Donovan Solano is revitalizing his MLB career in atypical fashion

Solano has found new life in San Francisco, but will it last in 2021?

When the San Francisco Giants signed infielder Donovan Solano to a Minor League deal prior to the 2019 season, the signing did not earn much fanfare (in fact the only “report” of Solano’s initial signing as a Giant came through a Baseball AmericaMinor League transactions report). After all, Solano had not played in the Major Leagues since 2016, which was a mere nine-game sample with the New York Yankees that was more akin to a “shot of espresso” rather than the typical “cup of coffee” stint. Even though Solano had played 361 games with the Miami Marlins from 2012-2015, he only averaged a wRC+ of 68 and accumulated an fWAR of 1.4, according to Fangraphs. Thus, the Giants’ signing of Solano seemed to be a transaction meant to provide organizational depth in the infield.

However, fast forward two MLB seasons later (well…222 games later, specifically), and not only has Solano become the Giants’ regular second baseman, but he also earned a Silver Slugger award, becoming the first Giants second baseman to win a Silver Slugger since Jeff Kent in 2002.

The NL West looks even more top-heavy with the Dodgers coming off a World Series championship and the Padres having an aggressive off-season that included recent trades for pitchers Blake Snell, Yu Darvish, as well as the free-agent signing of Korean infielder Ha-Seong Kim. If the Giants want to have any hope in the division, then they will need “Donnie Barrels” to continue his career resurgence over a much longer 2021 slate.

That being said, Solano has displayed an atypical hitting profile the past couple of seasons in San Francisco, and thus, can Solano continue to be a “Silver Slugger” level hitter at age 33 in 2021?

 

Donnie “Barrels”?

Solano has earned the monicker “Donnie Barrels” mostly because of his ability to hit an extraordinary amount of line drives the past couple of seasons. In his Marlins days from 2012-2015, Solano pretty much pounded the ball into the ground, as he averaged a GB/FB ratio of 1.93 and a line drive rate of only 21.7 percent, according to Fangraphs batted ball data. However, as evidenced in the table below, that changed the past two seasons in San Francisco:

Donovan Solano Batted Ball Data

Based on the data from the table above, Solano revitalized himself at the plate, as he increased his line drive rates to 33.9 and 27.6 percent, and decreased his GB/FB ratios to 1.27 and 1.00 in 2019 and 2020, respectively. However, even though Solano did put more loft under the ball in 2019 and 2020 in San Francisco, it didn’t necessarily mean that he became a “power hitter” by any means. While his HR/FB rate did spike to a career-high of 8.2 percent in 2019, it did regress to 5.5 percent during his “Silver Slugger” campaign in 2020, which was more in line with what he did with the Marlins.

Furthermore, the lack of “pop” was also evident in Statcast metrics such as exit velocity and barrel rate, with his metrics in the latter actually contrasting his endearing nickname. Here are Solano’s Statcast metrics since 2015:

Donovan Solano Statcast Metrics

Solano has hit the ball relatively softer, as measured by exit velocity, the past two years as a Giant.  Furthermore, his barrel rate has not only been around 2 percentage points lower than the league average hitter (league average barrel rate was 6.4 percent in 2020) but his 4.6 percentage last year was actually the second-lowest barrel rate of any Giants hitter with 100 or more plate appearances (only Mauricio Dubon had a lower rate).

So how did Solano succeed at the plate the past two seasons?

Well, the first metric that stands out is the change in launch angle in 2018 and 2019, as it spiked from a paltry 1.5 in 2015 and 10.7 in 2016 to 14.5 and 15.5 in 2019 and 2020, respectively. Solano’s ability to adjust his swing and timing to get more loft under the ball the past two seasons resulted in more line drives for him at the dish, as well as maintain his xwOBA (expected weighted on-base average) from .351 to .307 in 2020, even though he saw a big drop in his hard-hit rate from 42.9 percent in 2019 to 34.9 in 2020.

One has to wonder if Solano did considerable work on his swing to improve this area in 2018 when he was in the Dodgers’ Minor League system, as the Dodgers helped Justin Turner become a productive MLB hitter thanks to adjustments in his swing to improve its launch angle. Furthermore, considering that current Giants president Farhan Zaidi was in the Dodgers’ front office prior to his current position in San Francisco, it would also be interesting to know how long Zaidi and his team have been working with Solano, and if there are other “similar” projects like Solano currently dwelling in the Giants’ Minor League system.

In the coming years, baseball fans will see if Solano is part of a current crop of “changed” hitters coming up in the Giants system, or if he is just a lone instance. Nonetheless, Giants fans should think about calling him “Donnie Launch” instead of “Donnie Barrels” in 2021, especially since that would be more fitting for his hitting profile

Solano’s Adjustment to Pitchers in 2020

Solano’s launch angle will be key to watch next year. That being said, it will not be the only thing to pay attention to in regard to his bat in 2021.

His adjustment to offspeed and breaking pitches from 2019 to 2020 could be another key to his success at the plate next season.

After a surprising 2019 in which he posted a wRC+ of 116 in 228 plate appearances, opposing pitchers slightly changed their approach against him in 2020. Specifically, pitchers threw him more first-pitch strikes but also tended to throw him fewer fastballs and more pitches outside of the strike zone. Take a look at Solano’s career plate discipline metrics the past two seasons with the Giants:

Donovan Solano Plate Discipline

Solano is a bit of a hacker, as hes posted swing rates above 50 percent the past two years while the league-average swing rate was 47 percent and 45.9 percent the past two seasons, respectively.  Thus, it’s no surprise that pitchers not only tried to get ahead early in the count but also tried to take advantage of his over-aggressive approach at the plate, as he saw fewer strikes in the zone overall in 2020 in comparison to 2019 (1.6 percent less, roughly). In some cases, the metrics show that pitchers were more successful in 2020 against Solano than in 2019, especially considering the 1.5 percent increase in swinging-strike rate and 2.3 percent decrease in Solano’s contact rate. And yet, by season’s end, Solano improved his wOBA from .346 in 2019 to .357 in 2020, and his wRC+ from 116 in 2019 to 127 in 2020.

