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Waiting on Austin Slater’s power

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Austin Slater has somehow been above average despite having an on-base percentage higher than his slugging. The power should be coming.

MLB: Pittsburgh Pirates at San Francisco Giants Stan Szeto-USA TODAY Sports

If there was a silver lining to Brandon Belt’s injury, it’s that it gave Austin Slater a chance to play more regularly. During his brief time as an everyday player, Slater didn’t exactly make the case that he needs to be in the lineup every day. He’s at a 104 wRC+ over 124 plate appearances, so he’s been a tick above average. He’s buoyed by a 13.7 percent walk rate which will probably come down, but his 27.4 strikeout rate will likely also come down. He’s hitting .275 and has an on-base percentage of .395, but both are inflated by a .406 BABIP.

It’s weird that Slater has such a high BABIP because his groundball rate is so high. He has a groundball percentage of 60.3 percent which is basically like he was always facing Brett Anderson if Anderson could throw to 124 batters without his arm falling off. No other batter has a higher BABIP and higher groundball rate. Old friend Christian Arroyo is close with a 70.3 percent groundball rate and .361 BABIP. David Bote (McBotface), who hit the backyard grand slam on Sunday has .400 BABIP and a 55.2 groundball rate.

The hope is that Slater’s power materializes before his batted-ball luck normalizes. Slater hasn’t hit a dinger in 2018 despite hitting three last year in the same amount of plate appearances. Slater hasn’t been a big home run hitter. He hit 18 across AA and AAA in 2016, so 10 a year might be a reasonable hope for Slater in big league season. The more concerning thing is the lack of doubles.

Slater hasn’t hit a double in his last 47 plate appearances, and he’s hit just four all year. Two of those came in the same game back in June. It makes sense that Slater isn’t hitting for power when he’s hitting so many groundballs. It’s hard to hit for extra bases on the ground, but looking at Slater’s exit velocity, the power should be coming. Right?

Slater’s average exit velocity is 88.9 which is the same as Juan Soto and George Springer. But Soto and Springer have ISO’s of .247 and .186 respectively. Slater’s is a palty .039. Exit velocity doesn’t always translate to power, however. In Tuesday’s game, Manny Machado hit a ball at 108 MPH but it was on the ground right at Evan Longoria. Justin Turner nearly hit a dinger at 95 MPH. Hitting the ball hard doesn’t make a difference if you can’t hit the ball in the air.

Slater has gone on record as saying that he tries to get out in front of pitches, so he can get them in the air. Of course, knowing what you’re supposed to do and being able to actually do it are two very different things. Slater has a higher than average likelihood to swing and miss at fastballs, so it’s hard to get in front of a pitch if he’s late.

But you can see the difference getting in front of a pitch makes in relation to launch angle. Here’s Slater roping a double off Andrew Chafin.

His bat makes contact with the pitch just as it hits the front edge of the plate. When Slater makes contact, his bat is on an upward trajectory. Mike Krukow will talk about how hitters who go the other way let the ball get deep. Slater has always had an opposite field approach. Getting out in front of the ball isn’t going to take that away. This double he hit went into the right-center gap and he got it before it hit the plate.

Here’s him in the same game hitting a ball on the ground. It’s not a great example of a swing because his bat breaks and he doesn’t follow through, but it’s hard to find a side view of a batter hitting a ground ball.

When he makes contact, the ball is about six to eight inches deep on the plate. His bat is on a downward trajectory when it meets the ball.

What Slater needs to do is get out in front of the ball. He knows this. He told Eno Sarris last year that’s what he’s trying to do. It might just be a matter of timing, and I feel confident Slater and José Alguacil will figure it out.