Let’s be honest with ourselves, no one – and I mean NO ONE – expected any fantasy baseball relevance out of the San Francisco Giants heading into the 2020 season. The highest-rated Giant on most fantasy platforms at the outset of the 2020 campaign was Mike Yastrzemski, a 29-year-old outfielder who had put up solid, but not spectacular, numbers during his 2019 rookie year, but was viewed as a longshot to remain on fantasy rosters throughout the year. Meanwhile, the rest of the San Francisco roster looked like a train wreck, with not a single offensive player falling within Yahoo’s top 300 rankings. Needless to say, the fantasy community wasn’t clamoring to roster any of these players, and most Giant’s remained on waiver wires to begin the year.
Fast-forward to the present – and while no one would mistake the Giants for the Dodgers – the current iteration of the Giants has a few fantasy-relevant bats that are worthy of paying attention to. While much ink has been spilled detailing Mike Yastrzemski’s torrid season, perhaps less attention has been paid to another impressive performer on the Giants roster, the 27-year-old 1B/OF Austin Slater. This lack of attention is at least in part because Slater is currently on the IL, nursing a groin injury suffered in the Giants 6-2 win over the Diamondbacks on August 21st. Despite his recent injuries (Slater was also playing through a right elbow strain prior to the groin injury), Slater’s impressive early-season performance has placed him squarely in relevance both in redraft and dynasty formats.
A former 8th round pick in 2014, Slater’s path to fantasy relevance has been a long journey. Slater’s big-league debut came in 2017, where he compiled a somewhat underwhelming .282/.339/402 line with 3 home runs in 127 plate appearances. A major hip injury suffered in 2017 coupled with sports hernia surgery shortly after kept Slater out of action for a good chunk of the 2017 season, and poor performance at the major league level in 2018 and 2019 have overshadowed some of the underlying skills Slater has flashed during his minor league career. To begin, Slater appears to have a legitimate 55 grade or better hit tool (his Fangraphs prospect report has it at a 50/55), as Slater has never hit below .292 in his minor league career, and is a career .312/.387/.471 over 6 minor league stops. While not a burner, Slater runs the bases well and has stolen 14 bases over his 603 major league appearances. Although Slater has never hit for a large amount of HR power, he has posted isolated slugging percentages of over .200 at his minor league stops in 2018 and 2019. These sorts of “sum of the parts” type of minor leaguers are often the types that experience late-career breakouts when given the opportunity, and Slater’s year to date performance suggests he may be experiencing a legitimate age 27 breakouts.
To begin, Slater has upped his walk rate to a career-high – and very respectable – 13.6%. His improved plate discipline is supported by improvements in his overall swing rates that began in 2019 and have carried over into 2020. In addition to the newfound patience at the plate, Slater is making more contact on pitches he does swing at, as his Contact% has increased to a career-high 79.3% (league average is roughly 75%) backed by a decrease in Swinging Strike rate to 8.4% (career 11.6%). In addition to the amount of contact being made, Slater has also significantly improved the quality of contact he is making. Slater’s 16.7% Barrel% is currently tied for 25th best in baseball, and his Hard Hit% of 44.4% sits comfortably within the top 65 players in the league. These improvements have resulted in a phenomenal .347/.458/.653 slash line to go along with 4 home runs and 6 stolen bases in just 59 plate appearances. While the HR and SB rate per plate appearance is most assuredly going to drop, the improved plate metrics coupled with an above-average sprint speed score (75th percentile,) suggest Slater could be a legitimate 20-15 threat over the course of a full season. Couple that with his current .341 xBA (11th best in MLB) and .443 xwOBA (12th best in MLB) and Slater appears well on his way to becoming a solid fantasy contributor.
Unfortunately, as mentioned previously, Slater is currently languishing on the IL, and there are no guarantees he will be able to maintain his current level of success when he returns. However, what Slater showed prior to injury make him an intriguing fantasy option for the 2020 stretch run, as well as for the 2021 season. Consider picking him up as he nears a return if he has been dropped in your league, and perhaps put out some trade feelers in Dynasty leagues. His cost should be extremely cheap, but he may be a solid contributor for the next few seasons.