So what gives? How did Solano improve as a hitter, even despite those regressions?

Well, his improvement against breaking balls and offspeed pitches was a big contributor. Here are his metrics against breaking balls and offspeed pitches from 2019 and 2020:

Solano Against Breaking and Offspeed Pitches

Solano wasn’t bad against breaking and offspeed stuff in 2019 by any means. His xwOBA metrics against the pitches proved to be still pretty high, and even his corresponding wOBA metrics proved that Solano was more than serviceable as an infield bat against secondary pitches. However, in 2020, Solano saw huge gains, especially on a wOBA end. His wOBA improved 55 points against breaking pitches, and his wOBA improved 247 points against offspeed pitches. And what’s intriguing about those jumps is that he saw a higher percentage of those pitches in 2020 in comparison to his Giants debut. He saw 4.3 percent more breaking pitches and 0.7 more offspeed pitches at the dish last season. However, there was no regression, but rather a big improvement. Furthermore, what is even more promising is that he saw the relatively same sample of pitches both years, as he only saw 13 fewer breaking balls and 12 fewer offspeed pitches. Thus, Solano’s 2020 sample can be compared favorably to his 2019 metrics, since there isn’t a dramatic difference in pitches, unlike other players who played more games in 2019.

Now let’s take a look at Solano’s hitting against fastballs the past two years.

Donovan Solano Against Fastballs

In 2019, Solano feasted on fastballs, putting up a crazy .391 wOBA and xwOBA of .366. However, those numbers regressed to .317 and .304, respectively in 2020. Furthermore, the percentage of pitches he saw in 2020 that were fastballs dropped 5 percent, and he just wasn’t as effective against the pitch in general. He whiffed 3.1 percent more against the pitch and was put away 6.9 percent more on the fastball in 2020. It will be interesting to see if this regression will continue on this pitch in 2021. However, Solano may be able to handle slight regression in regard to his hitting against fastballs if he continues to be effective against secondary pitches like he was in 2020.

What’s Solano’s Outlook for 2021?

Solano is pretty much a “one-tool” player, as he will need to continue to hit for high average to be a viable option for the Giants at second base going forward. He’s averaging roughly a .132 ISO (isolated slugging) as a Giant, which is a vast improvement from his Marlins days, where his average ISO in Miami was .069. However, Solano isn’t seeing a tick in slugging due to smashing balls out of the park. Rather, he has mostly improved his ISO numbers on extending line drive batted balls into extra-base hits in a spacious place like Oracle Park, like the hit below:

Nonetheless, while Solano’s approach seems to be working in San Francisco, if he doesn’t hit, it’s likely that his tenure with the Giants won’t last much longer. Solano does not offer much speed (he ranks in the 43rd percentile in terms of sprint speed, according to Baseball Savant) and his defense is pretty questionable as well (he ranked in the bottom 6th percentile in Savant’s Outs Above Average metric). While the are no Top 30 prospects lingering in the upper minors that could take Solano’s spot if he struggles, the Giants could move Dubon back to second, since that his natural position. That pressure could also be amplified if the Giants acquire a free agent outfielder, which seems possible since the Giants have been connected to free-agent outfielder Marcell Ozuna this Winter.

One knock against Solano will be his abnormally high BABIP (batting average of balls in play) numbers the past two seasons in San Francisco, as he posted a .409 BABIP in 2019 and a .396 BABIP last year. The automatic assumption would be that Solano is due for a regression in BABIP, especially since he has been averaging a BABIP over 100 points higher than the league average the past two seasons. That being said, Andrew Krutz of Pitcher List examined BABIP and xBA (expected batting average) and found that xBA may be a better indicator of projecting performance than BABIP. He points out Solano as an example of this in the quote below:

“Solano had a fantastic 2020 season. He finished 11th among qualified hitters with an AVG of .321. However, he finished 2nd with a .396 BABIP. So he must have been very fortunate right? Well, he finished in the 81st percentile with a .281 xBA. In 2019 he may have flown under the radar some with only 228 PA, but he finished with a .409 BABIP, .330 BA, and .321 xBA. This suggests that while a BA drop can be expected, it may not be a significant one. If we had just looked at his BABIP we might have assumed a significant BA reduction was in order.”

“BABIP vs. Expected Stats” by Andrew Krutz; Pitcher List.com

Solano will certainly be under the microscope in 2021, and he is truly atypical from most middle infielders in the sense that most of, if not all, of his value, comes from his ability to hit for a high average (which in turn, makes his hold of a starting position so volatile). There are certainly question marks about Solano’s approach and profile, especially since most players don’t “break out” in their age 31 and 32 seasons. However, there are some promising signs in his metrics that show that he has been improving his approach (launch angle, hitting against secondary pitches, etc.), which could bode good things for Solano and Giants fans next season.

That being said, Giants fans should seriously consider changing the nickname “Donnie Barrels”…

It would be akin to calling Barry Bonds “Barry Bunts”, honestly.

Photo by Andy Lewis/Icon Sportswire | Adapted by Doug Carlin (@Bdougals on Twitter)

Kevin O'Brien

Kevin O'Brien is a high school educator and baseball blogger based in the Kansas City metro area. In addition to writing for Pitcher List, he writes about the Kansas City Royals at his own blog, the Royals Reporter, which can be found at royalsreporter.com.

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