There’s one more item on Austin Slater’s to-do list that is unchecked.
For years the Giants have liked his (evolving) swings against southpaws, and his plate discipline and proclivity to get on base have made him a prototypical Farhan Zaidi slugger.
The defensive skills have been obvious, too, having a plus arm really wherever he’s been put. Slater can play the right side of the infield and all over the outfield, though this year he’s been limited to the corners (but he said he still takes ground balls in the infield).
His base-running tool is a new one. Slater always has had wheels, but he stole just one base — in his only attempt — in 68 games last year. Through 14 games this year, he’s tied for the major league lead with five swipes.
The biggest thing left for Slater is right. That is, hitting right-handed pitchers.
“I’ve always felt that I can hit both, but it’s a matter of proving it,” Slater said on a Zoom call before Tuesday’s Giants win. “The track record suggests I’ve struggled more against righties than lefties. I’m making a goal to set out to prove that wrong.”
And for Wednesday’s game, Slater is batting third against righty Zack Greinke. His mission has begun.
Slater, through his 14 games, has been a superstar against southpaws and a solid player against righties. Against lefties he is slashing an absurd .400/.500/.800 in 18 plate appearances, while those numbers slide to a merely excellent .304/.407/.522 in 27 plate appearances against righties.
The Giants always preach progress, and Jaylin Davis was supposed to be the young, toolsy corner outfielder who took his leap this year. Thus far it’s been the 27-year-old Slater, who batted .205 against righties last year.
“I’ve been doing machine work, focusing on approach and game planning [against righties],” said Slater, who always has hit the ball hard but has focused on sending it north. “A lot of it comes down to that and seeing where my swing matches up with what the pitcher’s throwing and what I’m looking for a particular day.”
The peripherals are encouraging. According to Baseball Savant, Slater has barreled up 14.8 percent of his batted balls, up from 10.1 last year. His expected batting average is .333 (and actual one is .342). His exit velocity is in the 87th percentile in the league. Put simply, he’s hitting balls hard and hitting them in the air. And when he’s on base, he’s more dangerous than ever.
Slater credited baserunning coach Antoan Richardson and third-base coach Ron Wotus for his improved aggression, as well as Gabe Kapler for giving him green lights. Kapler said they might not give him (or anyone) the thumbs up often, but Slater pounces when he gets it.
“He’s been ready for that green light, and he’s taken advantage of it,” Kapler said of the eighth-round 2014 pick from Stanford. “…He’s become more dependable as an all-around player.
“It’s one of the things that we’ve pointed to about Yaz, is that there aren’t a lot of holes in his game. He’s a good defender, gets good jumps, takes good routes to the baseball and makes high-quality throws, hitting left and right. Yaz has kind of become a complete player, and Slater is looking to tweak every part of his game and raise the bar for himself so that he establishes himself as a great all-around player as well.”
Mike Yastrzemski has cooled in August, and Donovan Solano sat Tuesday and will sit Wednesday with abdominal soreness. While Hunter Pence’s home run Tuesday was encouraging, less so were performances by Brandon Belt, Brandon Crawford and Pablo Sandoval. The lefty outfield bats the Giants hoped would emerge (Joe McCarthy, Steven Duggar) have not.
The Giants need offense from somewhere. Slater has stepped up and thus has moved down from his customary leadoff spot to No. 3 against a righty star.
Slater can take out a pen and his to-do list after the game, with one more item to check.