In 2016, baseball fans can still think about Giancarlo Stanton the way basketball fans thought about Stephen Curry circa 2012: With talent like that, just imagine what he might do with good health.
Basketball fans have certainly gotten their answer. But as for us baseball folk, Stanton's if-healthy potential is still a topic for the imagination.
The injury bug has definitely had it out for the Miami Marlins' slugging right fielder. Due to knee surgery in 2012, a hamstring strain in 2013, a wayward fastball to his face in 2014 and a broken hand in 2015, Stanton has averaged only 115 games over the last four years. And with Opening Day of a new season just weeks away, a bad right knee has already slowed the 26-year-old.
However, this latest injury doesn't sound serious. After returning to spring training action Sunday following a week off, Stanton gave reporters a thumbs-up.
"I felt relatively good," Stanton said, per ESPN.com. "I was just getting in the swing of things again. Any time you can get in there and work on that is good."
If Stanton is ready by Opening Day, he'll enter 2016 with a list of things he doesn't need to prove. We know he has a good eye. We know he's a terrific defender. And in the past couple of seasons, he's been a better baserunner than you'd expect from a 6'6", 240-pounder who's built like Lord Humungus.
So, let's skip past those questions to the one we really want to see Stanton answer in a full season: How many dingers can he hit?
It's all about Stanton's power, man. Not that any of us really need to be reminded of that, but we'll gawk like slack-jawed yokels at this video illustration anyway:
It didn't even look like Stanton got all of that breaking ball, and he still sent it 484 feet. That's what you can do when you have not only a body like his but the ability to make the most of it.
"He gets all of his body into his swing," Hall of Fame slugger Andre Dawson told Joe Frisaro of MLB.com last season. "His hands follow his feet. He's getting that out to the point where he makes the contact at the precise moment, which helps generate his overall strength."
Even Stanton's bad luck with the injury bug has only tamped down his power so much. He's topped out at 37 home runs in two of the last four seasons, leading the National League in dingers on his way to finishing second in the MVP balloting in 2014. And among all qualified hitters, his .284 ISO (isolated power) since 2012 is the best.
With power like that, Stanton's single-season home run potential far exceeds his high of 37. To that end, his 2012 and 2015 seasons offer some tantalizing clues.
Stanton's power was at its best in those seasons and could have led to some extraordinary numbers if he'd stayed healthy. With 37 homers in 123 games in 2012, Baseball-Reference.com calculated he might have hit 49 if he played in 162 games. With 27 homers in 74 games in 2015, he might have reached 60.
The latter is obviously an attention-grabber. Nobody has hit 60 homers in a season since Barry Bonds in 2001, and only two players have reached 60 outside of baseball's steroid era. 'Tis a sacred number.
But in a conversation about Stanton's power potential, it's a number that can't be brushed off as an all-too-certain impossibility. Especially not after last year. The .341 ISO that Stanton posted in 2015 was easily a career best, and it didn't happen by accident.
A career-low 34.8 percent of his batted balls were on the ground, which resulted in more power-friendly line drives and fly balls. He also pulled the ball at a career-high rate of 47.1 percent, allowing him to tap into power to left field that's always been huge.
Also, Stanton just plain hit the ball harder than anyone else. According to Baseball Savant, he won MLB's batted-ball velocity derby by a healthy margin:
- Giancarlo Stanton: 97.7 mph
- Miguel Sano: 94.5 mph
What's most impressive is how Stanton did all this in the wake of that beanball to the face that brought an early end to his 2014 season. There was a lot of preseason talk about whether that would make him gun-shy against inside pitches, and pitchers played into that by pitching him inside more than ever.
|Stanton's ISO vs. Inside/Outside Pitches|
|Year||Inside ISO||Outside ISO|
But rather than let himself be intimidated, Chris Towers of CBSSports.com noticed early in 2015 that Stanton actually moved his stance in the box a bit closer to home plate. He then crushed inside pitches more than ever, and he benefited from the extra plate coverage by also crushing outside pitches more than ever.
As weird as it feels to say this about a guy who was the runner-up for the NL MVP in 2014, Stanton's 2015 season looks like the moment when things clicked. Though his batting average and on-base percentage both regressed, his power production finally living up to his power potential made up for it.
There's also no ignoring that it happened in only Stanton's age-25 season. If what we saw was him entering his prime, the possibilities for what he could do in the middle of his prime widen one's eyes.
Which leads us to the question that inevitably comes up at times like this: "OK, where's the catch?"
In the past, one of the big ones would have been Stanton's home ballpark. He has to play half his games at Marlins Park, an aquatically hued bungalow that's big enough to double as a parking lot for jumbo jets.
But not for long. The Marlins have taken a cue from the San Diego Padres, Seattle Mariners and New York Mets, and they are altering their fences to be less cruel to hitters. It's a good guess that this will lead to an uptick in power at Miami's home park.
With that problem possibly taken care of, the potential for what Stanton might do in his prime comes down to his own shortcomings. Apart from health, the big one is his tendency to strike out.
In six seasons, Stanton has yet to post a strikeout rate under 26.6 percent, keeping him comfortably above the league average. And in 2015, not even his improved plate coverage could help him. He struck out in 29.9 percent of his plate appearances.
There may be a way for new Marlins hitting coach Barry Bonds—a decent slugger in his own right back in the day—to fix this, but he has his work cut out for him. Stanton's 6'6" frame is a built-in disadvantage due to the large strike zone it creates, and the nature of his swing also presents some complications.
Ryan Parker of Baseball Prospectus broke down how it's a special sort of swing, in that Stanton's athleticism allows him to make up for mechanical oddities that you don't see in the swings of truly great hitters. But while one imagines that adjusting his mechanics could help him cut down on his strikeouts, the obvious fear is that he could pay for it with a loss of power.
As long as strikeouts remain a fact of life, Stanton is unlikely to be the most consistent hitter. Hitters who strike out a lot rarely occupy the great-hitter demographic reserved for those with batting averages over .300 and OBPs over .400. And though Stanton came close to those marks in 2014, his career .270 average and .362 OBP are truer reflections of his abilities as a pure hitter.
Stanton's strikeout habit is also likely to limit his power, particularly in light of how it's tied to his size. He's not the first big slugger to suffer from a large zone and a less-than-efficient swing, and the ones who came before him have struggled to occupy the upper tiers of the home run record books. The single-season record for a 6'6" or taller hitter is 48 homers, making that magic number of 60 homers out to be a reach after all.
But then, Stanton doesn't need to hit 60 home runs to reach new personal heights in a full season.
If he can stay healthy and pick up where he left off in 2015, he could easily slug 50 home runs with an OBP in the mid-.300s. Add in good work on the basepaths and excellent work in the field, and you're left imagining a one-of-a-kind slugger.
All he needs is a bit of good luck with injuries. And if nothing else, we can say he's due for some.