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Solano's breakout makes second base a strength for Giants

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The release of Joe Panik felt like it would just be the beginning. 

Panik was an inner-circle #ForeverGiant, but a new front office was in place last year and ready to move on. It seemed that the late-season move would be followed by a depressing offseason, with Madison Bumgarner also leaving, and potentially Brandon Belt, Brandon Crawford and Buster Posey looking over their shoulders. 

That didn't end up fully being the case. 

When the Giants take the field next opening day, Posey and Belt and Crawford all will likely be in the lineup, along with Evan Longoria, now a fixture on the infield. It turns out the change at second base was the only major one for an infield with stunning continuity, and while Panik had a solid run as a utility infielder with the Blue Jays, the Giants certainly have no complaints about how their second base situation played out in 2020:

Recap

Donovan Solano's career stat line makes very little sense. Solano was a good 24-year-old rookie with the Marlins in 2012, and played a lot the next two seasons, but his numbers tailed off and he ended up with the Yankees, seeing just 22 at-bats in 2016. Then, Solano fell off the map. He didn't get a big league at-bat in 2017 or 2018, but Farhan Zaidi brought him as a minor league free agent when he moved up the coast. This is what Solano has done since:

2019: 228 plate appearances, .330/.360./.456, 4 HR, 13 doubles, 1.4 bWAR

 

2020: 203 plate appearances, .326/.365/.463, 3 HR, 15 doubles, 1.3 bWAR

Donnie Barrels has been Donnie Consistent since getting a second chance, and he gave the Giants All-Star caliber play in 2020, taking over as an everyday player and scuttling preseason plans. 

The Giants brought Wilmer Flores in on a two-year deal and had Mauricio Dubon finish out 2019 as their everyday second baseman, but both those guys flourished in other roles in 2020, and neither spent nearly as much time at second as expected -- in large part because Gabe Kapler simply couldn't take Solano out of the lineup. 

The group ranked fifth in MLB in WAR, and led NL West second basemen with a .725 OPS, finishing well ahead of the Dodgers, who entered the year with Gavin Lux, Kiké Hernandez and Chris Taylor in their mix. 

Solano got exactly two-thirds of the plate appearances at second base, followed by Flores (58), Dubon (23) and Daniel Robertson (3). Overall, Giants second basemen had a .276/.315/.410 slash line. Strangely, Solano, Flores and Dubon all put up better numbers when playing other positions, although the sample sizes are extremely small. 

Biggest Surprise

Solano's 2019 season went under the radar because his at-bats were so scattered that nobody really noticed that he hit .330. You could see the talent, but even the biggest Solano supporters probably didn't expect him to be competing for a batting title over the final week of the season. 

Solano got off to a scorching start and was at .458 through the Giants' 18th game. He went through a pretty deep slump over the second half of August, then picked it back up with four three-hit games in the first 10 days of September. Solano was at .341 as late as Sept. 21, but had a slow final week, dropping to .326. 

Still, that put him fifth in the NL, behind only batting champ Juan Soto (.351), MVP candidates Freddie Freeman and Marcell Ozuna, and Trea Turner. That's incredible company. 

Biggest Disappointment 

It's hard to find too much to complain about from this group. The eye test said the defense was below-average, but the Giants shifted extremely effectively, and their second basemen were worth four Defensive Runs Saved, fifth in the NL. By Outs Above Average, Solano and Flores were both about league-average. 

Perhaps the disappointment here is just a matter of roster construction. The Giants had Kean Wong in camp but didn't see enough there, and they ended up getting all 254 of their plate appearances at second base from right-handed hitters. Solano had a .811 OPS against righties and Flores was fine, although Dubon's splits were much better against lefties than righties. 

The ideal fit for the 2021 roster is an infielder who can play second and third and bat from the left side. That could make for a tough decision with Robertson, who was a nice addition but is arbitration-eligible

AP Stats

Okay, let's talk about the Donnie Barrels nickname.

 

It's a great one -- Kapler, in particular, seemed fond of dropping it during interviews -- and it certainly fits when you watch Solano line tough pitches right back up the middle over and over again. 

But Donnie Barrels didn't actually find that many barrels. 

Solano ranked in the 21st percentile in "barrels," per Baseball Savant, and was in the 30th percentile in hard-hit rate and 43rd percentile in exit velocity. He actually ranked 12th on the team in barrel percentage, below Jaylin Davis and Chadwick Tromp, among others. Belt's breakout season included a 16.8 barrel percentage, nearly four times what Solano (4.6 percent) did. 

Where Solano really stood out was his lack of poor contact. We're splitting hairs a bit here, but he led the Giants with a line drive rate of 40.1 percent and hit the ball "weakly" just 2.6 percent of the time. Maybe he's not smacking the ball as hard as you see from the modern hitter, or most of his teammates, but Solano was making good contact, and he used the whole field better than anyone. 

Donnie "Made Solid Contact With A Consistent All-Fields Approach And Had A .396 BABIP" is a mouthful. So let's stick with Donnie Barrels. 

Prospect to Watch

Second base is generally not where you find the top prospects, because teams will keep a strong infielder at short as long as possible. But the Giants do have a guy in their system who already is settling in as a second baseman, and he's looking like a good bet to be a contributor sooner than later. 

Will Wilson, acquired in a creative deal at the Winter Meetings, opened a lot of eyes during summer camp and got good reviews for his work at the alternate site in Sacramento. Early in the year, Kapler brought up Wilson as someone who was standing out in conversations with farm director Kyle Haines. 

"Really strong reports on Will Wilson and his ability to play all three infield positions," Kapler said. "He's driving the ball to all parts of the field."

The Giants will have Wilson, 22, work at second, short and third, but their biggest future hole appears to be at second right now, and that's where he got most of his reps during summer camp games. They considered Wilson for their first-round pick in 2019 but ultimately went with Hunter Bishop, and now the two could come through the system at the same time, with Wilson also potentially working with former NC State teammates Patrick Bailey and Nick Swiney. It's unclear what the 2021 minor league season will look like, but Wilson has a good shot to start the year in San Jose, with a chance to move quickly given how many reps he got this summer. 

The 2021 Plans

Same soup, as Bruce Bochy used to say. Solano is arb-eligible and should get a nice raise, and there's no reason at this point to think he won't be the starter next year. Flores likely will need a lot more time at second base unless the universal DH is brought back, but Solano turns 33 in December, so finding him rest will be a priority anyway. 

 

Dubon joked late in the year that he stopped carrying his infield glove around, but if the Giants are able to add another piece for center, he could slide back to his old position at times. It seems more likely, though, that Dubon's infield reps come as a platoon partner for Brandon Crawford. A lefty bat that can play some second base would be a nice addition given the incumbents, but it isn't the most glaring need this offseason.