Dynasty Inspection: Austin Slater

Austin Slater started lifting the ball in 2020.

Austin Slater was not a huge name coming up through the minors. The outfielder consistently posted above-average offensive marks as he made his way through the San Francisco Giants farm system, but an apparent cap on his power output limited the projections on his potential.

As a 27-year-old for the Giants in 2020, Slater’s power came to the surface. The outfielder slugged five home runs and stole eight bags in 31 games while triple slashing .282/.402/.506 in 31 games. This, of course, is a small sample. Pair that with the fact that Slater’s playing situation is murky, and it’s no surprise that his NFBC ADP this season was 518.

So the question becomes if given the opportunity, what can we expect from Slater? Is he a potential fantasy monster that just lacks the opportunity? Or was 2020 just small sample noise?

 

The Player

 

San Francisco drafted Slater with 238th overall pick in the 2014 draft. He’s spent his entire career as a member of the Giants’ organization and has hit at every level. Slater’s career minor league triple slash sits at .312/.387/.471, and he compiled 45 home runs and 38 steals in 427 career games.  The outfielder’s production isn’t inflated by dominating the lower levels, either. In fact, he spent the most time at Triple-A, where in 241 career games he registered a .316/.405/517 line. Despite the success, Slater was never considered a Top-100 prospect and was seen more as a bench bat or fourth-outfielder type.

Just over 200 games into his career and that’s exactly what he’s been. Slater hasn’t appeared in more than 74 games in a single season and has been used primarily on the short-side of a platoon. Overall, he’s been about a league-average hitter, posting a career 101 wRC+. Of course, that number got a big boost last year when he finished with a 151 wRC+ in 104 plate appearances. So what happened in 2020? And can we expect it again in 2021?

 

Career vs. 2020

 

Let’s take a look at the results for Slater in his Major League career.

Stats 2017 2018 2019 2020
PAs 127 225 192 104
AVG .282 .251 .238 .282
SLG .402 .307 .417 .506
HR 3 1 5 5
SB 0 7 1 8

So, due to an injury and the shortened season, Slater logged the lowest number of PAs in his career. But despite that, the outfielder posted career highs in average, slugging, home runs and stolen bases. That’ll work. The jump in slugging sticks out the most, though it is in line with his career minor league stats. Let’s see what else changed for Slater in his breakout campaign.

Stats 2017 2018 2019 2020
BB % 6.3 8.9 11.5 15.4
K % 22.8 30.7 30.7 21.2
EV 87.6 87.3 88.7 89.2
LA 1.3 2.6 3.5 10.5

Once again, we are looking at career-best numbers for Slater in 2020. His walk rate has steadily been climbing in his career and at 15.4% in 2020, he was one of the best in the league. Slater’s walk numbers in the minors were inconsistent but it seems like he should be a relatively safe bet to flirt with a double-digit walk rate each year. The exit velocity numbers climbing consistently is another encouraging sign, but the biggest takeaway here is the jump in launch angle. Slater’s 10.5 degree launch angle was the highest of his career and by a significant margin. Most importantly, this points to an effort to keep the ball off the ground.

Stats 2017 2018 2019 2020
GB % 61.4 63.4 54.6 40.6
LD % 19.3 22.9 28.4 35.9
FB % 15.9 9.2 14.7 20.3
Hard Hit % 31.8 35.1 49.1 45.3
Barrel % 3.4 2.3 10.1 14.1

A quick scan of the chart shows that, yes, Slater’s 2020 was a change toward lifting the ball more. After hitting grounders at one of the highest rates in all of baseball in his first years, Slater’s 40.6% ground ball rate last season was actually lower than the MLB average of 45.3%. His line drive rate is also significantly higher than the MLB average of 25.7%. His hard hit and barrel rates and have also climbed to rates well above their respective MLB averages. So we now have a player that’s continuing to hit the ball harder and in the air more often.

Slater is on record stating that he changed his swing to generate more loft. In a 2019 interview with SB Nation’s McCovey Chronicles, Slater said that he worked on getting loft by “cleaning up my path, trying to get in the zone later, trying not to be so direct and down to the ball, and try to get behind it a little more.” A look at the video below shows two different clips of Slater’s swing.

The first highlight is from 2018 and the second is from 2020. Admittedly, I did cherry-pick the results, but the pitch locations are the same and the difference in the swings showcase exactly what Slater was describing in his 2019 quote. In the 2018 example, Slater starts his swing earlier and hits down on the ball. He gets a single out of it but by the time contact his made all of his lower body weight had been shifted. It’s a more contact-oriented swing than one with intent to damage. The 2020 highlight is just the opposite — he sits back on the pitch and gets behind it before sending it into the bleachers. His 2020 swing is aiming to lift the ball and hit it harder.

