At first glance, San Francisco Giants outfielder Austin Slater profiles as an unexceptional hitter. He’s posted a solid batting average at every level while providing serviceable power and speed.
Triple-A Sacramento hitting coach Damon Minor, though, suggested the eighth-round draft pick from Stanford has another gear. While working with Slater on swing mechanics over the past three seasons, Minor was reminded of his time advising Miami Marlins catcher J.T. Realmuto, a potential All-Star this year.
After Realmuto added a leg kick in 2014, he started hitting for more power. Slater recently implemented his own elevated stride. The impact of that change isn’t yet clear, but its potential to rejuvenate Slater’s offensive game gives the Giants confidence he can develop into a long-term outfield option.
“He’s kind of a unique player who has the ability to hit the ball the other way first, and now he’s learning to pull the ball,” Minor said. “It’s just a matter of time … for the big league numbers to really show.”
Slater, who was called up to San Francisco on June 23, made his major league debut last summer. He felt overwhelmed and anxious before his first game at Citizens Bank Park, worried about fitting into a locker room with only two starters he’d played with before.
“Dude, my head was all over the place that day,” Slater said. “Everything was going so fast that it was hard to take it all in.”
Slater went 3-for-17 in his first week with the Giants. By early July, however, he’d increased his average to .290 and notched seven extra-base hits. He was making a case he belonged in San Francisco.
On July 7, though, Slater suffered a season-ending hip injury while running to first base. He knew the setback would diminish his ability to stake a lasting claim to a corner outfield spot. Sure enough, the Giants traded for right fielder Andrew McCutchen in the offseason and Slater began 2018 in Triple-A.
As Slater recovered, he recalled the time a broken ankle ended his high school career. He tried to use that experience to remain positive and understand his time away from the game was temporary.
“That was a rollercoaster of a month and a half,” Slater said. “Achieving something that you’ve always dreamed of and then having it ripped away. … But dealing with that in high school helped me gauge where I had to be and what I had to do to get back.”
Back in Sacramento to start this season, Slater worked with Minor to refine his hitting mechanics. Standing up straighter in the box had already proved a worthwhile adjustment; it helped him hit for a high average. By using a leg kick, Slater said, he could get more strength from his lower-half.
Said Minor: “It’s a pretty good timing mechanism for him. … Adding that will create a little bit more pull-side power.”
This is where the Realmuto comparison comes in.
When Realmuto added his leg kick, as reported by the Miami Herald, he started to pull the ball more. Once Realmuto mastered the technique, his power numbers spiked. He’s now pulling the ball 46 percent of the time, a figure that’s up from 38 percent his rookie season. His slugging percentage has followed the same upward trajectory.
The Giants hope Slater will experience the same kind of success.
Slater’s Triple-A numbers this year were a positive indication he might be on to something. He hit .344 with five home runs and a career-high .564 slugging percentage before being called up. Like Realmuto, he pulled the ball at a higher rate than before the leg kick.
“There’s a comfort level [in Triple-A] where I’ve seen a lot of the pitchers and I know most of the parks in the league,” Slater said. “Obviously that’s not where I want to be, so for me it was trying to make sure that people saw that I dominated that league, that I proved that I could play in this league instead of that one.”
The main obstacle Slater faces in San Francisco is trying to carve out a role on a team loaded with outfielders. It’s been difficult for him to differentiate himself, and to demonstrate the strides his mechanical adjustments have enabled him to make, because he only plays every few days.
Right now, the Giants are giving outfield innings to McCutchen, Gorkys Hernandez, Alen Hanson, Hunter Pence and Austin Jackson. McCutchen was a key offseason addition; Hernandez and Hanson are two of the hottest hitters on the team; Pence and Jackson are the kind of battle-tested veterans manager Bruce Bochy likes to keep on his roster.
Slater acknowledged the ongoing struggle for playing time has taken a while to get used to. He said he’s at his best when he gets into a day-to-day rhythm, but predictability is not on the menu for Giants outfielders.
Still, Slater remains confident increased responsibilities will come soon. As he figured out last season, injuries happen and lineup openings emerge. Struggling players get sent down.
Slater can surprise people with his developing pop. It’s part of the reason the organization chose to call him up rather than continue stashing him in Triple-A.
The challenge now for the Giants is finding a way to give Slater the at-bats they feel he deserves.
“He’s a threat up there,” Bochy said. “He’s got power. You look at the home runs down there in Triple-A and you don’t think he’s a power hitter, but when he gets into one it’s gonna go. … He’s gonna get some starts.”austin slaterMLBSan Francisco Giants