It wasn’t the first time Austin Slater knew he had a swing problem. But it was the first time he took drastic measures to fix it.
Among hitters with at least 150 plate appearances last year, the Giants outfielder was dead last in groundball percentage (63.1). He was hitting the ball hard, but the line-drive swing that worked in college and sporadically in the minors was not playing in the majors. After debuting in 2017, he didn’t overly impress in 2018, slashing .251/.333/.307 in 74 games, the swing producing just six doubles, a triple and a home run in 199 at-bats.
So this offseason, he went to work for a second time; he knew early on in the minors he needed to retool and tweaked it, but “this is probably the biggest change I’ve made in my career.”
Its debut did not go well.
“Tried the leg kick in spring and it didn’t really work out,” said Slater, who hit .185 in 12 spring games. “So I started doing the toe-tap.”
Slater didn’t make the team out of spring, demoted to Triple-A Sacramento, where he killed pitching with the usual Pacific Coast League caveats, slashing .308/.436/.529. Yet with his new toe-tap, he watched as the Giants churned through outfielder after outfielder like Joey Chestnut disposes of hot dogs. Slater’s name wasn’t called until Monday, when the outfielder with a line-drive swing was no longer an outfielder and no longer had quite that swing; he played every position in the field this year outside of pitcher, catcher and shortstop, and has watched a bigger uppercut send more balls toward the sky.
In Triple-A, 46.7 percent of his batted balls went on the ground. In three games with the Giants entering Friday’s matchup with the Cardinals (in which he’s 5-for-10 with a homer in the early going), it was 25 percent. Those numbers were 50 percent and 63 percent, respectively, last year. Major league average this year is 42.9 percent.
“It’s starting to feel normal,” said the 26-year-old of his swing, the toe-tap helping his timing. “Spring training it did not feel normal at all. But with the more reps, it’s going to hopefully become more second-nature.”
The early returns have been promising, though he cautioned it’s still a work in progress. He pointed to a mid-May series in Fresno, in which he went 8-for-21 with three homers, as his turning point.
“I finally felt that I was consistent, on the right track,” he said. “Being able to pull the ball in the air was a big thing for me consistently. That was the first series I knew they were trying to pound me in, and I was hitting those balls in the air. And that was probably when I was like, OK, I think I’ve found something.”
It’s not just his swing that has changed, though; Slater also has become more picky. He’s seeing more pitches than ever before, having swung at 42 percent of pitches in Sacramento. That’s down from 47 percent last year.
“Just swinging at the right pitches, knowing which ones you can can get under,” he said.
He didn’t sulk at Triple-A, and now his immediate success is keeping another bat down. The Giants are in no rush to recall Steven Duggar, whom they’ve asked to work on his plate discipline as he returns from a back injury.
Duggar didn’t stand out in his time at the big-league level, which opens up a chance for Slater to seize.
“We can take our time with [Duggar],” Bruce Bochy said about Slater’s emergence. “Not that we’re looking to take our time, but we’ll get him more reps down there.”