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Don't overlook this dark horse in .400 chase

Giants' 'Donnie Barrels' emerging as a line-drive machine
@mattkellyMLB
August 16, 2020

His teammates call him “Donnie Barrels.” To parts of the Twittersphere, he’s “Babe Solano.” But how familiar are you with the man chasing .400? No, we don’t mean Charlie Blackmon, though he’s given himself a chance. So has DJ LeMahieu. But we’re talking about Giants infielder Donovan Solano, a player

His teammates call him “Donnie Barrels.” To parts of the Twittersphere, he’s “Babe Solano.” But how familiar are you with the man chasing .400?

No, we don’t mean Charlie Blackmon, though he’s given himself a chance. So has DJ LeMahieu. But we’re talking about Giants infielder Donovan Solano, a player you probably wouldn’t recognize two years ago -- because he was a 30-year-old Minor Leaguer trying to claw his way back to The Show.

Now 32, Solano entered Sunday working on a 17-game hitting streak (the longest for anyone this year) and batting .433. Feel free to dig up your receipts if you had Solano being the man to hit .400 in this year’s 60-game sprint, and yes, it’s hard to ignore his .500 BABIP. But don’t be too quick to cast him aside as a three-week wonder. Giants fans who have watched Solano closely will tell you: He can keep racking up hits.

Statcast’s hitting metrics will tell you the same.

Chiefly, Statcast’s expected batting average metric -- which estimates how hitters should fare based on the quality of their contact (exit velocity and launch angle) -- thinks that Solano is making some of his own BABIP luck. Out of the 294 players who have stepped to the plate at least 250 times since Solano’s Giants debut, only 2019 World Series hero Howie Kendrick and LeMahieu have put up a better xBA.

Highest xBA, since Solano’s SF debut on May 9, 2019
Min. 250 PA (295 hitters)
1) Howie Kendrick (WSH): .333
2) DJ LeMahieu (NYY): .325
3) Donovan Solano (SF): .322
4) Ketel Marte (ARI): .319
5) Mookie Betts (LAD): .318
xBA: Based on quality of contact (exit velocity + launch angle), plus strikeouts

Blackmon is also right behind Betts for sixth on that list at .314. But you can see there that Solano’s .355 average as a Giant, which now stretches across 282 at-bats, isn’t as far-fetched as it seems. As for how Solano has put that xBA together, Statcast says it’s his crisp, line-drive swing. Statcast grants hitters a “sweet spot” ball when they drive contact with launch angles between eight and 32 degrees, and it looks just how it sounds; Solano has an innate knack for meeting the ball with the sweet spot of his bat on the ball and shooting liners around the field.

Highest “sweet-spot” rate, since Solano’s SF debut
Min. 200 batted balls (256 hitters)
1) Donovan Solano (SF): 45.8%
2) Mike Trout (LAA): 43.7%
3) Eric Sogard (MIL): 42.4%
4) Ronald Acuña Jr. (ATL): 42.2%
5) Yadier Molina (STL): 42.1%
Sweet-spot: Batted balls with 8-32° launch angles

The man who’s leading Acuña and Trout is someone who didn’t grow up in a baseball factory (he was the 12th Colombian player to reach the Majors in 2012) and logged more than twice as many games in the Minors as he has in bigs. And it’s even better when teammates vouch for the data. That came Tuesday, via a quote from Giants outfielder Mike Yastrzemski (a breakout hitting star himself) as told to The Athletic.

“He’s one of the best hitters I’ve ever seen,” said Yastrzemski. “He doesn’t get his nickname ‘Donnie Barrels’ for nothing. He always hits the ball hard and he’s super clutch. … I’ve just been super impressed and inspired watching him.”

Yastrzemski was particularly inspired the day he said that, July 29, when Solano tucked his hands way in toward his body and barreled a two-seamer from reliever Craig Stammen to the left-field seats at Oracle Park. The more one watches Solano, the more his supreme hand-eye coordination reveals itself. As The Athletic’s Andrew Baggarly detailed Tuesday, it’s a skill that caught Giants president Farhan Zaidi’s eye back when Zaidi was helping to run the Dodgers -- and Zaidi tried to sign Solano three times before finally bringing him to Triple-A Oklahoma City. When Zaidi went to San Francisco, he brought Solano with him.

“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,” said Zaidi. “He’s obviously done a great job of that over his time with the Giants.”

Zaidi saw many successful swing changes and turnaround stories in Los Angeles, so when he specifically targets a journeyman hitter in the Minors with such vigor, that should automatically get your attention. Solano might not be a future 35-homer project like Max Muncy, but Zaidi still saw a future hitting star. And while the Giants are far from perfect right now, it looks like Zaidi has now acquired two lineup studs in Solano and Yastrzemski.

Perhaps Solano isn’t totally comfortable with all the nicknames he’s getting (being called Donnie Barrels is “a big responsibility,” he said), but with the way he’s swinging the bat, he might want to get used to the attention.

Matt Kelly is a reporter for MLB.com based in New York. Follow him on Twitter at @mattkellyMLB.