After the Giants let Barry Bonds leave following the 2007 season, they made the decision to stop trying to hit home runs as an organization. Bonds and his ilk had so inflated home run totals and essentially devalued the run that the Giants, in a clever bit of cleverness, decided that they were going to challenge baseball orthodoxy and win by not scoring runs.
They were aided by their newish stadium that suppressed offense, an old roster built around a player who was no longer there, and a farm system that had been neglected for decades in order to acquire old players that could be used to surround a player who was no longer there. But what was going to happen once those old players stopped playing, especially since good old players wouldn’t even consider signing with the team?
They knew they had to develop some sort of developmental philosophy for their organization. But just how did the Giants go from averaging 774 runs a season during the Bonds years of the AT&T Park era to a championship-winning 662 runs a season in the decade since his departure? The Giants figured out the code:
Contact is king.
Getting on base and generating runs is what computers told some teams, but stacking a lineup with players who rarely struck out and mostly made contact is where the Giants saw the inefficiency. That would be the key to their future success. After Bonds’ departure, the Giants decided that it was better to have a lineup of Freddy Sanchezes than a team that had different combinations of hitters up and down it. And, more importantly, these kinds of players were easier to come by in free agency and the draft.
The past decade of Giants drafts has been a Human Centipede of low ceiling, high floor college hitters who could progress quickly through the system and make it to the major leagues. It hasn’t always worked out, but then there’s Austin Slater.
After hitting .313 across 5 minor league seasons and a batch of injuries, the Giants have finally given the 25-year old outfielder an extended look at the major league level and I think it’s safe to say that he’s looked good. Solid. Reliable. Consistent. The hallmark of a low ceiling, high floor player, who moved through the system quickly.
He’s hitting .315 through 31 games (91 plate appearances) and today he finally got a hit off of Diamondbacks’ starter Robbie Ray, against whom Slater had gone 0-for-5 with 5 strikeouts. For all of Slater’s lackluster projections, the scouts have always talked up his ability to mash lefties, so Robbie Ray, as tough as he is, shouldn’t have been a Rubik’s Cube, but to Slater’s credit, he finally solved the damn puzzle.
And he practically buzzed Ray for good measure. That wasn’t some accident, though. That’s just how Austin Slater hits the ball. His average launch angle is 0.8 degrees — so this hit off of Robbie Ray was exceptionally high off the bat versus his average (a reminder: a 0.0 degree launch angle would be, off the bat, straight down).
Basically, when Austin Slater hits the ball, the ball goes wherever his bat is. That’s mainly because when he hits the ball, he hits it hard. His 90.3 mph exit velocity is 75th in all of baseball (when sorted by a minimum of 40 batted ball events — Slater has only 41 on the season)
When he hits the ball, he hits it hard. And if you go through the flyball (FB/LD) and groundball (GB) velocity split, it gets even more obvious in terms of what Slater does: that 91.5 mph average exit velocity on fly balls is pedestrian (257th in MLB), but the 89.7 mph on groundballs is 38th. Slater’s swing — indeed, his entire game — is centered around making hard contact. The scouting reports on him suggest this is his best destiny.
MLB.com said of him after the Giants drafted him:
“Although some may consider Slater a ‘tweener’ due to his lack of range to play center and lack of power to profile at a corner, Slater has an interesting mix of tools that could make him a valuable player. At the plate, he makes consistent hard contact and has good power to the gaps, though he sometimes gets himself into trouble by selling out for power. In the outfield, he gets good jumps and has a solid arm. He could be adequate in center as a last resort or be above-average in a corner. Slater’s lack of a position may make him fly under the radar a bit, even if his ceiling is that of a productive fourth outfielder.”
Here’s video of him once he got into the system. Watch his head and how he tracks the ball all the way through the zone:
Now watch him at the big league level. He’s closed up his stance a bit, which might be one reason why he’s less prone to “sell out” for power and it could be why he’s so balanced and consistent in his plate coverage and hard contact:
Except for his feet’s starting position, his approach is basically the same as when the Giants drafted him. Here’s what scouts had to say about him when he was in high school:
Very strong athletic build, well proportioned. 6.73 runner, balanced stance hitting, loose upper body and swing, strong hands, hands tend to go stiff at contact, very good bat speed, extended finish, shows power to all fields, ball comes off the barrel hard.
Austin Slater is as Austin Slater does. The Giants know absolutely nothing about developing power or even drafting power. They may have accidentally stumbled upon something with Joey Bart and Brandon Belt might be bogged down by the park, but by and large, the Giants have avoided the home run and have tried to make singles hitters who could grow confident enough and hit balls hard enough to become doubles hitters. They’ve scouted players like Austin Slater and worked towards developing him into the best version of Austin Slater he can be.
John Sickels writing about Austin Slater for SB Nation’s Minor League Ball last June:
As noted in the pre-season report, his physical tools are average in every way. That’s not a bad thing if you have the skills and polish to make them work on the field and Slater has shown that, tapping his power more often over the last year and maintaining his all-field contact hitting ability. His glove fits best in left field but he can also handle right, can play center in an emergency, and has experience at second base.
Down the line Slater looks like he can hit .270-.280 with occasional power and the versatility to play several positions. He’s not a star but he should be a useful role player.
It’s extremely difficult to make it through a major league system and get to the big leagues. It’s extremely difficult to do well once you’re at that level, too. Sure, the league will adjust to Slater at some point and find his weaknesses and we’ll really see what he’s made of once that happens, but from the outside looking in, he looks like a player with a slump-averse approach. When he’s down, he might not be down for long.
In some ways, his swing reminds me of Matt Duffy’s, another successful instance of a college hitter making his way through a system quickly. Slater’s hands and head attack the ball and track the ball, respectively, in much the same way Duffy’s do, but the major difference is Duffy’s opened stance. Maybe we’ll see Slater make a similar adjustment down the line (dropping that left foot back about three or four inches) if pitchers start busting him inside with more success. Until then, let’s just enjoy the show.
The Giants punted on chasing stars a decade ago and went all in on accumulating useful players. They’ve found their ideal in Austin Slater, and he’s everything a Giants prospect should aspire to be.