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Early MVP candidate: Giancarlo Stanton’s hot start

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Hobbled Humpty Dumpty or He-Man Hitter?

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The Yankees’ quarter-billion dollar investment looks like it’s finally paying off; Giancarlo Stanton is officially en fuego. Through the first five games of the season, he’s triple-slashed a preposterous .421/.542/.842. Though his absurd 1.384 OPS will be impossible to keep up, several factors seem to suggest a return closer to the gargantuan power performance he posted in his last season in Miami (2017).

Stanton’s biggest obstacle during his career has been simply staying on the field. Following back-to-back seasons where he played 159 and 158 games, Stanton played in just 18 games all of last season.

It’s difficult to determine a singular trend that ties together Stanton’s myriad injuries other than the unreasonably massive vestibule of baseball mashing talent that is his body. In ten major league seasons, he’s played at least 150 games just three times, and missed more than half of a given season twice already. However, bad luck has had at least as much to do with his injuries as has his gargantuan physique. Stanton’s laundry list of maladies includes:

  • An undisclosed leg injury and an eye infection (2011)
  • Knee soreness (2012)
  • Hamstring strain (2013)
  • Facial fractures (2014)
  • Broken hamate bone (2015)
  • Hamstring and groin strains (2016)
  • Biceps, shoulder, and knee injuries (2019)

Perhaps, Stanton’s body is not capable of moving repeatedly with such unprecedented force without causing internal damage, a fear some have expressed in regard to his similarly superhuman sized corner outfielding partner, Aaron Judge. However, an eye infection, breaking a hamate bone on a swing, and a pitch to the face can only be chalked up to inordinately poor fortune. Going forwards, it is unlikely that his awful luck will continue, but it’s equally implausible that his pattern of non-contact injuries to his lower extremities is entirely behind him.

Having played three nearly complete seasons at different points throughout his career, Stanton has shown the potential to play every day barring a major setback. In a shortened season in which Stanton has started out healthy, he’s in a great position to play out the whole year barring a freak accident or an awkward landing.

When Stanton is healthy, he’s been undoubtedly one of the most potent power bats of all time. On July 25th, Stanton clubbed a 483-foot homer with a 121.3 mph exit velocity. It’s possibly the hardest hit ball we will see all year—it was the third-hardest hit ball during the Statcast era (2015-), only topped by a Stanton single in 2017 and another Stanton dinger from Opening Day last season.

In addition to his astronomical maximum power, the consistency of his quality of contact has been exceptional. Though it takes about 50 batted balls to normalize, a benchmark Stanton’s only about a third of the way towards, so far his barrel percentage, average exit velocity on balls in the air, and overall average exit velocity are all in the top five in the league. Stanton’s phenomenal play has been aided by a bit of good fortune if his expected stats are to be believed, so some considerable regression from numbers like these is to be expected, but he’s undoubtedly in sharper form than he’s ever been while wearing pinstripes.

Stanton maximizes his power output with a typically modern all-or-nothing approach. Stanton’s aforementioned 483-footer came on a 3-0 count. A walk for Stanton is less valuable than the opportunity to obliterate a cookie down the middle. The modern slugger, like Stanton, assumes a greater risk of striking out for the increased potential to hit for power. He’s never led the league in strikeouts, but he’s often been near the top of the leaderboards in terms of whiff rate and strikeout rate. Even during his 59-homer 2017 MVP campaign, Stanton’s whiff rate was the 11th-worst in MLB, and he owned the 27th-worst strikeout rate.

This year, it seems as though Stanton has made a couple of minor adjustments that have allowed him to deliver his best swings more frequently. He’s softened his stride to the pitcher by consistently landing with his whole foot instead of just his toes, so that his front side stays stable and engaged throughout his turn to the ball. The other, more significant adjustment is he’s slightly more open towards the pitcher than the extremely closed stance Yankee fans have grown accustomed to seeing. Since the rotation from his back-side is so powerful, closing off the front side allows him to stay through the zone longer without pulling off the ball.

However, such a radically positioned stance made it increasingly difficult for Stanton to hit the ball to the pull side, something he had done less and less of over the course of his career. With a more neutral stance, Stanton is pulling the ball more often than he ever has; 75% of the time as opposed to his career 38% pull average. On the three balls Stanton took prior to his blast off of Erick Fedde, you can see him sink his rear-end down and away from the plate, allowing him to hold his posture on the outside pitch and clear space for his hands on the inside pitch, transcending the limitations of his closed stance from past seasons.

Stanton’s immense power maintains an extremely high floor and ceiling to his play at the plate. With the extended offseason, it seems as though Stanton has used the opportunity to get completely healthy and make slight adjustments, helping him come closer to reaching that latter outcome. If he’s able to maintain his health and make counter-adjustments towards pitchers over the course of the season, Giancarlo Stanton could become just the second player in MLB history to win the MVP in both leagues (Frank Robinson), or at the very least take home his third Silver Slugger.