If you hit 400 home runs, accumulated 40 WAR, won an MVP, and still had the most bat speed in baseball, how open would you be to change? Giancarlo Stanton, despite having by far the worst season of his career with an 89 wRC+ and .191 batting average, has a track record to rightfully express that feeling. Stanton recently said that he’ll hit the lab and consider multiple changes (the headline promises “a lot”), but that they’d be “minor [tweaks], but the right ones.”
As recently as 2022, he still had a first half where he looked like himself, so it’s a good reminder that this is a guy who was good not so long ago, and still has great physical tools. From the player’s perspective, there has to be a balance of confidence and openness to new ideas because whatever the process has looked like for the last year has not worked. Full stop.
I’m no major league hitting coach, but that doesn’t mean I can’t give it a good try to write up a short plan for where I would focus if I was Stanton and his team. And I think the methodology I’m going to talk through is pretty standard approach for improving. If you zoom out and look at the average hitter regardless of skill or previous performance, hitting (or developing) can be looked at from three angles: swing mechanics/bat path, swing decisions, and batted-ball profile. Since batted-ball profile is mostly a result of the two other pieces and doesn’t really have a causal effect, I’ll hold off on discussing it for this piece and focus on the other two. Let’s start with swing decisions.
From a swing-decision perspective, the expectation for a struggling player could be generalized into one of two things. First, they may have developed a negative habit that isn’t optimal for their swing path. This is weird for a player in their prime to do, but cannot be ruled out. Second, an aging player can begin to compensate simply because they’ve lost a tick in the pitch recognition department, or physically with their acceleration to start their swing. Both are intuitive: a mechanical deficiency that leads to a change in swing decisions, or Father Time doing its job. To be clear, these aren’t mutually exclusive, but it’s a great place to start when it comes to analyzing a hitter’s potential deterioration in decisions.
When it comes to Stanton specifically, it’s difficult to definitively say there has been a swing-decision deterioration when it comes to attacking pitches in the heart of the plate and spitting on pitches off the plate. In terms of chase rate, he has fluctuated between 27 to 28 percent for the majority of his career. He chased more offspeed pitches than usual, but also chased breakers less – all typical fluctuations. From a swing/take profile perspective, he dropped all the way down to -6 run value opposed to being +16 in 2022, and +27 in 2023.
The reason this happened isn’t because Stanton was chasing more, as was said, but because he wasn’t getting equivalent results on his batted balls and just whiffed more in general. Perhaps it makes sense that he thinks only minor tweaks are needed. From his perspective, his swings were still sound, he just didn’t get the results he wanted, which brings us to the most important point: the swing mechanics and bat path.
Immediately after seeing that Stanton still has control of the strike zone in terms of when to swing and when to not, I jump to the swing. Stanton is famously known for his extremely flat bat path. He has an average vertical bat angle in the high 20s, and if there was public data on vertical attack angle, it would show he was among one of the flattest in Major League Baseball. The sizzling low line drives he hits are due to his highly unique swing. So theoretically, he would crush pitches at the top of the zone. It doesn’t require a significant body or barrel adjustment since it works with his path and his height.
In years past, this was borne out in Stanton’s statistical profile. In 2021, his wOBA in the top third of the strike zone was .398 and in 2022, it was .367. This year, it plummeted to .182! An area of the zone that he should naturally cover suddenly became a significant hole! This is a swing problem. When something that should naturally come to hitter goes away, that is the first place to start when looking to make tweaks! Just like a pitcher builds their profile around their strengths, a hitter needs to do the same.
Now in terms of actual drill work and focus in the cage, I’ll leave that to Stanton. He and his coaches probably have their cues and drills that target him being ready and on time for pitches at the top of the zone. Although, I will say that his previous approach didn’t work this year, so there should be openness to new ideas. If I had to guess, I’d say Stanton has had a slight bat speed deterioration, and although he is still an outlier, he needs to adjust his body and timing to make up for that.
If the Yankees are to rebound next year, Stanton will be a key piece in it because he’s not going anywhere. Like I said, he is still a physical outlier. I don’t think he is doomed, but it’s time he makes an adjustment that accounts for him not being an 80-mph bat speed guy anymore. That’s easier said than done, but I bet any other hitter would love to have this power he possesses.