When the 2021 season started, Yankees fans’ most recent memory of Giancarlo Stanton in meaningful games was the slugger crushing dingers throughout the 2020 playoffs. On Opening weekend though, the Bronx faithful turned on him almost immediately. Stanton went hitless against the Blue Jays in a series wherein the entire offense struggled to hit Toronto’s pitching.
While fans have already booed other players this season (Aaron Judge… really?), fans jeering Giancarlo is not new. He has been the target of Yankees fans’ ire since arriving in the 2017 off-season in the trade that sent Starlin Castro, Jorge Guzmán, and Jose Devers to Miami. Fan treatment of Stanton begs the simple question of “why?” Why has Stanton become such a magnet for displeasure?
Stanton is not the only recent Yankee to suffer slings and arrows from a demanding fanbase. He seems to be the heir to another acquired superstar who the fans booed. Prior to the 2004 season, after a trade between the Texas Rangers and Boston Red Sox fell through, Alex Rodriguez came to New York in a deal that sent Alfonso Soriano and Joaquín Arias to Arlington.
Like Stanton, who inked a 13-year, $325 million dollar extension with the Marlins prior to coming to the Bronx, A-Rod arrived with financial baggage — specifically a 10-year, $252 million dollar contract that he previously signed with the Texas Rangers. At the time, it was the largest free agent contract in North American professional sports. With each man’s respective contracts seemingly came outsized expectations from some Yankees fans. Stanton’s MVP-winning, 59-homer season in 2017 did nothing to temper their dreams.
There are clear differences between the two players. Outside of his performances in the 2004 playoffs that I suspect all Yankees fans like to pretend never happened, Rodriguez struggled in the playoffs in pinstripes until and outside of his transcendent 2009 postseason. Meanwhile, although Stanton struggled in the 2018 ALDS that the Yankees lost to Boston, he sports a career 1.035 playoff OPS in pinstripes. And as referenced above, he treated 2020 playoff pitching like batting practice, with six round-trippers in just 26 at-bats. His playoff performance as a Yankee contrasts with a perception that he wilts under pressure.
Durability has been another difference between Stanton and Rodriguez during their early years as Yankees. Between 2004 (his age-28 season) and 2010 (age-34), Rodriguez only once played fewer than 137 games. Meanwhile, Stanton’s struggles to stay healthy in pinstripes are a constant aggravation if Yankees Twitter is any indicator. Stanton has only played in 41 of the Yankees’ 222 regular season games over the past two seasons.
Stanton’s questionable reputation as not “clutch” and his susceptibility to injury probably do not fully explain fan resentment, however. The Yankees’ self-imposed austerity might also play into Stanton’s situation. Although A-Rod earned a gargantuan salary, for much of his Yankee tenure, team payroll was not an issue. From 2004 through 2016, Opening Day payroll only once dropped below $189 million – in 2004 when it was $184 million. The Yankees had a well-earned reputation for spending money in pursuit of championships, especially in the George Steinbrenner Era.
The Yankees’ attitude towards payroll is vastly different now. Under the eye of Hal Steinbrenner, efforts to reset the luxury tax and determinations not to exceed the first tax threshold have dominated recent off-seasons. Admittedly, when the front office is determined to sign a player, they open the wallet. (See: Cole, Gerrit.) However, the club seemed disinterested in big-game hunting during the 2018 off-season, when Manny Machado, Bryce Harper, and Patrick Corbin all hit free agency. For a fanbase that still remembers the days when The Boss opened his wallet rather frequently, the club’s fiscal restraint is a sore spot for many.
I might be projecting my own concerns or looking for a rational reason for seemingly irrational behavior, but “opportunity cost” might explain the misplaced resentment toward Stanton. He provides Yankee fans an easy scapegoat. Fans are aware that Stanton takes up a considerable chunk of the club’s payroll and that the Yankees are unlikely to spend the way they once did under the elder Steinbrenner.
Every time the team sits out free agency or passes on a trade that will inflate payroll, Stanton is easy to blame. He has become perhaps an avatar for fan ire. The Yankees did not sign or trade for [insert player here] because of the luxury tax. Instead of blaming ownership for keeping payroll static (at best) while league and team revenues are skyrocketing, Stanton takes the fall.
Unfortunately, if economic anxiety does contribute to Stanton’s poor treatment, the situation is unlikely to improve anytime soon. Barring contract extensions during the season, this off-season will feature a historic class of free agent shortstops. But with the Yankees’ determination to control spending, the chances they open their wallets for Trevor Story, Carlos Correa, or Javier Báez do not appear strong.
Even worse, the Yankees are facing decisions on some of their cost-controlled talent. While the shine is off the stars of Gary Sánchez and Miguel Andújar, Gleyber Torres is likely going to get much more expensive as he goes through arbitration. Meanwhile, Aaron Judge’s free agency looms, as the slugger will hit the market after the 2022 season at the age of 31 with years of injury providing the subtext to his free agency. Sub-consciously or not, if economics factor into fan treatment of Stanton, he might be in for a rough ride moving forward depending on the choices the Yankees make.