Donovan Solano is not really a second baseman. He ended up logging the most time at second base in the 2021 season for the San Francisco Giants, but that was not necessarily by design.
Tommy La Stella spent a long summer on the injured list and Solano was the best option at the plate, the least liable in the field and most experienced when compared to the likes of Wilmer Flores or Mauricio Dubón or Thairo Estrada or Jason Vosler.
But he’s not a defender. Solano is a hitter.
We learned this last season in which we all caught Donnie Barrels fever and watched Solano stroke line drives into the shallow outfield green, authoring a sweet .328 / .365 / .463 line while claiming the National League Silver Slugger award for his position.
I know that as a population of more advanced thinkers, we’ve moved on from the batting average statistic–but as a dumb idiot caveman fan, singles still excite me. Look! They didn’t catch the ball! Look! A man on base!
So sure, we can look at Solano’s age 33 year old season in the context of 2020 and see a dip in offensive performance. His batting line: not-so-sweet. Average, on-base, slugging, OPS + all took a hit (or lack of hit?). His line drive percentage dropped from 40.1% to 28.3%. He lost his bearings against breaking balls.
But he struck out less than in 2020. He walked more. He barreled the ball at a slightly higher rate. His swings out of the zone dropped. The difference between his expected batting average from ‘20 to ‘21 is minute. If one pleases, take a look at the year-to-year Statcast comparisons on the Savant page. Maybe you have a better sense of what numbers to weigh more than others, a better eye for “the red flags” of an aging hitter–but to the layman, Donnie Barrels is still very much Donnie Barrels.
We can also look at his offense in 2021 as a tale of two halves: pre and post All-Star break. Succinctly—his OPS jumps from .678 (pre-ASB) to .881 (post); his sOPS + from 90 to 139.
Donovan Solano flashing the leather! pic.twitter.com/4gxG0BvwZA— Talkin’ Baseball (@TalkinBaseball_) October 12, 2021
Solano’s valley at the plate took place in May, June and July–months in which Tommy La Stella was out on the IL, and Donovan assumed the role of primary second baseman.
His summer slump could be attributed to just the generic, store-brand batting slump variety that every hitter goes through at some point in their career. The inevitable dog days drag–especially for someone on the older side–or we can see it as related to his new out-sized defensive role. Maybe pre-game infield drills took precedence over hitting. He logged more at-bats in less favorable matchups. It wasn’t until La Stella’s August return that right-handed Solano started consistently sitting against right-handed pitching.
Donovan Solano was also a revelation as a late inning offensive kick-in-the-pants for the ‘21 Giants. In 18 plate appearances as a pinch hitter, Solano’s OBP was .444 and slugging was .933.
On August 22nd, Solano pinch-hit for LaMonte Wade Jr and knocked the game-winning two run homer against Oakland.
On September 17th, after missing nearly three weeks on the COVID IL, Solano was the signatory of one of the Giants signature moments of the season. In his first AB back, Barrels barreled a pinch hit home run with two strikes and two outs in the bottom of the 9th that forced extra innings and led to a 6-5 victory on Kevin Gausman’s sacrifice fly.
If you dive into Solano’s “clutch stats” on Baseball Reference, it’s clear that Solano performs well at the plate when he’s needed. In “Late & Close” games, his power numbers ticked up. When the Giants were behind, needing a base runner, some action with the bat, a single (!), he locked in.
So what will 2022 hold? Solano turned 34 in December. He is a free agent, currently unsigned, and many people think his Giant days are over. I wouldn’t be surprised if that were the case, especially with the likes of Thairo Estrada and Mauricio Dubón waiting in the wings. Or Farhan Zaidi could just come out swinging when this work stoppage thing is over and bag Carlos Correa and make him play second. I’d be okay with that.
But I wouldn’t be upset if Mr. Barrels found his way back on the team. A healthier year could lead to a more dynamic La Stella & Solano platoon. It’s not the sexiest second base scenario, but it’d be cheaper than Correa and the most important thing in baseball is saving money.