Michigan baseball coach Erik Bakich believes that Johnny Slater’s best days are ahead of him.
Of course, it’s hard to have a better day than the senior center fielder had Tuesday against Michigan State, in which he went 4-for-4 with four doubles, four runs batted in and a stolen base. But it hasn’t been only one game – the source of Bakich’s optimism about Slater’s future has been obvious all year.
The statistics speak for themselves. Slater was a career .207 hitter coming into the 2017 season. But after his career performance against the Spartans, the Southfield, Mich. native is batting .331 with 35 RBIs, 10 stolen bases, nine doubles and four triples – tying or eclipsing career-highs in each category.
Slater’s statistical evolution has been anything but gradual. His emergence as a senior would be shocking to anyone who knew nothing about the Michigan baseball team beyond the boxscore. But having overseen Slater’s development for the past four years, Bakich views him as a player whose hard work and dedication are finally coming to fruition.
“The guy works extremely hard,” Bakich said. “Part of this is just a byproduct of someone with tremendous work ethic – good, old fashioned work ethic.
“You’re really seeing a guy come into his own now just because he’s older now and he’s had a lot more at-bats. He’s had three seasons, three falls and three summers and now he’s the everyday center fielder. You see his confidence on the field and his personality shine out there in the outfield and the dynamic player that he is. He’s going to continue to get better as he gets older, and it’s going to be exciting to watch.”
It would be a stretch to say that Michigan, at 30-7, has struggled at any point this season. But the Wolverines suffered their only losing streak in their first Big Ten series, dropping the first two games on the road to Maryland. With the offense in a mild slump, Slater was elevated from sixth to second in the batting order for the final game of the series. The move paid off, as he went 2-for-4 with a double to key a 6-2 Wolverine victory.
“I’ve been working on being more consistent,” Slater said. “Wherever I am in the lineup, I just do the same thing.”
While the shift to second hasn’t begotten any change in Slater’s approach, it certainly has influenced the trajectory of Michigan’s season. Since defeating Maryland, the Wolverines have gone 14-1 while averaging 8.9 runs – an improvement of nearly three runs per game. Slater himself has hit .407 over these last 15 games, after posting a .268 average to begin the season.
Moving Slater to the second spot has also paired him with sophomore second baseman Ako Thomas, another player who has made huge strides from last season. Both players bring great contact and speed to the top of the order – Thomas is hitting .366 and leads the Wolverines with 20 stolen bases, while Slater is a perfect 11 for 11. This leadoff combination proved especially potent against Michigan State, when the pair combined to go 8-for-9 at the plate and drive in six runs.
“(Slater was) big time,” Thomas said. “He’s been feeling it lately, and he’s been doing as well as I’ve seen him all season.”
Even if Slater hadn’t burst out on the scene with his bat in such a way this season, his veteran leadership ability and defense in center field would have made him an integral part of Michigan’s lineup – the Wolverines’ outfield of Slater, redshirt sophomore left fielder Miles Lewis and sophomore right fielder Jonathan Engelmann has yet to commit an error.
“He’s a role model of mine,” Lewis said. “He does everything right. He’s always directing me in the outfield and telling me where to go – he’s just a great leader.”
But with Slater’s transformation from role player into key contributor, the Wolverines as a team, just like Slater himself, may have their best days ahead of them.
“I’m really proud of how he’s improved and really proud of the success that he’s having,” Bakich said. “I’m happy for him, because he’s earned it. He’s worked his ass off for it.”