As a result of the harder contact, Slater’s 2020 expected statistics were some of the best in baseball and they more or less line up with his results. His .303 xBA, .540 xSLG and .416 xwOBA were actually all higher than his on-field production, suggesting that while the outfielder did enjoy career bests across the board, he may have actually been a bit unlucky. Slater set a career-low BABIP in 2020. While hitting more home runs and more fly balls could have suppressed his BABIP some, the increase in hard hit, barrel and line drive rates should even that out to some degree. The bottom line here, though, is that when looking at a potential breakout it’s encouraging to see that the player didn’t outperform his expected statistics. Slater’s 2020 doesn’t seem to be a mirage.

If there is one small red flag in the batted-ball profile, it’s this — Slater’s average FB/LD exit velocity checked in at 90.9 mph. That ranked  269th out of 365 batters with at least 50 batted-ball events last season. His max distance of 400 feet ranked 294th. So while Slater is hitting the ball harder and in the air more often, the balls he does hit in the air will need to be hit to the right part of the ballpark in order to leave the yard. He pulled the ball a career-high 32.8% of the time in 2020, so that’s a step toward maximizing his power.

 

RHP vs. LHP

 

So if Slater’s stats and expected stats were so good in 2020, why was he being picked so deep in drafts heading into the 2021 season? Well it has almost entirely to do with the fact that he is a part-time player. Slater finds himself on the short side of a platoon and the expectation is that he will predominantly be playing when there is a lefty hitter on the bump. A look at Slater’s career splits explains why.

Career Stats v. LHP v. RHP
AVG .292 .236
SLG .459 .348
wRC+ 127 85
BB % 11.2 9.6
K % 20.9 32.3

No matter how you slice it, Slater’s a much better hitter against lefties than he is against righties. For his career, the outfielder has been a well-above average hitter against left-handed pitchers and a below-average one against right-handed pitchers. That’s made it tough for him to get regular playing time. There were some improvements in 2020, though, and Slater actually logged more plate appearances against righties (55) than he did against lefties (48). For the first time in his career, Slater had an above-average wRC+ (106) against righties, and he also posted career-bests in OBP (.352) and SLG (.383). His expected statistics show he caught some bad luck here too, with a .280 xBA and a .421 xSLG. While these numbers are far from the ones he puts up against lefties and the strikeout rate is still worrisome, it’s a positive sign to see some improvements and it could at least earn him some more opportunities against righties in the future.

 

Conclusion

 

Slater experienced a breakout in 2020, though it was a small sample. Because he suffered an injury midway through the season and because he plays for a non-competitive team, it went a bit unnoticed. He made a conscious swing change and as a result started to hit the ball harder and in the air more often. His ability to square up the ball allowed for career-best power numbers.

He also has good wheels. His sprint speed in 2020 ranked in the 73rd percentile and he swiped eight bags in nine attempts. Despite appearing in just 31 games, his eight steals tied him with the likes of Ronald Acuna, Jr., Kyle Tucker, Xander Bogaerts and Bryce Harper for 11th most in baseball. Slater wasn’t an efficient base-stealer in the minors but has now only been caught once in 17 career attempts. Even as a part-time player in 2021 he could steal 15 bases.

There are two majors concerns for Slater as a fantasy asset and they are intertwined: playing time and production (or lack thereof) against right-handed hitters. He appeared to turn the corner against righties in 2020, but the lack of universal DH in 2021 and the surprising depth of the Giants outfield leaves Slater on the short side of a platoon. The former is the real issue here — Slater received some looks against right-handed pitching in 2020 that he probably won’t be seeing in 2021 unless there is an injury to one of San Francisco’s key outfielders.

For now, this severely limits his value in 2021, especially in weekly leagues where he may only be playing two or three times a week. For daily leagues or DFS play, he’s a great option on days the Giants are scheduled to face a lefty.

What Slater would be able to do if ever given the opportunity to be a full-time player is an obvious unknown. His ratio numbers would take a hit from facing righties more often, but a realistic projection could be something like .270-15-25 with the potential for more. As a 28-year-old part-time player, he’s not a must-have dynasty asset by any means, but he should be a target in deeper leagues. He’s an injury away from becoming an everyday player and with the possibility of the universal DH being implemented next year, he’s an intriguing upside play for 2022 and beyond.

 

Photo by Brian Rothmuller/Icon Sportswire | Adapted by Jacob Roy (@jmrgraphics3 on IG)

Account / Login
>