The 2023 season was, in many respects, vintage Austin Slater on display: lots of hard and loud contact, a stringy stache in May, beating up southpaws, and ridiculous bat flings.
Statcast still loved his bat, grading high in average exit velocity, hard-hit and barrel percentage. He’s always been whiff-y—the cost of power—but countered it with a discerning eye at the plate and decent walk rate.
As for his role as a right-handed outfield platoon—his main gig—Slater posted an .800 OPS mark in his fifth consecutive season. He showed up in high leverage situations, notably hitting .341/.396/.614 (1.009 OPS) in 48 plate appearances with runners in scoring position.
What made 2023 un-Slater like was a nagging hamstring issue that kept him off the field for the first third of the season. He broke camp in March on the IL and didn’t make his first game appearance until April 24th. The strain sent him back to the IL a couple weeks later, and it wasn’t until June that he managed 40 plate appearances in a month. In total, Slater lost 100 PA and nearly half as many defensive innings in the outfield from the 2022 season. Even when he was deemed healthy enough to play, the leg hindered his performance. He was slower coming out of the box, cautious running down the line and on the base path, and winged defensively, nearly playing as many innings in a corner (mostly left) as he did in center—though he did make the play of the year there.
Though the elements of his signature power remained, he posted his highest batting average since 2021 (.270) but his lowest slugging percentage (.400). Whether that can be attributed to a shaky left leg or not, I’m not sure, but he noticeably lacked an authoritative drive to the outfield gaps. A lot of opposite field singles and not much else. And to put a different slant on his splits: his OPS against lefties (.800) was his lowest since 2020.
When Slater was able to stay healthy and get more consistent playing time as the summer progressed, he struggled, seemingly afflicted with a post-All Star bug that plagued most of the Giants’ roster.
Pre All-Star: .342/.422/.481/.903 (90 PA).
Post All-Star: .217/.291/.340/.631 (117 PA).
Then there’s this split.
At home: .318/.429/.477/.906 (105 PA).
Away: .227/.265/.330/.595 (102 PA).
In team wins: .440/.500/.630/ 1.130 (112 PA).
In losses: .071/.168/.129/.298 (95 PA)
In regards to the last split, when individual players perform well, the team has a better chance of winning, but I’ve never seen splits as extreme as this. Baseball is not a game in which one player (especially a position player) typically holds so much sway over the outcome of the game. Yet here we have it: When Slater hit, the Giants won; when he didn’t, they lost—and to extrapolate (maybe foolishly) further, when they won, he was the best player on the team, and when they lost, he was the worst. Was he such a game changer? Does this mean he was the ultimate teammate, so sensitive and empathetic to the team that when they failed, he failed, and vice-versa? Slater as synecdoche. Slater as spirit, soul, totem. Slater as the underlying principle—the 2023 San Francisco Giants’ heightened reality.
Nah…probably not. Just another head scratcher, another number to fret over for Slater as this off-season develops, or envelops him.
The outfielder is now the longest tenured player with the club, but his senior status might not bring him much job security. He just turned 31 a couple of days ago. He lost a step with his hamstring strain and will see significantly less time in center field with the signing of Jung-Hoo Lee. His niche but defined role under Gabe Kapler feels murkier with Bob Melvin at the wheel and a crush of young outfielders looking for opportunity. Recent acquisition T.J. Hopkins has a similar profile to Slater while young right-handed outfielders like Luis Matos and Heliot Ramos are competing for the same plate appearances. A torch could be passed in 2024. In terms of a trade deal, Slater’s value as a MLB veteran with proven and sustained success against lefties might help yield a bigger return than unproven prospects like Matos and Ramos. It certainly seems plausible that he could be shipped.
What makes Slater attractive to other clubs is what makes him to attractive to the Giants as well. While the front office are desperately seeking everyday players, a supplemental platoon is pretty normal and might be necessary. The Giants are a-changing, but they still value patient hitters who typically wallop the ball. If they can stay healthy, a Slater-Mike Yastrzemski pairing might be as certain as they come: Solid defensively at the corners with plate discipline and bop, combined 3.5-4.0 WAR outfielder. It’s not going to put any new butts in seats, but it certainly wouldn’t hurt to have a cornerstone of quality play in the outfield next season.