When Giants utility man Austin Slater arrived at Petco Park on Monday to make his season debut, the versatile right-handed hitter was thrilled to be back with the big league club.
Slater spent 34 games with the Giants in 2017 and 74 last season, but had to wait 83 games before receiving his first promotion from the Sacramento River Cats this year.
What’s changed since the last time Slater played for the Giants? His swing and the size of his bat bag.
After hitting too many groundballs in his first stints with the big league club, Slater overhauled his swing in the offseason to flatten it out and make contact deeper in the zone. The result is an approach that allows him to hit more line drives and occasionally lift the ball in the air.
Welcome to the launch angle revolution sweeping across baseball, Giants fans.
It’s not uncommon for players to tinker with their swing, but it might sound unusual for a hitter to insist on purchasing a larger bat bag. Slater said he needs it for all of the gloves he now uses.
“Any time these guys increase their versatility, it just adds value to them,” manager Bruce Bochy said. “They become even more of an option if something happens up here.”
In the first year of Farhan Zaidi’s tenure as president of baseball operations with the Giants, the organization has implemented changes across every level. The differences might be subtle in the majors, but not at Triple-A.
Slater arrived in the majors as a corner outfielder in 2017, but increased his versatility last year by shifting to first base when Brandon Belt and Pablo Sandoval dealt with injuries. This season, Slater has added the ability to play second and third and has also made cameos in center field.
“I enjoy playing as many positions as possible,” Slater said. “It’s kind of like a new, exciting challenge every day. I think the more I play the positions, the more comfortable I’ll be. But right now, I feel pretty good.”
Slater isn’t the only Giants minor leaguer attempting to become a super utility option. Catcher Aramis Garcia began playing first base more frequently last season and earlier this month, Garcia needed to borrow an outfielder’s glove from Slater when Triple-A manager Dave Brundage sent him out to left field.
Slater loaned his first baseman’s mitt to power-hitting prospect Chris Shaw, who gave up playing first after 2017 but is back at the position on a regular basis since earning a promotion from Double-A to Triple-A.
Outfielders Mike Yastrzemski, Mike Gerber and Henry Ramos have all appeared at each of the three outfield positions at Triple-A this year while infielders Abiatal Avelino and Ryan Howard have played at third base, shortstop and second base.
As major league teams implement shifts more regularly, many executives believe it’s imperative for up-and-coming prospects to become acquainted with playing all over the diamond. Even if a player is a natural fit at a position like third base, they’ll sometimes find themselves playing on the right side of the infield anyway when a left-handed hitter is at the plate.
Treating the minor leagues as a testing ground is important for a Giants club that will undergo even more significant changes in Zaidi’s second year. With Bochy set to retire at the end of the season, the Giants’ top baseball executive will have a chance to hire his own manager who is more closely aligned to him both strategically and philosophically.
Might we see the Giants use an “Opener” more frequently next season? In the last month, Triple-A starters Ty Blach, Andrew Suárez and Conner Menez have all pitched “bulk innings” behind a reliever while hard-throwing right-handers Ray Black and Sam Coonrod have both started and thrown the first inning of a game.
Sacramento’s pitchers have often performed miserably when the “Opener” has been used, but it’s not surprising to see the organization try to increase the staff’s comfort level with the strategy before the Giants consider using it in the majors.
Adapting to new positions and pitching in different situations than players are accustomed to is a challenge, but to Slater’s credit, he’s willingly embraced the somewhat chaotic nature of life in Triple-A and done everything in his power to make himself a more useful asset to the big league club.
Upon receiving the promotion he worked tirelessly to earn, Slater did the one thing that will help him stick around on the Giants’ roster. He tripled, homered and proved that his bat can aid a lineup that needs all the help it can get.
“It’s a great feeling,” Slater said. “You try not to add any pressure and just stay focused on each at-bat and each pitch. We’ve got a lot of great players and a lot of guys that deserve a chance so you’ve just got to make your mark.”