We knew this day would come, Miami Marlins fans and fellow Fish Stripers. We knew we would have to sludge through many projections and many more words of discouragement about this 2013 season's starting players. We would have to talk about Adeiny Hechavarria's struggling bat or Donovan Solano's meek outlook. We would have to discuss Logan Morrison's injury-prone nature and Juan Pierre's, uh, Juan Pierre-osity.
But it would all be worth it for just this moment.
Today, we preview the 2013 season of Giancarlo Cruz-Michael Stanton.
Stanton is the be-all and end-all of this Marlins team. He may very well be the sole reason to watch the Fish in 2013. If there is one reason to go to Marlins Park this season, it is to watch Giancarlo Stanton hit. Because Giancarlo Stanton can hit.
Of course, it does not take a genius or an awesome projection system to figure that out. Sometimes, all it takes is the eyes to see that Stanton has enormous power, but it is fun to look at the stats and see just how crazy that power is. Last season, Giancarlo Stanton almost led the National League in home runs with 37. Last year, Giancarlo Stanton played 123 games, 31 fewer than the league leader Ryan Braun.
Look at the players who had at least 500 plate appearances last season. The league leader in home runs per fly ball (HR/FB)? Adam Dunn, with a 29.3 percent rate. Second on that list? Giancarlo Stanton at 28.9 percent. Giancarlo Stanton might be Adam Dunn, but much better.
So yes, Giancarlo Stanton has fantastic, scary power. We all knew that. But in 2012, he also bated .328 on balls in play while striking out at a 28.5 percent clip, and his strikeout and walk numbers began worsening as the season wore on past July. It may be worth asking whether Stanton's plate discipline skills began declining, or if his strong start influenced him to expand the strike zone a little more than usual.
For the season, it certainly seemed as though Stanton was expanding his zone. Thanks to that late-season decline, he ended the year swinging at 47.8 percent of his pitches and 33.7 percent of his pitches out of the zone. Both of those numbers represented career highs. Stanton did get away with this by making better contact on out-of-zone pitches (45.8 percent) last year, but teams will almost certainly try to exploit his willingness to go out of the zone in 2013.
This may be a good or bad thing for Stanton this season. It is clear that now that he will have inferior teammates surrounding him in the lineup, pitchers will approach him more carefully and throw more pitches away from him. If Stanton is wise, he will avoid these pitches more often, eliminating the so-called "disadvantage" of lineup protection by simply getting on base more often. But with his plate discipline skills already in question, could a season's worth of out-of-zone pitches do more harm than good, especially if he is aware that pitchers are avoiding him? Could Stanton try to "do more" with his pitches because he feels his teammates may not be able to assist him?
My personal feeling is that Stanton will properly avoid those concerns in 2013. We have heard stories about his approach in practice and his level-headed mindset. Remember the 2012 story regarding his going to the opposite field during every batting practice? As hack-tastic as Stanton sometimes is, he is a smarter player than his raw power profile makes him seem. He has to know that the best way for him to help the Marlins is to avoid making outs rather than try and force through singles by swinging away at pitches an inch outside. If he can apply that thought process, we should avoid what should be Stanton's only major obstacle this season.
The rest of his game is easy to predict. Maybe that high batting average on balls in play (BABIP) falls a bit next season, but that is hardly a problem if he continues to smash 30 to 40 (maybe 50?) home runs a season and continue to play stellar defense. But what if Stanton's number of singles is not a fluke, but merely a reflection of how hard he hits the baseball? What if, instead of declining strikeout numbers, Stanton is actually growing as a more disciplined hitter like his track record appeared to be doing before his 2012 injury? The wonderful thing about Stanton is not just that, as constructed, he is an amazing player. It is that if he improves even the slightest amount, he could become one of the five best players in baseball easily. Knocking off a few strikeouts here, upping a few walks there, hitting a few more singles here, and all of a sudden you have not just an elite power hitter, but an elite overall hitter with an excellent defensive profile.
And that is exactly what the projection systems are thinking.
As you can see, the projection systems are seeing very little drop-off from last season's breakout campaign. They envision Stanton keeping his level of play that high, and even I cannot be that optimistic about his chances. I am still concerned about his strikeout rate and his BABIP not going as well as planned, but each of the systems projects a whiff rate lower than any of his previous seasons' marks while also expecting a similar BABIP to his career mark.
My personal projection is a little higher than PECOTA's and a little lower than the ones listed on FanGraphs. Personally, I would expect a line closer to .260/.350/.560 on the season, which would put him on par with players like Josh Hamilton (.387 wOBA) and Adrian Beltre (.388 wOBA) from last year. If anything, my guess lies closer to what Steamer suggests than anything else, so for conservative projection's sake, I will use just Steamer's projecton of a .390 wOBA as my guess.
On defense, we can expect Stanton to put up another quiet, Gold Glove-caliber year. Since 2010, only Jason Heyward has been a better right fielder on a per inning basis than Stanton by UZR. Expecting another season of at least seven runs above average for a full year seems perfectly fair to me.
Projection: 600 PA, 5.6 WAR
Given that Stanton put up a six-win season in fewer plate appearances last year, it looks like a step down for the young star. But this is a relatively tempered projection, and I cut his playing time a little as well to represent potential injury, though I still gave him somewhere around 145 games played. If he loses more time, expect 550 or 530 plate appearances across 135 games like other injury-prone players, but for this season, I wanted to give the Marlins their best-case injury scenario when it comes to Stanton.
Could he be better than this? Absolutely, and I hope he is. But Marlins fans should not fret, because Stanton is already one of the top 20 hitters in baseball, and he is just 23 years old. Just the tiniest improvement in his game, and Fish fans will be witness to one of the best hitters of our generation.