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SF Giants: Evaluating Austin Slater’s 2020 Season

SAN FRANCISCO, CALIFORNIA - SEPTEMBER 24: Austin Slater #13 of the San Francisco Giants celebrates with Brandon Crawford #35 after scoring on a single by Wilmer Flores #41 in the bottom of the first inning against the Colorado Rockies at Oracle Park on September 24, 2020 in San Francisco, California. (Photo by Lachlan Cunningham/Getty Images)
SAN FRANCISCO, CALIFORNIA - SEPTEMBER 24: Austin Slater #13 of the San Francisco Giants celebrates with Brandon Crawford #35 after scoring on a single by Wilmer Flores #41 in the bottom of the first inning against the Colorado Rockies at Oracle Park on September 24, 2020 in San Francisco, California. (Photo by Lachlan Cunningham/Getty Images)
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Despite elbow and groin injuries, the 2020 season was a promising next step in SF Giants outfielder Austin Slater’s development.

Over the years, the SF Giants outfielder Austin Slater has shown glimpses of good potential, but he has struggled to find the consistency to stick at the major league level. While the 2020 season could be a product of small sample shenanigans, Slater is one player who might have finally shown those flashes were not a fluke.

On the surface, the right-handed hitter performed well, slashing a .282/.408/.506 (152 OPS+) line with five home runs, 18 runs scored, and seven RBI in104 plate appearances. On top of this, he posted a 15.4 percent walk rate against a 21.2 percent strikeout rate.

Manager Gabe Kapler used Slater as the leadoff hitter, especially against left-handed pitching. The Stanford University product has always had a knack for hitting southpaws and he continued that trend this season, bashing a 1.127 OPS in 38 at-bats against southpaws in 2020. Most importantly, he held his own against right-handed hurlers as well (.735 OPS).

Furthermore, his baserunning took a huge step forward. Slater has typically demonstrated good instincts on the base paths but became a base-stealing threat this past season, swiping eight bags in nine opportunities. In fact, prior to his injury, Slater was leading the league in steals.

This was a very encouraging season for Slater’s all-around production.

However, over the years, Slater had demonstrated some concerning traits. The 27-year-old had struck out at too high of a rate without hitting for enough power. This is a tough combination to tolerate, but Slater had done some things well in the batter’s box such as make hard contact and grind out at-bats.

In a very small sample, it looks like Slater has improved his strikeout rate. His 21.2 percent strikeout rate still isn’t elite, but much better than his 27.6 percent career mark. Also, anyone who remembers the final game of the season knows that a couple of those strikeouts were not warranted due to an abysmal strike zone by home plate umpire Rob Drake:

MLB rewarded Drake’s shenanigans by assigning him to some playoff games, so good thing there is accountability for big-league umpires, am I right?

On the other note, Slater is creating more loft in his swing:

Austin Slater (Statcast)

His exit velocity, launch angle, and barrel rates were the highest of his career. The first two numbers are easier to understand, but the improved barrel rate is another encouraging trend. Barrels refers to a combination of exit velocity and launch angle that produces a .500 batting average or higher.

As we have seen, Slater has ordinarily made solid contact in terms of exit velocity. However, he struggled to generate extra-base hits without lift. Following his adjustments this season, Slater’s average launch angle jumped to 10.9 degrees. If he can maintain those gains, he’s well positioned to contribute going forward.

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If these trends carryover, the SF Giants may have found another piece to the outfield puzzle to go along with Mike Yastrzemski, Alex Dickerson, and Mauricio Dubon. This could be the most productive group the big-league team has had since Barry Bonds was roaming left field.

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