Ailene Voisin

River Cats outfielder Austin Slater has everyone talking

Austin Slater made the switch from second base last year to outfield this year.
Austin Slater made the switch from second base last year to outfield this year.

River Cats outfielder Austin Slater is a few credits shy of a Stanford degree, which means the intellectual bragging rights still belong to other members of his family. His father is an attorney. His mother earned a degree in divinity studies and is a pastor in Florida. His older sister is a Fulbright scholar who speaks fluent Portuguese and Spanish, and works for Deloitte Consulting.

“I am the least-impressive member of my family,” Slater said, laughing.

Perhaps on paper, but give him a glove, a bat and a baseball and he demands attention. Though he wasn’t among the handful of River Cats called up by the Giants on Wednesday, Slater had a scorching August, batting .387 with nine home runs and 26 RBIs and, just as importantly, continued to improve in the outfield.

The accolades are adding up: Player of the Week; favorite to win Player of the Month; 22nd-ranked player in MLB’s Prospect Watch.

“Everybody is talking about Slater,” River Cats manager Jose Alguacil said. “He has opened a lot of eyes here. He still has some areas to work on in the outfield, but he is turning his career around.”

Many in the Giants organization – including Alguacil – believe the Jacksonville, Fla., native could be playing at AT&T Park next spring. And this is happening with the speed of a fastball, both his adjustment to the outfield and his success at the plate.

Slater, who played second base for Alguacil last season with Richmond in Double A, was promoted to Triple-A Sacramento in midseason and moved to the outfield. He wasn’t told by the Giants why the switch was made, nor did he ask. He just went out and played, familiarizing himself with all three outfield positions, utilizing his speed to compensate for an average arm and becoming most comfortable in center.

His development as a hitter has been similarly impressive. For most of the season, his average hovered in the low .200s. After weeks of frustration and lengthy video sessions, River Cats hitting coach Damon Minor altered Slater’s mechanics, advising him to stand up straighter in the batter’s box.

“Raising my stance has been the key,” said Slater, a contact hitter who finds the gaps. “Before, I was down in more of a squatted position.”

Slater is an admitted bookworm who loved school and maintained a healthy balance between academics and athletics. Though he broke his ankle and missed his senior high school season in 2011, he was drafted by the Dodgers but decided instead to accept a scholarship to Stanford.

His reasoning was interesting. Living in California was appealing, and despite the distance from his tight-knit family, he welcomed the challenge of adapting to a different environment while on his own. Then there was the familiar combination of academics and athletics that Stanford offered. His major – Science, Technology, and Society – isn’t as difficult as it sounds, he insisted with a grin.

Becoming instinctive with his new mechanics wasn’t so easy. Slater, who is a compact 6-foot-2 and 215 pounds with a strong lower body, continues to study video and rely on mental tips. He plans to play winter ball in the Dominican Republic, where he can perfect his Spanish.

There also is a strong likelihood he will attend a Giants game after the River Cats season ends Monday, to rekindle fond memories and provide additional inspiration. See, AT&T is more than just another ballpark to Slater; the place tugs at his heart. He remembers attending Game 4 of the 2014 National League Division Series between the Giants and the Washington Nationals, sitting in the nosebleed seats with a friend, and watching Bryce Harper belt a score-tying home run into McCovey Cove.

“The atmosphere was electric,” he recalled. “It was like, ‘This is where I want to play.’ That was the moment for me.”

Looking toward the offseason and the fluidity of the Giants outfield, he envisions opportunity. Gregor Blanco and Angel Pagan will be agents, and right-fielder Hunter Pence is increasingly injury prone.

“I’m going to keep working the way I am and try to put some pressure on the guys in the (Giants) front office,” Slater said, smiling, “But in a good way, though. I’ll let my play speak for itself.”