Why Jorge Soler’s epic struggles in the clutch might be a good omen for Giants

SAN FRANCISCO — The crowd at the San Francisco Giants’ waterfront ballpark came to its feet when Jorge Soler emerged from the dugout, bat in hand, in the seventh inning Sunday afternoon.

The bases were loaded with two out. The Giants trailed by a run. Arizona Diamondbacks manager Torey Lovullo had issued an intentional walk to Mike Yastrzemski to face No.9 hitter Nick Ahmed. When Soler passed Ahmed near the on-deck circle, tapping him on the shin guard with his bat, it appeared that Lovullo had stepped in a snare trap.

Soler is tied for the Giants’ team lead with four home runs. He’s posted a 118 OPS+, meaning he is 18 percent more productive than the average hitter. He has begun to familiarize himself with a new fan base as someone who does more than hit baseballs that dent the back row of the bleachers. He generally has good at-bats. He doesn’t chase a lot of bad pitches. In terms of intimidation factor, he’s up there on a very short list of Giants power hitters — with Michael Morse, maybe? — in the post-Barry Bonds era. He’s someone you want at the plate when one swing can change the game or put it away. Last year in Miami, that’s exactly what Soler did to Logan Webb, smacking a home run that flipped a game in the seventh inning.

“Obviously, I put him up there,” Bob Melvin said. “We signed him for a reason. He’s a run producer. I liked it.”

Soler grounded to third base on the second pitch. He stranded three runners.

A lot of other things happened in the Giants’ 5-3 loss. Ahmed’s replacement, Tyler Fitzgerald, made a damaging error on a missed catch in the ninth; a controversial foul tip on a two-strike pitch preceded an RBI hit by Diamondbacks backup infielder Kevin Newman and led to Melvin’s ejection; plate umpire Stu Scheurwater’s strike zone coincidentally got very large for the Giants in the bottom of the ninth, forcing Michael Conforto and Yastrzemski to make outs while taking protection swings against bad pitches. But one loud and well-timed drive from Soler could have provided noise cancellation from all of that.

It’s not as if the game hinged only on Soler’s grounder to third, either. But it fit the pattern in what has been a strange, strange beginning for the Giants’ newly signed designated hitter.

Soler doesn’t seem to be in an abysmal slump based on at-bat quality. Yet nobody in the major leagues has been remotely as unproductive in run-producing opportunities.

Soler has come to bat with 69 runners on base. He has driven in two of them. TWO!

His 2.9 percent rate at scoring base runners is by far the lowest in the major leagues among the 104 hitters who have stepped to the plate with 50 or more runners on base. The major-league average scoring rate is 14.4 percent. If Soler were driving in his teammates at that rate, we’d be talking about seven additional runs — and likely another win or two in the standings.

Soler’s career scoring rate, by the way, is 13.4 percent. His career OPS with runners in scoring position (.797) is one point better than his overall OPS (.796). Being un-clutch isn’t something that’s been an issue for him in the past.

For now, anyway, he is 2-for-18 with runners in scoring position. His four homers are all solo shots. He’s driven in as many runs (six) as Ahmed has from the No.9 spot.

The negatives are obvious: Soler hasn’t come through to an almost unrepeatably dismal degree. But there is a very, very bright side if you care to see it: The Giants keep creating opportunities for him. And eventually, those opportunities are bound to turn into major, game-tilting damage.

“It’s a little frustrating right now,” Soler said through Spanish interpreter Erwin Higueros. “I come up in situations with runners in scoring position and I haven’t been able to do my job. I’ve been getting a lot of opportunities. I also feel as the team is better and the team is getting hot, I’m going to get more opportunities to drive them in.

“One day I feel good. Other days I don’t. But that’s baseball. I’ve just got to keep working and find the consistency that will allow me to produce and do my job. Even when maybe you don’t drive in the run, you know when you feel good and have a good at-bat. That gives you the satisfaction.”

There isn’t any panic in the Giants clubhouse over Soler’s lack of production in big spots. Right-hander Jordan Hicks called Soler one of the hitters that opposing pitchers least want to face, especially with runners on base.

“As a pitcher, you don’t want him to clip one,” Hicks said. “You don’t want to hang one. It’s always on your mind.”

Yastrzemski said he isn’t the least bit concerned because he’s witnessed Soler’s professional work habits along with his track record.

“He’s a guy who can put the nail in the coffin and flip the script on games,” Yastrzemski said. “It’s a matter of time for him and once he gets going, it’ll skyrocket. He’ll start having a lot of confidence. He’s had some hard-hit balls and tough outs in those moments too. God, I would not want to face him as a pitcher. He’s very intense with his work ethic and he’s an absolute presence.”

With the bases empty, Soler has been one of the Giants’ toughest outs. He has a 1.076 OPS in 41 plate appearances. He’s walked six times and struck out seven. There will come a time when he becomes a better cleanup presence than table setter. For now, though, the Giants will have to deal with some hunger pangs — and a noisy loss.

(Photo: Godofredo A. Vásquez / Associated Press)

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