Austin Slater isn’t sure if he completely believes what Barry Bonds told him, but he took Bonds’ advice anyway.
“Barry once told us – and who knows if it’s true – but he said, ‘I never swung at a pitch that I didn’t think I could hit out,’ “ Slater said. “It may be harder to do in practice and in reality, but if you go in there with that mentality, by not swinging at anything that you don’t think you can hit hard, you’re able to lay off a lot more pitches.”
After producing some promising but relatively unsatisfying results in each of his first two big league seasons, Slater completely changed his approach at the plate. Bonds’ advice hasn’t turned Slater into a prolific power hitter, but he is a far more productive player this year than he was before.
In 74 games last season, Slater posted a .307 slugging percentage, a number that would rank dead last in the major leagues if he had enough at-bats to qualify. In 35 games in 2019, Slater owns a .516 slugging percentage and a .919 on-base plus slugging percentage, making him one of the Giants’ most threatening hitters.
Why are the results so different? It’s not only the changes the Giants outfielder made to his swing in the offseason.
“It’s just being more patient and trying to get the ball in the air more,” Slater said. “I think we’ve talked about the swing mechanic changes and a lot of it comes down to pitch selection.”
Developing a strong sense of plate discipline is often one of the greatest challenges for young hitters acclimating to the big leagues. Slater indicated determining which pitches to swing at was difficult for him last year, particularly because he felt pressure to seize a starting job and prove he was an everyday player.
Under first-year president of baseball operations Farhan Zaidi, Slater began the 2019 season at Triple-A. He maintained contact with the Giants’ top baseball executive and after an impressive start to the year, Slater asked Zaidi what else he needed to work on to receive a call-up.
Zaidi said earlier this year that he texted Slater and to express how pleased he was with his progress and that eventually, Slater would receive a chance to shine. The Giants promoted Slater from Triple-A to the majors July 1 and he’s stayed with the club ever since.
“It was very much up in the air as far as the timetable coming up. I knew that,” Slater said. “Even if they didn’t say it, the writing is sometimes on the wall and at the end of the day, I feel like I belong up here. For me, it was just taking advantage of the opportunity.”
In fewer than half the games he played last season, Slater has already hit more doubles, more triples and more home runs. He’s walked 17 times in 114 plate appearances compared to 20 times in 225 plate appearances a season ago, demonstrating a knack for swinging at strikes that makes him a valuable asset to the Giants’ lineup.
Slater’s numbers are superior against left-handed pitchers and he’s starting regularly against southpaws, but his .903 OPS against righties makes him a solid option off the bench on days he’s not penciled into the lineup.
Accepting a role where he isn’t playing six or seven days a week has required an adjustment, but Slater has clearly proven his value to the Giants as a semi-regular player.
“It stresses the importance of team above everything else,” Slater said. “Luckily we’ve got a great clubhouse and guys have put themselves in the back seat and let the team take over and I think that’s a big part of why we’ve gone on the run we have in the last month and a half.”
With Slater slugging at a .516 clip, rookie Mike Yastrzemski slugging at .511 and Alex Dickerson maintaining a .651 slugging percentage, the Giants have found a corner outfield rotation that is able to do damage on a much more consistent basis.
The group may not have any All-Stars, but it is much improved in part because players such as Slater are only swinging at pitches they can drive.