Is Miami Marlins' Giancarlo Stanton Still In the NL Home Run Race?

Can Giancarlo Stanton keep up a home run pace enough to catch the National League leader, Ryan Braun? (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

On Monday, we discussed the very real possibility that Emilio Bonifacio could lead the National League in stolen bases despite not getting more than 400 PA this season. However, during the Marlins' 12-3 victory over the Arizona Diamondbacks, Marlins color commentator Tommy Hutton mentioned that he has not yet excluded Giancarlo Stanton from the National League home run race, especially after Stanton hit two more long balls that evening. It seemed a foregone conclusion that Stanton would not be able to lead the league in home runs after missing most of the month of July recovering from knee surgery, but his recent surge in Colorado and Arizona have actually put him not far from the lead.

Home Run Leaders, NL PA HR
Ryan Braun 501 33
Carlos Beltran 480 28
Jason Kubel 462 26
Giancarlo Stanton 379 26
Jay Bruce 486 25
Ryan Ludwick 367 25

Kudos to Ryan Ludwick, who is doing a similar number on baseballs as Stanton (though in a fashion that I'm certain is not as impressive), but the eyes should be on the leader, Milwaukee Brewers outfielder Ryan Braun. Braun has racked up the most PA among these players, but but he only leads by five over Carlos Beltran and seven over Stanton and Kubel. Keep in mind, Stanton has had and could have home run runs like the one he just had (is currently having?) in Colorado and Arizona; on the west coast swing thus far, Stanton has hit five home runs in six games.

So can Stanton make up this decent-sized gap and catch Braun by the end of the season?

Home Run Rates

Most of these players have home run tendencies and can launch a ball out of the park here and there, but clearly Giancarlo Stanton has the best strength among these players. Take a look at their career home run rates in various categories.

NL Home Run Leaders, Career HR/FB% HR/CON%* PA/HR
Ryan Braun 18.8 7.2 17.1
Carlos Beltran 15.9 5.5 24.8
Jason Kubel 13.8 5.5 25.4
Giancarlo Stanton 25.0 9.8 16.8
Jay Bruce 16.9 7.3 20.5
Ryan Ludwick 13.5 6.3 23.5

*HR/CON% is calculated as HR / (PA-K-BB-HBP). It is essentially the rate of home runs per contacted ball, including balls in play and home runs.

As you can see, Stanton is far and away the leader in each category shown there. Stanton's elite power capabilities outweigh almost all of the players listed here, including the league leader and perennial All-Star Braun. With every other player clearly outclassed by Stanton's power prowess and each of the trailers being around each other in terms of total home runs so far this season, it seems like a decent bet that Stanton will move away from the pack of Beltran, Kubel, Bruce, and Ludwick among others and more closely approach Braun.

Strikeouts Weighing Him Down

But when you are trying to pass Braun, you need to compare how well you do against that player, and against Braun, Stanton compares well in terms of home runs per fly ball or per contacted ball. But when you look at the amount of plate appearances per homer, you see that Braun and Stanton are pretty even; in fact, this is the only category in which any player is even close to Stanton's skill. It seems that Braun and Stanton take almost the same number of PA to get to home runs.

Why has that been the case for their careers? The difference in strikeouts is the answer to that question. For his career, Stanton has whiffed in 28.3 percent of his PA, and while his strikeout rate is down this season compared to each of the last two seasons, as of late it has climbed. In fact, since his stellar month of May, Stanton has whiffed in 31.1 percent of his PA, almost identical to his rookie season rate. Meanwhile, Ryan Braun's strikeout rate is at its highest since his rookie year, but that is only at 20.9 percent for the season. Braun's career strikeout rate is just 18.0 percent.

Even though Stanton is a stronger player and can muscle up a ball better than Braun can, Braun's ability to make contact is the reason why he is still able to put up comparable power numbers. Based on the players' career strikeout rates, Stanton is seeing about 65 fewer contacted balls per season (650 PA). If all of those balls were contacted, Stanton could hit six more homers a season at his career HR/CON rate, but alas, he cannot cut down on the whiffs all the way to Braun's level.

Projections

This is ultimately where Stanton loses out to Braun, especially in a race like this season in which he is starting out well behind him. In an even race, Stanton's superior power skills would likely trump any one player, but with Stanton behind by seven, it seems like a difficult mountain to climb.

For the record, here is what ZiPS thinks each player will end with this season.

ZiPS, 2012 End-of-Season Proj PA HR
Ryan Braun 666 42
Giancarlo Stanton 515 34
Carlos Beltran 609 33
Jay Bruce 632 32
Jason Kubel 593 32
Ryan Ludwick 487 31

Unless Braun goes into an extended slump, the other players are expected to end the season with about the total he has now. Essentially, ZiPS is projecting that Stanton and Braun hit about the same number of homers through the rest of the season, much like their career PA/HR has dictated.

But fret not, Marlins fans. Stanton is expected to finish with 34 homers, the same total he had last season, but in only 515 PA, a little less than 90 fewer than last year. Remember in the offseason, when I asked whether Stanton could actually further improve on the monster power he has shown in his career?

One figures that Stanton and his true-80 power can ramp up his home run total to closer to 40 in 2012, but it is worth asking whether he can really get any more powerful than he already is. For his career, he has hit home runs in 24 percent of his fly balls. Since 2009, only one player with over 1000 PA has hit more homers per fly ball than Stanton, and that's future Hall of Famer Jim Thome. The next closest competitors are sluggers Mark Reynolds and Ryan Howard, who hit 22.9 percent of their fly balls out of the park. Can we actually expect Stanton to improve on that category when he already is the best at it?

At least so far in 2012, he actually has done that. It's an ominous sign for major league pitchers and teams for their future, but one worthy of rejoicing for Marlins fans. Guys, he's getting better.

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