May 10, 2017
By Steve Kornacki
ANN ARBOR, Mich. -- Wolverines center fielder Johnny Slater has quietly become one of the most productive players in the Big Ten.
His leadoff double sparked a three-run third inning for the University of Michigan baseball team in Tuesday night's (May 9) 4-2 win over Central Michigan, and his outstanding range and arm resulted in cutting down a Chippewa trying to stretch a single into a double.
"I felt that at-bat was huge because it got us going," said Slater.
That was his team-leading 39th run of the season, and he ranks fifth in the conference in that category. He also has 40 RBI to rank second on the team behind Drew Lugbauer and tied for seventh in the Big Ten.
He's one run away from becoming the first 40-40 man in the conference in terms of runs scored and runs batted in. Only two other Big Ten players -- Illinois' Jack Yalowicz (38 runs, 41 RBI) and Iowa's Jake Adams (37 runs, 52 RBI) -- are as close to achieving that impressive stat combo.
"Johnny is a true five-tool player," said Wolverine head coach Erik Bakich. "As much as any player on our team, his five tools show up in the game. Some guys might have that tool in their arsenal, but it doesn't always show up in a game. The guy might be fast, but he's not a good base-stealer. The guy might have a good arm, but he doesn't throw accurately.
"Johnny has all five tools, and all of them play up in a game. His defense is well-noted. He's made web-gem play after web-gem play this year. His arm is strong and accurate. He's got speed and can steal bases at will. He hits for average. His power is such that he has the ability to leave the yard at any time (with three homers) and doubles and triples at any time."
Slater's .500 slugging percentage trails only Lugbauer's on the team.
"I'm just trying to be consistent when I go up to the plate," said Slater, a senior from Southfield (Michigan) Lathrup High. "It's about having quality at-bats and getting on base. Then you're more likely to score. That's my goal every game -- just get on base."
Slater is batting .316, and he'd never hit higher than .229 in his sophomore season. He also hit .172 as a freshman and .207 as a junior. He's made a huge jump in 2017, and I asked Slater what's been behind his breakout season.
"I'm just going up there and playing relaxed," he said. "I've got nothing to lose, and I'm just trying to be consistent and not try to do too much. Not being afraid to make mistakes, which I think the experience has helped me with, being a senior and having been through a lot of situations.
"So, now I don't get over-anxious, and I'm relaxed at the plate and in the outfield. Not being afraid to make mistakes has really helped me a lot. I trust what I've been doing in practice and all of my life."
Bakich added, "Offensively, he knows he's going to be in the lineup every day. He knows if he has a bad weekend, it's not like he's coming out. He platooned the first three years, and now he knows that no matter what, he's our center fielder, batting (second), and he's worked his butt off and earned that.
"It's all come together and led to a breakout season. This is a game of confidence, and once a kid is confident it's like magic dust. It just frees him up to improvise on the field. So, when he plays defense, he's like Michael Brdar is at shortstop, like two kids in a jungle gym. It's just a playground, and they're just making plays."
Slater could very well have helped the Wolverines avert a big inning with his assist in the third that resulted in Jason Sullivan getting tagged out at second base. The next three Chippewas reached base, and they scored one run, but it could've been more.
"I kind of figured he was going to go for two because the ball was hit directly between me and (right fielder Jonathan Engelmann)," said Slater, who has three outfield assists this season. "I was just trying to get to it as quick as I could and got it out of my glove and kind of threw it like an infielder."
Bakich said, "Most center fielders, on that ball hit into the gap, would have to set their feet, they'd have to shuffle, and by the time they threw a step to second, the guy has already slid in safe. He cut it off and didn't even take a step. He threw it off his back foot and threw a strike to second. It was pure arm strength."
He's taking runs off the scoreboard on defense and adding them with his bat.
Slater hit four doubles and drove in four runs -- both season highs -- on April 18 against Michigan State. He felt that's been his best college performance.
"I think Coach (Bakich) said it, too," said Slater. "That was probably my best game in a Michigan uniform."
One thing the box score from that game doesn't reveal is that Slater pulled one double, went opposite field to put another over the left fielder's head, drilled one into the gap and sprayed another past the third baseman.
He used the whole field and wasn't pull-happy -- which Slater said had been a problem in prior seasons.
"Using the whole field is something I've been working on," said Slater. "Before this year, I'd go up there being too aggressive."
Slater also has a conference-leading five triples.
"It starts with hitting the ball hard and taking good angles around the bases," said Slater. "We worked on that a lot in the fall. Sometimes I was making turns that were too wide, and that hurt me. I have to cut the bases better and just hit the inside of the base, turn it as quickly as I can and get to the next base."
Triples can electrify a crowd and a team even more than homers because many believe it's the most exciting play in baseball.
"It's pretty cool to see everyone on the bench hyped and going crazy," said Slater. "It's pretty sweet to see the crowd and everybody in the place going crazy."
Slater also uses his speed in making good on all 11 stolen-base attempts this season.
His right shoulder was injured in an April 29 collision with left fielder Miles Lewis while pursuing a ball, and he's thankful it cost him only one game.
"The wind was blowing (the ball), and we didn't call it because we didn't know who was going to get to it," said Slater. "I laid out, and he went low. And my knee hit his forehead, and he was bleeding and had to get stitches. I landed on my shoulder and couldn't move it for a while. But it's gotten a lot better."
It's fortunate that Slater throws left handed or he might have missed more time in the field. Lewis also came out of that game but was back in the starting lineup the next day.
Bakich is excited about Slater's future as well as what he can do down the stretch run this season.
"He's going to be an even better player in pro baseball than he is at Michigan right now," said Bakich. "I think he's a guy that can play in the big leagues, and I think he can play center field in the big leagues."
Slater's senior season has been a case of potential becoming reality.
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