Giancarlo Stanton is currently second in Major League Baseball in home runs, and thanks to a strong offensive first week by the Miami Marlins (which seems like a long time ago given the week the Marlins just went through), he leads the majors in RBIs. Three of his four homers were among the longest of this young baseball season, including the titanic shot to the Budweiser bow tie bar in the opening series against the Colorado Rockies. Stanton's season line stands at .308/.346/.576 (.398 wOBA), and that is an impressive mark for a guy who has never started well in April, as Clark Spencer of the Miami Herald points out.
This is good news for Stanton, who is beginning to re-establish his reputation as one of the better players in baseball, particularly if he can keep up this pace. It's good for the Marlins, who are going to get all the benefits of a prolific Stanton and can argue in favor of his superstardom when it comes to the eventual trade likely to occur this coming offseason. But both of these happy scenarios are contingent on Stanton keeping this pace. What are the early season trends that we have seen? Let's look at what Stanton has done to see what the future holds.
For those who may be concerned that this power streak is out of Stanton's norm, you can calm down. After having witnessed Stanton's only moderate show of strength last season, especially in the wake of the eruption of power in 2012, it is difficult to reconcile what exactly is Stanton's power baseline. But you can rest assured knowing Stanton is right around where he should be for his career. His .271 ISO right now is exactly in line with his career .270 mark. His home runs per fly ball are actually below his career standard, and that continues to be the case when you include line drives into the mix. Stanton has hit a homer in 14.7 percent of fly balls and line drives this season, which is slightly lower than his career 15.5 percent mark.
All of that is to say that, when Stanton is making contact and putting the ball in play, it seems like it is doing about what it should do in terms of power. This is not out of the ordinary, and indeed he could get better as the season wears on and he inches closer to his career norms.
Plate Discipline Questions
The question is whether or not Stanton will continue to put as many balls in play as he has. Last season, he was pitched around in extreme fashion, as only three other hitters saw fewer pitches in the strike zone than Stanton in 2013. Despite the "protection" added in 2014 with Casey McGehee and Garrett Jones in the mix, the story has not changed against Stanton; pitchers are still avoiding him like the plague. Stanton has seen just 42.7 percent of pitches in the zone, about the same as when he had no protection in 2011.
What has been interesting thus far is that Stanton has approached the situation entirely differently. Last season, he took what the pitchers gave him and posted a career-best rate of swings outside of the strike zone, hacking at just 28 percent of bad pitches. That approach also led him to taking more strikes as well, as he swung at a career-low 41.5 percent of pitches overall. This year, he has reversed the trend by being more aggressive both in and out of the zone. In particular, the 37 percent swing rate on pitches out of the zone is a career high.
Normally, that would spell doom for a contact-poor hitter like Stanton; he has never made contact on more than 70 percent of swings for his career. But Stanton is making tremendous contact this year! He has hit on approximately 75 percent of his swings this season, way over his career high. The effect is happening on pitches both in and out of the strike zone.
There has always been a question of how Stanton will adapt to the approach pitchers take against him. In 2012, they were too familiar and strayed too far into the zone, and he made them pay. This was the correct approach at the time. Last season, he adapted to them avoiding him at the plate, but there was a thought that he should be more discerning and swing within the strike zone. It seems this season, he is making a conscious effort to attack more often, but this has eaten into his recognition. After seeing 4.1 pitches per plate appearance last year, Stanton is back down to 2012 levels at 3.8 pitches per plate appearance, and his walk rate so far has tumbled to 6.3 percent while his strikeout rate remains relatively unchanged from last season.
The good bet is that Stanton has not necessarily figured out how to make consistent contact, and that a more patient and discerning approach to his swings would do him good. But the cat-and-mouse game between Stanton and opposing pitchers has always had an ebb and flow to it, and you can imagine that future starters are scouting out Stanton's tendencies and figure to avoid him even more in the strike zone. The game of adjustments and counter-adjustments will continue, but I think Stanton will be up to the challenge.