Giancarlo Stanton has a reputation as a notoriously slow starter, or at least he did until this year.
The 24-year-old has crushed the ball out of the gate this season, as he entered Friday’s game against the Seattle Mariners batting .299/.347/.597 with five home runs and a major league-leading 21 RBI through 16 games. Through his first 16 games last season, Stanton was batting just .200/.324/.250 with zero home runs, four RBI and 22 strikeouts.
Speaking of Friday night, Stanton contributed three hits along with five RBI. The bulk of that production coming on this particularly timely moonshot.
So, if Stanton is so hot right now, then why aren’t more teams pitching around him?
In 2012 Stanton enjoyed the best season of his career, batting .290/361/.608 with 30 doubles, 37 home runs and 86 RBI in 123 games. He also had a strong supporting cast of players surrounding him in the batting order, including Carlos Lee, Omar Infante, Jose Reyes, Hanley Ramirez and Logan Morrison. However, by the start of spring training the following year, Morrison was the only player who hadn’t been traded or released.
Simply put: Miami’s lineup was a joke last season. In the place of the aforementioned All-Stars and veterans protecting Stanton in the order, the Marlins opted to employ borderline replacement-level players such as Justin Ruggiano, Placido Polanco, Greg Dobbs, Juan Pierre, Donovan Solano and Ed Lucas, who each played in at least 94 games.
Unsurprisingly, the Marlins offense was the worst in baseball last season, ranking dead last in batting average (.231), on-base percentage (.293), slugging percentage (.335), home runs (95), runs (513) and weighted on-base average (.279).
The team’s collection of uninspiring hitters also had a direct impact on Stanton’s production, as he followed up his career-best performance in 2012 with his worst in 2013. Playing in 116 games, he batted .249/.365/.480 with 24 home runs and 62 RBI.
Stanton’s struggles last season stemmed from his lack of protection in the order, which in turn gave pitchers little incentive to throw him quality strikes. In fact, the Marlins production from the first, second, fourth and fifth spots in their order was either the worst or nearly the worst among all 30 teams.
With Stanton representing the team's only expected run-producer and presumably pressing at the plate, opposing pitchers had the freedom to attack him cautiously, knowing that a walk would likely lead to a stranded baserunner. Yet, Stanton never adjusted his approach accordingly.
As he and everyone following baseball expected, the right-handed slugger saw less pitches in the strike zone last season, as his zone percentage dropped to 41.1 from 44.8 in 2012. Yet, Stanton clearly had an idea of how pitchers were attacking him; he swung at 8.6 percent less pitches outside the zone and improved his walk rate by 5.5 percent.
Stanton’s problem last season was that he wasn’t consistently productive when given hittable pitches. Compared to his monster 2012 campaign, Stanton’s line-drive and fly-ball rates dropped by 3.9 and 3.2 percent, respectively, while his ground-ball rate increased by a whopping 7.2 percent. More importantly, his home run-to-fly ball percentage plummeted from 28.9 percent to a career-worst 21.8 percent.
However, Stanton’s 2014 season has been a different story.
With the addition of free agents Jarrod Saltalamacchia, Casey McGehee and Garrett Jones, as well as the emergence of second-year players Christian Yelich, Marcell Ozuna and Derek Dietrich, it’s impossible to discount the fact that the Marlins feature a more formidable offense this year than they did in 2013. The hope was that with more power hitters in the everyday lineup, Stanton would receive consistent protection and therefore see more hittable pitches.
So far, that’s precisely what’s happened.
Basically, pitchers haven’t had the luxury of pitching around Stanton this year. He’s already seen roughly two percent more pitches in the zone and has generally made the most of his opportunities, with a 90.4 percent contact rate on pitches within the strike zone.
Lastly, Stanton is using the entire field this year better than any point in his career, and he’s doing so hitting line drives and fly balls. And if he can maintain that approach for the remainder of the season, then there’s a good chance he’ll finally reach the 40-homer plateau.