Giancarlo Stanton has done little this season to rid himself of his polarizing reputation. While his torrid bat carried the Yankees as far as it could in the 2020 playoffs, his 2021 campaign has been more pedestrian, in line with his lower numbers since arriving from the Miami Marlins as a former MVP. A 132 OPS+ in pinstripes is nothing to stick your nose up at, but given the pure destructive power in his bat, it’s hard not to want more.
Stanton began the year by hitting an impressive .282/.347/.534 through mid-May, but fans could be forgiven for a sentiment of “here we go again” creeping in when he was placed on the IL with a strained quad on May 17th, despite manager Aaron Boone’s insistence on never playing him in the field. His total ownership of the DH position meant that if Boone wanted to rest Aaron Judge or Gary Sánchez, he’d have to give them at most a pinch-hitting appearance rather than just a break from playing the field.
Although Stanton was able to return faster than he did from some of his previous leg injuries, his season appeared to reach a nadir in July. He hit .214/.320/.333 for the month, with only two home runs and a whopping 31 strikeouts. Stanton’s discomfort at the plate was a common discussion during game broadcasts. How could someone capable of this ...
... also look this lost?
And yet Stanton has managed to turn it around. Through Monday’s victory against the Atlanta Braves, he’s hitting .320/.420/.613 with six homers in August — the type of performance that can carry a team, as he did in the 2020 playoffs.
How has Stanton improved? All season, his underlying numbers have suggested that at least to a certain extent, he was suffering from some bad luck. No one in baseball has more hard hit balls or a higher average exit velocity this season than Stanton, per Baseball Savant.
However, in July, Stanton’s BABIP was not remarkably lower than it was for the rest of the season, or much lower than his career average. He was just making contact less than anyone else on the team, and when he did, he was hitting ground balls nearly half of the time (49.1 percent). No matter how hard his grounders are hit, they’re still easier to field than a line drive. In August so far, though, his groundball rate is 42.6 percent. Stanton is hitting the ball in the air again, and that’s a very dangerous thing.
Perhaps his increased time in the outfield helps his focus and his hitting, as Stanton suggested after he led the team to Monday’s victory against the Braves with two big hits. He followed it up with another rocket homer while playing the field on Tuesday.
Whether or not that’s true, Stanton’s apparent comfort with manning the outfield more regularly is also a benefit to the team by freeing up the DH spot. Playing defense allows the lineup to expand, particularly by letting a suddenly-hot Luke Voit hit and a cooler Anthony Rizzo still benefit the team by keeping his steady glove at first base.
It’ll also allow for more rest for the team’s other heavy hitters like Judge, Sánchez, and DJ LeMahieu as they stake a claim to a playoff spot. And if Boone insists on starting Kyle Higashioka at catcher for another Gerrit Cole playoff start, at least Gary could potentially still get into the lineup as the DH.
Of course, if Stanton suffers another leg injury and has to miss most or all of the rest of the season, the outfield innings won’t look so good anymore. But he had his best season in the National League, with no DHing available at all; if he’s healthy, which he seems to be, he can’t be treated like touching the outfield grass will make him fall apart. As September nears, the Yankees need a hot Stanton to solidify their playoff position.