Austin Slater didn’t perform like he needed to in the majors last year. In 225 plate appearances in a Giants outfield desperate for a long-term solution, he hit .251/.333/.307, not nearly enough to cement a role at the major league level.
So over the offseason, at the team’s request, Slater worked with Craig Wallenbrock, an outside hitting coach, to refine his swing. And while things like loft and launch angle may be the trendy terms du jour, that’s not how he approaches hitting.
“The launch angle and loft, they’re the big buzzwords now. But hitters have been doing that forever. I think cleaning up of bat path is another way to put it,” Slater said two Saturdays ago. “I don’t think Craig, and even ‘Zo and Schu up there, they’re not big talking about launch angle. It’s just cleaning up your path. Hitters have always done it, but creating the launch angle and loft is a direct effect of cleaning up your bat path and how you enter into the zone.”
A hitter optimizes his bat path by keeping the barrel of the bat in the strike zone for as long as possible and swinging upward through the ball instead of chopping directly to the ball. Slater’s work with Wallenbrock was exactly that: “Cleaning up my path, trying to get in the zone later, trying not to be so direct and down to the ball, and try to get behind it a little more.”
The changes to his swing didn’t pay off immediately. Slater hit just .185 in Spring Training this year, and while he’s started a little slow the last couple springs, this one was worse, and it was at least partially due to the mental adjustment of a new swing.
“I was very mechanical and so I was trying to be perfect with my swing instead of going out there and competing,” Slater said. “You kind of lose track, so that’s something I’ve had to tone back a little bit during the season as we started up: not trying to be perfect with my swing mechanics and go out there and compete. Take good at bats and actually work counts.”
Baseball is all about adjustments. You find a swing that works, pitchers find a way to attack that swing, and you counter back. So while Slater feels that his work has put him in a good place with his swing, the tweaks never really stop.
Mostly, the work happens before the game starts. “It’s impacted a little bit the pitches I swing at, the pitches I feel comfortable hitting,” Slater said, “But for me it’s mostly been my pregame routine, making sure my hands and my swing feel like they’re in the right place going into it, and then once it gets to the game, it’s just swinging at pitches I think I can handle.”
So what work does he do before the game? “Drills in the cage, going through the rounds of BP, making adjustments off the flight of the ball, what I’m doing with certain pitches, to then translate into the game. So, making sure, checking my hands are in the right spot, entering the zone the right place, my hips are firing right.”
The changes have helped Slater in Sacramento this year — his isolated slugging is up more than 30 points, with his walk rate also skyrocketing and his average still sitting over .300 — but he knows the real test is 90 miles away.
Slater has proven he can hit in AAA over parts of four seasons, and that’s gotten him a couple chances in the majors. The first got cut short due to injury, and as for last year, well, “I just could have played better,” he said. It’s consistency at the major league level that will keep him there.
But to get back there, he might just turn himself into the kind of player Farhan Zaidi loves to have on his team: the super-utility guy. Slater has played more corner outfield in the high minors than anything else, with some first base getting thrown in as of last year, but in 2015, his first full year as a professional, he played most of the year at second base in Augusta and San Jose.
Now he’s playing second base again. And third base. And first base. And still the corner outfield. He’s started at all five positions this year in Sacramento, and other than second base, where he feels he needs more reps, Slater feels good at all of them. If it’ll help him get back to the majors, he’s even willing to go a little further than that.
“I guess you gotta talk to [River Cats manager Dave Brundage], see if I can get shortstop, catcher, and center field,” he said, before pausing for a moment. “At least, shortstop and center field.”
“That’s a thankless job. I don’t even want that,” Slater said. “I don’t want any part of that.”