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Giancarlo Stanton and the problem of “value”

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Playing Stanton as a DH makes him a worse financial commitment.

MLB: New York Yankees at Boston Red Sox Winslow Townson-USA TODAY Sports

It’s about the time of year where we all start making our end-of-season award picks, including MVP, and part of that process is determining what exactly “value” means. Are Juan Soto and Shohei Ohtani — premium players on bad teams — less “valuable” because the wins they contribute don’t lead to a playoff position, whereas the wins from players like Vladimir Guerrero Jr. and Bryce Harper might?

Related to this is the way we assign value to players through metrics like WAR, an all-in-one look at a player’s performance, incorporating their batting, baserunning and defense. A four-to-five-WAR player is an All Star; a two-WAR player a solid, average-to-better performer. Giancarlo Stanton, at time of writing, has 2.5 fWAR, and is projected to finish the year right around there. Nobody would say, however, that Giancarlo Stanton is a solid, average-to-better performer.

Stanton is the 25th-best hitter in baseball among players with at least 300 plate appearances, and one of only 30 players to have driven in 90 or more runs — RBI once being considered a strong proxy of overall value. He’s even played in more games this season than any since his first in New York, so the playing time component of WAR shouldn’t be a significant issue either. It’s all about his position.

The DH comes with a positional penalty, since it’s the easiest spot on the field to play — you only have to do half the work of the rest of the team. The average DH is also a better hitter than most on the team — in 2021 the average DH posts a 119 wRC+, and the average outfielder, a 106. A full-season DH is tagged with a -17.5 run adjustment, due to that combination of lesser defense required and better offense to pace with the rest of the pack. Corner outfielders come with a -7.5 run adjustment — in essence, a DH has to be a full win (10-ish runs) better offensively to be worth the same as a corner outfielder.

We can see this by looking at the players who are like Stanton offensively, but have been “worth” more to their teams. Nick Castellanos has been exactly as good a hitter as Stanton this year, playing the exact same number of games, and hasn’t even been that great of an outfielder (-5 OAA, -7 DRS), but simply by being an outfielder and granted the advantage of a lower offensive threshold, the Reds slugger been worth a win and a half more than Big G.

And here we have the reason why, in 2018, Giancarlo Stanton was a four-plus win player, and this year, he’ll need to be God himself in the final week to clear three wins. (Although I guess he’s certainly trying.) Stanton’s been a considerably better hitter than he was in 2018, by 11 points of wOBA at time of writing. But he played three times as many games in the outfield, lowering the offensive threshold required to generate comparable, or in 2018’s case, superior “value.”

There’s also a non-mathematical component to this that’s contextual to each team. For the Angels, that DH penalty is probably lessened, since it allows you to play Ohtani more often without a comparable risk of injury, and he can still be in the starting rotation. For the Yankees, plugging one player into the full-time DH role means there isn’t a spot for a plus-plus hitter like Luke Voit, so that DH needs to hit even better.

Now this presents a problem with the public perception of Stanton, and probably will influence any arguments in the future about his Yankee tenure and a Hall of Fame case. If Stanton had this exact season, but played 100 games in the outfield, he’d have surpassed his 2018 fWAR figure, and because performance doesn’t come for free, paying $25 million for a four-to-five-win player is a pretty good deal, all things considered.

Paying that much for a two-to-three-win player radically changes the perception of Stanton’s value. Yes, he’s an incredible hitter, but Voit is also an incredible hitter. I could sub Voit into the full-time DH slot, he’d probably hit right around the 135-140 wRC+ mark that Stanton manages, and I only have to pay Voit a million dollars. I can take the other $24 million, spend it on other players, or just buy a lot of chocolate bars for myself.

The answer probably isn’t to play Stanton in the outfield all the time, because he’s probably not as good a fielder as he was in his Miami days, and I think it’s arguable that he’s not trying as hard as he was in his Miami days, prioritizing his health over going 110 mph every single play. You see this really clearly on the basepaths, where he very obviously is not running at max effort, but the trade-off has been a lack of the nagging leg injuries that have surrounded him since the trade.

But the Yankees are a team that really does prioritize value over contextless performance, partly because of the devotion to coming under the CBT threshold. Giving Stanton more DH starts does have a necrotic effect on his overall value — he’s a much better hitter than the average outfielder, but not quite as much better than the average DH. He’s unquestionably worth his contract putting up four-to-five-win seasons as an average-to-below-average outfielder. It’s a much more open question if he’s worth it as a DH for seven seasons.