The San Francisco Giants are unlikely to be a major player this season. They entered Wednesday with an 8-11 record and a 15 percent chance of reaching the postseason, according to Baseball Prospectus. These Giants may prove bothersome to the Los Angeles Dodgers only in how late they reveal their lineups, but that doesn't mean they're without interesting players.
As odd as it reads, the Giants employ two of the season's most productive hitters, in infielder Donovan Solano (.458/.476/.661) and outfielder Mike Yastrzemski (.288/.434/.591). Both joined the organization last year -- Solano as a minor-league free agent and Yastrzemski in a small trade with the Baltimore Orioles -- and are reinforcing the Giants' favorable initial impressions.
Yastrzemski's ascent feels more genuine because of his surname and digestible skill set. Plenty of second-division and platoon outfielder types marry discerning eyes with above-average pop. Comparatively, Solano is tougher to accept. He's older (33 in December) and he had a career .257/.306/.331 line in nearly 1,200 plate appearances when he joined the Giants.
Because of Solano's dramatic change in fortune, it's time to wonder: is he legit?
If anyone believes so, it's Solano's boss. Giants president Farhan Zaidi has long been a Solano fan. Zaidi had tried and failed to sign Solano on multiple occasions in the past before succeeding last January. "With all the advanced metrics and tools at our disposal, there's still a lot of value in hitters who just have a knack for finding the outfield grass," Zaidi explained this week to reporters, including Dalton Johnson of NBC Sports.
In some respects, Solano has to find the outfield grass to survive. Although he's tied for the big-league lead with nine doubles, he doesn't profile as an above-average power threat. He isn't going to steal bases, either, and his aggressive approach caps his walk rate. Batting average is Solano's hustle, and it's a hustle that's been working for him: his .358 average since joining San Francisco is the highest among players with at least 290 plate appearances, and is more than 20 points higher than everyone except Howie Kendrick (.342).
Outlining the attributes a player needs to achieve a goal can be a helpful exercise.
In Solano's case, the question is: can he hit enough singles to obscure his other deficiencies? If we were building a good contact hitter, we'd want someone whose bat-to-ball skills are so good that they frequently make hard contact and seldom swing-and-miss; someone who minds the zone and doesn't swing at bad pitches, resulting in weaker contact; someone who hits the ball on a line more so than on the ground (where they can be shifted) or in the air; and someone who, perhaps, runs quickly, so that they can leg out infield hits when they do put it on the dirt.
How does Solano stack up? Not as well as you might suspect.
There's nothing remarkable about his contact rate, or his exit velocity. He isn't fast and he doesn't have an outstanding eye at the plate. His launch angle is around 13 degrees, which, for reference, would've landed him in company with the likes of Anthony Rizzo and J.D. Martinez last season, as well as … Martin Maldonado and Logan Forsythe. His hardest-hit batted balls, meanwhile, check in around 12 degrees, suggesting that average isn't skewed.
It's possible that Solano is hard to pitch to or hard to defend against for some other reason. If that's the case, it's hard to suss out what it might be. His batted-ball profile has become less diverse as he's pulling the ball and putting it on the ground more frequently, and he does most of his damage on pitches down and/or on the inner half, suggesting he can be pitched to.
If there's something else at work here besides a spare infielder enjoying a hot stretch over a (relatively still) small sample, then video study didn't reveal it. As such, Solano probably isn't going to solidify himself as a legitimate starting option heading forward, but he doesn't have to for the Giants and their fans to find joy in his surprising run.