With question marks at the corner outfield spots, Austin Slater will have another chance to stake his claim to a significant role with the San Francisco Giants in 2020.
Throughout his career, the Stanford University product has produced a .254/.335/.368 line (91 OPS+) with nine home runs and 60 RBI in 544 plate appearances. That is not the type of production that usually lends itself to a corner outfield role.
His peripheral stats have some red flags as well. On a positive note, Slater has posted a 9.1 percent walk rate, but that is paired with a very high 28.8 percent strikeout rate.
Only Domingo Santana, Rougned Odor, Ryan McMahon, and Danny Santana posted a higher strikeout rate in 2019 than Slater’s 28.8 percent career mark. However, each of those hitters eclipsed the 20-home run plateau, so a high strikeout rate is tolerable given their power numbers.
With Slater, that is not the case. He strikes out at a high frequency, but does not compensate for it with offsetting power numbers.
This is where Slater gets pigeon-holed as either a fourth outfielder or utility player, rather than a starter.
Part of the issue with Slater’s low power numbers lies in his batted ball profile. The 27-year-old has struggled to create loft in his swing, resulting in a high percentage of ground balls.
Slater posted a 61.4 percent and 63.1 percent ground ball rate in 2017 and 2018, respectively. That number did improve to a 52.3 percent rate in 2019 as he implemented swing changes to get under the ball more.
Despite those changes, Giants fans have seen Slater struggle to consistently produce at the major league level.
For example, the right-handed bat posted an .894 and a .957 OPS in July and August, respectively. It seemed then that Slater was playing himself into a larger role for 2020 with that level of production.
However, the season did not end in August, and Slater’s production cratered to the tune of a .273 OPS with 19 strikeouts across 48 plate appearances in September.
Sure, this was a small sample, but his slump was rough enough to question whether he could become a reliable producer.
With that being said, Slater offers nice versatility with the glove by being able to handle either corner outfield position as well as first base, second base, and third base. Giants team president Farhan Zaidi alluded to potentially utilizing Slater’s versatility more in 2020 in an interview with KNBR last August:
"One thing that I think we’re gonna want to take a look at — it might not happen this year — but he’s obviously got some experience in the infield at first base and second base. That may be a way to get him more at-bats going forward."
Despite that, it does not sound like Slater is being prepared for a starting role. Especially, since the Giants are gearing up to start Alex Dickerson, Mike Yastrzemski, and potentially Jaylin Davis in the outfield, barring any changes.
There will be plenty of at-bats to go around for Slater, but it sounds like his role in 2020 will be as bench player.
He has three years of service time under his belt and only one minor league option remaining. He has offered some intrigue throughout his major league career, but as he enters his age-27 season, the Giants will need to see more production from his bat.
As a right-handed hitter, he can be a platoon complement to either Yastrzemski or Dickerson in the outfield, as well as to Brandon Belt at first base. Joey Rickard, who has an invite to spring training and plays the outfield, will compete with Slater as a platoon mate.
The hope is that as he grows more comfortable with his swing changes from last season, that he can become that productive player the Giants envisioned when they took him in the eighth round of the 2014 draft.
As the Giants continue to pursue a youth movement, there should be some opportunity for Slater to carve a role out for himself. However, he will need to see more consistency in the batter’s box if he is to have a role with the team beyond 2020.