San Francisco Giants utility man Austin Slater has had an up-and-down career up until this point, but could he carve out a new role for 2020 and beyond?
The Giants faced off against left-handed hurler Sean Manaea on Monday, and featured a right-handed heavy lineup including the Stanford University product Austin Slater in the leadoff spot:
He had a promising rookie campaign in 2017 where he posted a .740 OPS across 127 plate appearances but struggled mightily in 2018.
In 2019, he came into camp with new swing mechanics. He did not make the club out of Spring Training but took the assignment to Triple-A in stride as he bludgeoned Pacific Coast League pitching on his way to generating a .308/.436/.529 line with 12 home runs and 45 RBI.
Not surprisingly, the right-handed bat earned a call-up midway through the season and it appeared that the adjustments were beginning to pay dividends.
In July and August, Slater produced a .281 batting average with a .396 on-base percentage in 144 plate appearances.
However, September was a different story entirely. The 27-year-old’s production cratered while he posted a meager .283 OPS with 19 strikeouts in 47 at-bats. These struggles put Slater in a tenuous position as he had no assurances of making the team out of Spring Training.
The knock on Slater has always been a lack of game-time power. The raw power exists and Slater consistently makes hard contact, but his swing generates a high percentage of ground balls.
Without enough lift in his swing, Slater’s slugging power is limited. This is compounded by the fact that the right-handed bat has struck out in 28.9 percent of his plate appearances at the major league level. The high strikeout rate is difficult to tolerate without much game time power.
However, the Giants may try out a different role for the 27-year-old in 2020. We saw a glimpse of what that role was on Monday.
The Giants, under new manager Gabe Kapler, will mix-and-match the lineup based on platoon advantages. This is the type of role where Slater just might be able to excel.
The utility man has struggled against right-handed pitchers throughout his career as he has posted a .644 OPS in 291 plate appearances. However, he is much better against southpaws.
Slater has a .761 OPS against left-handed hurlers, including a .356 on-base percentage. That said, he had an even better platoon advantage in 2019 as he produced a .275/.363/.475 line in 91 plate appearances.
Kapler tabbed Slater as the leadoff hitter in Monday night’s game against young southpaw Sean Manaea. Perhaps, thinking of Slater as a middle-of-the-order hitter is a mischaracterization of his skill set. Until he can generate more loft with his swing, the power numbers will be limited.
However, Slater has a knack for working counts and getting on base, especially against lefties. That is exactly what the Giants, or any team, needs from their leadoff hitter.
I, personally, never thought of Slater as a leadoff hitter, but he has the qualities, including the speed, to be in a solid timeshare atop the lineup.
With the ability to play all over the field, San Francisco should have no problem finding a way to get Slater’s name into the lineup.
One of my bigger concerns remains his strikeout rate, which is high regardless of the type of pitcher he faces. Given his lack of game time power, the whiff rate is difficult to stomach.
If the Giants limit his exposure against right-handed pitchers, then he may avoid a stretch like the one he endured in September of last season.
San Francisco expects to face off against several left-handed pitchers, including Clayton Kershaw while playing the Los Angeles Dodgers in the first series of the season. I will be looking forward to seeing if the Giants will use Slater in a new role as they teased on Monday.