A 32-year-old given everyday playing time for the first time in his career and running — or swinging — with the opportunity, a contender for a batting title with less than two weeks left of the season, is a great story.
In other seasons, it would be an All-Star story.
Donovan Solano’s breakout season will not have its traditional rewards and hallmarks that introduce him to a wider audience. What he might have to settle for is compliments from awed teammates.
“He’s one of the best hitters I’ve ever seen,” Mike Yastrzemski said earlier this season. “He doesn’t get his nickname, ‘Donnie Barrels,’ for nothing.”
Whatever the pitch — inside heat, curveballs down and away — Solano finds contact with the good part of the bat. A Farhan Zaidi flier ahead of the 2019 season has turned into one of the league’s best hitters, and the sample size is beginning to show he is not a fluke. This year’s .349 average has followed last year’s .330 season, and a player who has bounced around the league, and to and from the minors, since he debuted in 2012 suddenly is the NL batting leader. Washington’s Juan Soto is at .354 but, with 113 at-bats, does not yet qualify for the title.
Yes, Solano is cognizant of the honor he’s chasing.
But “it’s not something that I think about,” Solano said recently over Zoom through translator Erwin Higueros. “I’m aware of what I’m doing, I’m aware of my numbers, but it’s not something that I take with me every time that I go up to bat. I just have faith in what I’m doing and obviously have faith in God.”
The faith has been working. According to Statcast, Solano is the seventh best hitter in baseball in hitting the ball on the “sweet spot” of the bat. The math behind the measurement — the spot entails an 8-32 degree launch angle — is less important than the takeaway that he has an innate ability to hit line drives. It helps explain why his abnormally swelled batting average on balls in play — .408 last year, .412 this year — is not showing the regression that usually comes with high BABIPs. He hits balls hard, he hits a lot of them and he sprays shots all over the field, which is proving his batting average is not a fluke.
Solano said he doesn’t “consider myself the best player,” but one who works hard and believes in himself. What he is is an improving player. He hinted at excellence he had never shown at the big-league level last year and has only added to that case. He’s walking more this year, another product of hitting coaches who help their pupils funnel in on pitches. He’s striking out less. His 88.2-mph average exit velocity is up from last year as well.
His 1.2 WAR, per Fangraphs, is third on the Giants, behind only Brandon Belt and that outfielder who called Solano one of the best hitters he’s ever seen. An offense that has been among the worst in baseball the last few years has emerged as one of the league’s better units under the tutelage of Donnie Ecker, Justin Viele and Dustin Lind.
“One of the things that I noticed is how they simplify,” said Solano, the latest in a long line of batters to praise the staff. “Each at-bat, they teach you what to do with certain pitches, what to chase, what not to chase. And I think that that’s one of the things that they have done so good this year, where you can just go in and concentrate on one single aspect of each at-bat.”
He does not have the national spotlight he might have in other years, though the international glare is there. He said he hears from plenty of journalists in Colombia, his home country, wanting to tell the story of how an aging player has found his groove and is taking his spot within the best in baseball.
It’s a rare story, especially for a person from Barranquilla.
“I know that I’m one of those that can bring the message, to make my country proud of me, the city that I come from very proud of me,” Solano said. “I guess I’m helping so that Colombia doesn’t talk much about soccer anymore.”