark from 2013 and better than what Jacoby Ellsbury posted last season en route to a lucrative free-agent contract with New York.
When Solarte chooses to swing away, he's making excellent contact. In April and May, it can be difficult to separate fact from fiction with statistics. One or two good days can elevate an OPS to eye-popping levels. Bad luck on well-struck hits can cause concern around a low batting average.
Instead of looking at results, it can be instructive to look at the process. For Solarte, both are impressive. According to FanGraphs, Solarte owns a 21.7 percent line-drive rate. That number is higher than the marks of stars like Jose Abreu and Prince Fielder.
Projecting big statistics or extreme success for Solarte's future is impossible to do at this point. Without a track record of adjustments against major league pitching, a baseline for the remainder of the 2014 season isn't in place.
However, if Solarte continues to bring a measured, veteran approach to the plate and crush strikes for line drives, expect success to follow. While there may be skeptics about a player who couldn't crack the roster in Minnesota, Girardi isn't one of them.
"I don't know if you ever think someone is going to hit .320 or better," Girardi said. "That's tough to do for an established star hitter, but we expect him to continue to be productive because he's very sound mechanically. We expect him to produce."
If the 2014 season ended today, it wouldn't be unreasonable to see Solarte's name on the bottom half of MVP ballots, etched below names like Mike Trout, Abreu, Josh Donaldson, Jose Bautista, Martinez, Brandon Moss and Shin-Soo Choo.
While an AL MVP award may be lofty, the idea of Solarte as a flash in the pan becomes less believable by the day. Months after Alex Rodriguez vacated third base in the Bronx, an unheralded star has replaced him.
Statistics are from Baseball-Reference.com, ESPN and FanGraphs unless otherwise noted. All contract figures courtesy of Cot's Baseball Contracts. Roster breakdowns via MLBDepthCharts.com. Girardi quote obtained firsthand.
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