“Who’s That Guy?” is a new weekly Yahoo Sports feature highlighting a baseball player who you should definitely be watching this week. We’re not talking about the Mike Trouts and Max Scherzers of the world, instead it’s new and interesting players. Maybe a hot prospect who just got called up or a veteran role player having a moment.
We knew the circumstances surrounding a pandemic-shortened Major League Baseball season would provide opportunities for unexpected and unknown players to shine.
That has proven true so far. In fact, that there is already a growing list of prospects and journeymen who have been thrust into the spotlight and achieved success is one of the few truly predictable aspects of baseball in 2020.
Of that extensive group, none have shined brighter than 32-year-old infielder Donovan Solano.
Seven years into a previously underwhelming MLB career, Solano has found a home in the San Francisco Giants lineup. Solano, who signed as an amateur free agent with the St. Louis Cardinals back in 2005, has not only emerged as one of manager Gabe Kapler’s most consistent offensive threats, he has seemingly morphed into Ted Williams.
You should be.
Solano is the hottest hitter in MLB not named Charlie Blackmon, and he’s making an early run at one of baseball’s most sought after offensive milestones. That is reason enough to learn Solano’s name and game. Here are some other reasons to be aware of the Giants’ new starting infielder.
Why do you need to know him?
Ted Williams was the last MLB player to finish the season with a .400 batting average back in 1941. That sentence has been written countless times over the last eight decades.
Donovan Solano is currently “on pace” to hit .400. That is also a true statement, but certainly not one we anticipated writing now or ever. Entering play on Wednesday, Solano is batting .458 (27 for 59). It’s the second highest batting average in MLB behind the aforementioned Blackmon, who is hitting a ridiculous .500 for the Colorado Rockies.
Granted, it’s early. But also, it’s very late ... or at least later into the summer than we’re used to seeing a batter challenge for a .400 season. In 1987, Tony Gwynn was hitting .402 as late as July 14, with 69 games remaining on the schedule. Solano and the Giants have 41 games remaining.
Solano has beefed up his average during a 15-game hitting streak. He’s tied for the major-league lead with nine doubles and has earned the nickname “Donnie Barrels” in the Giants clubhouse because every pitch he hits seems to find the sweet spot of his bat.
Simply put, he’s tearing the cover off the baseball. And regardless of how the season plays out, Solano has already put himself in elite company.
Donovan Solano AKA "Donnie Barrels" entered the Giants’ game at Houston hitting .458. It's the third-highest average ever by a Giant through the first 18 games of a season. See names on the short list:— Joseph Estevez - #MaskUpSaveLives (@EMIsports) August 11, 2020
Barry Bonds, .525 (2004)
Willie Mays, .470 (1964)
Donovan Solano, .458 (2020) pic.twitter.com/PZ6tiGmkuF
Where did he come from?
Solano was born in Barranquilla, Colombia and is one of just 24 players from that country to reach the major leagues.
His brother, Jhonatan Solano, is also in that group. Jhonatan appeared in 43 games with the Washington Nationals and Miami Marlins between 2012-15. In fact, their MLB debuts were just nine days apart.
Donovan was scouted extensively by Jeff Luhnow, the former Houston Astros GM who then worked for the Cardinals. Despite originally signing with St. Louis, Solano never played for the Cardinals. After seven seasons in the minor leagues, he was granted free agency following the 2011 season. He signed with the Marlins and quickly reached the majors in 2012.
Over the next five years, Solano bounced between the majors and minors with the Marlins and the New York Yankees. It wasn’t until he inked a minor-league deal with San Francisco in January of 2019 that his career started to turn.
Solano's emergence is something very few people in baseball saw coming. One very important person who maybe did? Farhan Zaidi, the Giants president of baseball operations.
Zaidi helped facilitate Solano’s minor-league deal with the Los Angeles Dodgers in 2017. When Zaidi left for San Francisco the following season, he brought Solano with him. Now, Zaidi is reaping the benefits.
Is he a one-hit wonder?
Time will tell with Solano.
Typically, we wouldn’t have much confidence in a guy who hit just .257/.306/.331 over his first five MLB seasons. But what he’s done since joining the Giants suggests a possible late-career breakthrough.
Solano hit .322/.392/.437 at Triple-A Sacramento last season before hitting .330/.360/.456 in 81 games with the Giants. On the road, he actually hit .402 last season. According to The Athletic’s Andrew Baggarly, Solano was just the fourth player since 1950 with at least 100 at-bats to accomplish that feat and the first since Ichiro Suzuki in 2004.
In other words, he’s been swinging a hot bat for a long time now.
Whether it’s an adjustment the Giants suggested, a tweak Solano made himself or just slow and natural progression, Solano has found his groove at the plate.
Is a .400 season sustainable? Probably not. But Solano remaining among the league’s leading hitters for the rest of a 60-game season doesn’t seem far-fetched.
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