SAN FRANCISCO — The Giants drafted Austin Slater in 2014, watched him hit his way through the minors, and had him in their big-league lineup more than 100 times the past two seasons. They still don’t quite know what he is as a major leaguer, though.
Slater, at his best, has a strong arm in the outfield, an opposite-fields approach that can put him on base a lot, and enough tools to be a solid contributor. But there’s no doubt that he needs a serious launch-angle adjustment, and he had some odd moments defensively in 2018.
As they summarized the season, Brian Sabean and Bruce Bochy didn’t exactly light up when asked about Slater.
“Slater, we’ve got some work to do there,” Bochy said.
“I think Slater needs to make some swing adjustments,” Sabean added, “But he’s certainly shown that he can be an extra player.”
The Giants have more time to try and figure out how Slater fits. In 2018, he showed positives and negatives …
What Went Right
Slater had four separate runs in the big leagues, and through his first 36 games, he was batting .308 with a .429 on-base percentage. He showed off some impressive raw physical tools. His only homer of the year went 425 feet, and he threw a runner out at the plate with a 99.6 mph throw. Slater had two of the 28 hardest throws from the outfield in MLB in 2018 and six throws that registered at 95 mph or above; Alen Hanson, with one throw at 95.6, was the only other Giants outfielder to clear that barrier. Slater is also sneaky on the bases; he was successful on all seven stolen base attempts.
Slater hit .274 with runners in scoring position and .370 with runners in scoring position and two outs. That simple swing can come in handy sometimes.
What Went Wrong
In the era of Launch Angle, Slater is doing it his own way. His 63.1 groundball rate was the highest in the Majors and his 16.2 percent flyball rate was the lowest. This added up to just one homer, one triple and six doubles. There were 177 NL hitters who got at least 200 plate appearances and Slater ranked 164th in slugging percentage (.307). The lack of pop dragged his OPS down to .640 and was a source of a lot of discussion for the staff. They want to see him catch the ball out front and use some of his natural power, but that hasn’t shown in two seasons. As Sabean said, the Giants want to see swing adjustments.
That could be hard to do if Slater’s elbow proves to be an issue. He came out of a game the final weekend with elbow pain and an MRI showed a mild sprain. The Giants are hopeful that Slater is ready for spring training, but there are no guarantees with the elbow. Serious injuries there aren't just limited to pitchers.
Slater still has not accrued much service time. He has two minor-league options remaining.
First of all, Slater’s immediate future will come down to how healthy he is. There was some concern about his elbow as the Giants packed up for the season, and if he eventually needs some sort of procedure that obviously would be a big blow.
The good news for Slater is that he certainly has shown enough of a hit tool and enough promise defensively that he should, at the very least, be a strong bench option. He was better than expected at first base, and as a fourth outfielder/backup first baseman/pinch-hitter, he should be on the Opening Day roster. Team officials want to see more — specifically, more power — before putting him in an outfield corner on an everyday basis, but if the Giants are unable to sign veterans, Slater very well could start in left or right on Opening Day.