Reason to Worry About StantonBy
At the start of this season a buddy of mine asked me, “What do you want to see from Stanton this year?” My first thought, of course, was a shirtless picture in ESPN the Magazine’s body edition. Even Tim Kurkjian has acknowledged similar curiosity, stating “I’ve never seen anyone fill out a uniform as well as Mike Stanton.” After that I began to consider what type of numbers would be realistic, but still represent a healthy step forward for a budding superstar. With how lost he looked at times last year, I knew not to get my expectations up for the same dramatic leap forward Miguel Cabrera took in his second season (.793 OPS up to .878, .268 BA up to .294). Instead, I decided that I would be happy if Stanton could keep his average above .250 for the year, hit around 35 dingers, and drive in 100 or more runs.
Well, as of last night’s game, Stanton’s projected numbers in those respective categories are .263/38/98. Furthermore, his OBP has taken a nice leap forward from last season, jumping from .326 to .351. Even his slugging percentage has risen from .507 to .547, despite the fact that Stanton was one of the most potent power hitters in the game last season (in fact, if you include minor league numbers, only Jose Bautista hit more HRs last year, true story).
And yet, I’m worried about Mike Stanton’s future. I, like pretty much every other Marlins fan, have looked at Stanton as our chance to finally land a middle-of-the-order cog who can bat cleanup and protect <insert #3 hitter here> . I picture him batting .290 or so with 40 or more HRs every year, maybe 120 RBIs as well. To bring up a timely example, I have seen Stanton as a potential right-handed Jim Thome; a patient 40-HR guy who bats .300 in a good year, .260 in a bat one. Sure, we had Miguel, but we’ve never had a consistent 40-HR threat who drives fear into the heart of the opposing pitching staff (well, we had Piazza for a long weekend).
So what am I worried about? Stanton is on pace to exceed my expectations for this season, and is still only 21! More importantly, he has taken to the middle of the order quite well in the last few weeks, and has even hit a clutch extra-inning grand slam. He threw Jose Reyes out at home on the fly for Conine’s sake! He’s just about the only bright spot we have to salvage this season and assuage our fears that our young core may be crumbling (it is, by the way).
In short, Stanton still looks lost at the plate. Don’t get me wrong, he can look extremely—even freakishly—found at the plate from time to time, and even I pitch a little hope-filled tent when he does. But when he looks lost, good night does he look lost! It’s as if he’s never played baseball before; like the Marlins just found some awkward giant in some jungle overseas and just threw him in on the off-chance he connects with it. He reminds me of the cave troll in Fellowship of the Rings, just wildly swinging his giant club of death all over the place. Of course, everyone is entitled to a bad night, but Stanton can go all Jekyll and Hyde within the same game. If I were to make up a line score that I thought represented Stanton, it would be 1-4, with a HR (450 ft or more), a BB, and 2 Ks (both on sliders bouncing in the dirt 5 feet off the plate).
So, am I being overly dramatic, or is there something to my fears? Let’s dig a little deeper, shall we?
Hitting Good Pitches – Contact Percentage and Zone Contact Percentage
When I think of the pressure that a true cog puts on opposing pitchers, much of it is derived from a feeling that you can’t throw a pitch over the plate without it being hit. Unfortunately, Stanton’s Z-Contact% is 81.8, which is 16th worst in all of baseball and puts him in the company of such other non-cog power hitters as Dan Uggla, Adam Dunn, Carlos Pena, Ryan Ludwick, and Nelson Cruz. His aggregate Contact% is even worse at 66%, tied with Mark Reynolds for last in MLB. Yeah, Mark Reynolds; marinate on that for a moment.
Discipline – Outside Swing Percentage
In addition to hitting pitches in the zone with regularity, a true cog puts pressure on opposing pitchers by refusing to chase pitches outside of the zone. Stanton, however, has never seen a slider he didn’t like, and has an O-Swing% of 34.4% (32nd highest in MLB) and an O-Contact% of 46% (dead last in MLB…2% lower than the aforementioned Mark Reynolds).
