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Re-thinking Giancarlo Stanton’s place on the roster

Even in the wake of his worst season ever, it’s too early to think about cutting bait.

MLB: New York Yankees at Pittsburgh Pirates Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

From the moment it was signed in the winter following the 2014 season, most observers predicted that there would come a point where Giancarlo Stanton’s 13-year, $325 million contract would be a burden more than a bargain. Nearing the finish line with an 89 wRC+ this season that will be the lowest of his career by nearly 30 points, it’s seems as if we’ve reached that point.

Stanton signed well-deserved contract extension at the time, and while he’s technically underperformed it in terms of dollars per WAR, that wouldn’t be happening if it weren’t for the system that paid him just $7.9 million for over $150 million in WAR value, per FanGraphs, over the first five years of his career. We’ll call it a wash, and anyway, we all know that’s the reason the Yankees were able to acquire someone coming off a 59-homer season in exchange for Starlin Castro and two players who have a combined 24 games in the big leagues. The devil always comes to collect on his bargains.

MLB: Arizona Diamondbacks at New York Yankees Vincent Carchietta-USA TODAY Sports

All that being the case, and the case also being that the aforementioned contract still has four more years and $118 million left on it, assuming its Miami-paid-for 2028 option will be declined, the discourse turns to when it might be time to cut bait. Given that he’s a primary DH who’s a net negative on defense and on the bases, a performance like this year’s makes him one of the worst players in the league, which is sad to say. Cutting Giancarlo Stanton and the rest of his contract is a much harder sell to an owner than cutting Josh Donaldson or Aaron Hicks and the rest of their contracts, but if the Yankees are in the midst of contention next summer and Stanton is still playing at below replacement level, what does one start to think?

The answer is to cross that bridge when we get there, because if nothing else, Stanton is long past having played his way into earning at least a chance for a bounce-back. In the spite of all the red flags to go along with the bad results this year — the eye test isn’t screaming “bad luck” either — three things are still true about him. First, he still hits the ball hard as hell, even if he’s not the clear-cut king of exit velo anymore. Second, he’s still putting it in the air plenty, running a FB% that’s actually a tick above his career average. Third, he’s still pulling the ball just fine, doing that a rate right in line with his career norms. Stanton has a history of underperforming his expected stats, so I’m not putting too much stock in his .297/.332 wOBA/xwOBA split, but it’s there all the same. Even if he isn’t the same, I’m not convinced he’s washed, either. Even if he’s no longer a full-time starter, there’s still looks like a decent hitter underneath the 89 wRC+.

Esteban Rivera’s At-Bat of the Week analysis of Stanton from a few weeks ago gives some good insight into the mechanical issues that are plaguing Stanton, with one of the primary takeaways being his difficulties with “low and slow” pitches. It tracks — Stanton is, of course, a massive human being, and at age-34, he’s probably not going to rediscover the flexibility and bendiness that allows hitters to adjust to the pitch and find a barrel on offspeed pitches in hard-to-reach spots. And I specify “offspeed” because Stanton is still mashing fastballs, for the most part. It’s breaking balls and changeups that are suddenly giving him trouble. Sliders and changeups, making up about a third of the pitches he sees, are crossing the plate a little less than two inches lower and a little bit farther away than they have over the last few years. It sounds like a small change, but the difference shows up in heat maps — especially against right-handed pitchers — and it seems increasingly clear that he just can’t go down and get those pitches like he used to:

Slider and change up locations to Giancarlo Stanton in 2022
Slider and change up locations to Giancarlo Stanton in 2023

The thing is, not every pitcher has an arsenal suited for that kind of approach. Some pitchers don’t throw sliders, and most of them avoid throwing changeups to Stanton to begin with for fear of hanging one. Not all sliders are created equal, either. Some sliders have enough side-to-side bend that it’s hard to nail that outer edge of the plate without risking putting it over the plate right into the hitter’s bat path. Some sliders have a lot of up-and-down movement and do most of their damage in the dirt. Some sliders have a lot of gyro spin and are actually pretty straight, and function more like changeups than breaking balls. Some pitchers have better command of their slider than others. The list goes on.

The course of action, then, is one of those things that’s so simple it almost sounds dumb: just don’t play him against those kinds of pitchers! Given that we know how Stanton is doing a lot of things just like he used to, and that we have a pretty solid idea of what some of his more recently-developed weaknesses are, it seems silly to fast-forward to the “cut bait” stage just because his contract his an albatross. There should be a role for Stanton on the next few Yankees teams. It just isn’t the one he’s occupied to this point.

MLB: New York Yankees at Detroit Tigers Lon Horwedel-USA TODAY Sports

When healthy in 2023, the Yankees have more or less treated him like an everyday player, mixing in off days and a lot of DH starts to keep him fresh. Moving forward, it might make more sense to simply let the pitching matchups dictate his rest days, rather than trying to incorporate the rest days into long stretches of uninterrupted playing time. If the opposing starter can consistently dot his out pitches low and away, then he doesn’t play. If it’s a righty throwing in the high-nineties, he doesn’t play. If avoiding rust is an issue, there ought to be plenty of pinch-hit opportunities and matchup plays on a day-to-day basis.

Even in the pros, most baseball players need to be put in a position to succeed if they’re going to succeed. For most of his career, Stanton has been the caliber of player that can succeed under more or less any circumstance. 15 years into his career, things have changed, and it would behoove the Yankees to be more intentional in how they deploy the limited amount of playing time his body can hold up for. If they are, I think there’s still a hitter more than worthy of a roster spot to be found in him.