Impact on Pitchers – Swinging Strike Percentage and Zone Percentage
In short, when a true cog swings, he should swing at a good pitch, and he should hit it. This leaves pitchers stuck between a rock—walking the cog by nibbling and throwing pitches out of the zone—and an even harder rock—throwing a pitch over the plate and risking a big hit. So how do pitchers pitch Stanton? Well, his Zone% (percentage of pitches thrown in the strike zone to him) is 38.9%, good for second lowest in MLB. Lowest is Prince Fielder, but he also has a 91.9% Z-Contact%, and still has a 67.4% O-Contact%. In his case pitchers are simply choosing the rock, in Stanton’s case they just don’t have to throw it over the plate for him to swing, as evidenced by his SwStr% of 15.4%, 3rd worst in MLB behind Miguel “my OBP is .279” Olivo, and (you guessed it) Mark Reynolds. Overall, this makes Stanton too easy to pitch to, and takes a tremendous amount of pressure off of the pitcher.
Battling – 2-strike counts
Finally, the pitcher should never feel safe when pitching to a true cog. Even with an 0-2 count after two Uggly (force of habit) swings, no pitcher is taking the at bat for granted with Prince Fielder at the plate. And with good cause! Here’s a quick comparison:
Prince Fielder Mike Stanton
(BA) (SLG) (OPS) (K%) (BA) (SLG) (OPS) (K%)
0-2 .306 .449 .769 28% 0-2 .081 .167 .248 58%
1-2 .281 .544 .861 38% 1-2 .183 .352 .546 67%
2-2 .196 .339 .535 48% 2-2 .235 .506 .759 48%
3-2 .310 .595 1.166 17% 3-2 .163 .349 .795 38%
So what does this tell us? It tells us that if you get ahead of Stanton, he’s pretty much dead to rights. No stress, no pressure, just bounce a couple of breaking balls and you’ll probably strike him out.
The Silver Lining
Okay, so not all of the indicators are negative. After all, at age 21 Stanton is already fourth in Isolated Power at .282. For some perspective, bear in mind that the MLB average last season was .145. That means that Stanton, despite the atrocious numbers given above, is still in company with the likes of Bautista, Teixeira, Granderson, and Berkman when it comes to power.
Ultimately, we knew (or should have known) that these issues would be issues. It is very difficult to become a great hitter with a long swing, and it is very difficult not to have a long swing when you are 6’5” or taller. The power comes easy, and baseball history is full of 6’3” and taller guys who became 40-HR hitters despite struggling with a low batting average. But we want more from Stanton, and due to his tremendous hype, we’ve come to expect it. Unfortunately, with the exception of Dave Winfield and a few isolated seasons here and there, the track record is not good for exceptionally tall players becoming dependable middle-of-the-order cogs in their careers. Not all of them go the way of Ryan Minor and Joel Guzman, but even those who do make it are often fragile and inconsistent, think Richie Sexson. More often than not, these players become Jay Buhners, guys who will hit a lot of home runs, but never really become the feared centerpiece of a playoff lineup. Even a patient taller player can struggle to hit for average a la Ryan Howard. Those who get away with it are freaks, with hands like Vladimir Guerrero (only 6’3”), or overall athleticism like Winfield or Andre Dawson (also only 6’3”). Stanton has that athleticism, there’s absolutely no doubt about that. Unfortunately, the hitter’s approach at the plate has almost nothing to do with athleticism, and right now he adheres to the school of Reggie Abercrombie, who probably should have played strong safety for the Dolphins instead of outfield for the Marlins. Will Stanton ever figure it out and realize his full potential? Maybe. It’s possible this is a lot of hand-wringing for nothing. It’s possible I will eat these words in a year or two, and I would gladly do it if he’s still in a (Miami) Marlins uniform, filling it out juuust right for all the Tim Kurkjian’s out there. But at some point, when a guy lunges at the slider down and away for the umpteenth time, you start to lose a little faith.