One of the only bright spots left in the 2012 season for the Miami Marlins is seeing just how good Giancarlo Stanton can be in terms of home runs in a season in which he missed a month of playing time with injury. From before and after the injury, Stanton has been nothing but stellar in knocking out home runs at a pace matched by few players before him, but as we have seen lately, that has not come without its share of problems. As of late, Stanton has also racked up the strikeouts lately, and that has his strikeout rate climbing up to 29.0 percent prior to yesterday afternoon's game.
Now, we all know that strikeouts are not the be all, end all for determining the skill of a player. Long gone are the days when a player's high strikeout rates were a death knell to his career no matter what else he did. Ever since strikeouts went on a meteoric rise in 1990's and 2000's, it has become fairly commonplace to see really high strikeout rates on otherwise good hitters. Indeed, hitters like Rob Deer paved the way for guys like Adam Dunn, Sammy Sosa, and Jim Thome to be acceptable hitters in the eyes of baseball. Provided you could do other things to make up for your strikeouts, like walk often and hit a lot of home runs, your strikeouts were less relevant.
But Stanton has not yet become a disciplined, selective hitter with contact issues that others who have succeeded before him became. Right now, Stanton is still just swinging and missing at a lot of pitches, and it turns out that can limit your success. Yet somehow, he is still succeeding in an unprecedented fashion, with a wOBA of .398 and a .283/.351/.597 slash line despite all of his hindrances.Comparable Seasons
Stanton's season of strikeouts is in rare company. From 1992 to 2011, there are only 42 player-seasons among players who qualified for the batting title that boasted a strikeout rate greater than 27 percent. Sixteen of those seasons had a strikeout rate higher than Stanton's 29.0 percent mark thus far this year. When you put all of those seasons together, however, the rates for these seasons add up to a strikeout rate of 29.7 percent (when you take away intentional walks from the PA count) and an unintentional walk rate of 11.1 percent. Right off the bat, you see a little of what makes players of this caliber even receive the amount of plate appearances to qualify for a batting title. The good majority of these players walked at decent rates, with some of them averaging extremely high walk rates to compensate for their strikeouts and help them get on base more often.
But what about how well these players did at the plate? These 43 player-seasons were obviously selected as among the best years of players with high strikeout rates, otherwise the players would not have been given so many opportunities to fail. Still, even after selecting the very best seasons with high strikeout rates, these 43 seasons still only added up to a total wOBA of .353 and a wRC+ of 114. In other words, among the best years of high strikeouts, the group as a whole was only 14 percent better than the league average.
Furthermore, when you break it down into two groups involving those that walked more often and less often, obviously you could see differences in the average quality of batter among the hitters involved. Looking at the 19 batters who had an average or better unintentional walk rate in the group, those hitters had a .373 wOBA and 127 wRC+ as a group. The sub-average walk rate group posted a .336 wOBA and 102 wRC+ as a group. There was little to no difference between the two groups in terms of strikeout rate, as the pro-walk group struck out 30 percent of the time while the no-walk group struck out 29.5 percent of the time.
What does all of this say? It says that even if you do post decent walk rates, on average it is very difficult to produce consistently amazing seasons like the one Stanton is currently posting. Only three players posted a better wOBA in these seasons than Stanton's current .398 mark, with three more seasons close behind. That means six total seasons even reached the heights that Stanton's 2012 reached with similar strikeout rates. Beyond that, only one season, Jim Thome's 2001 campaign with the Cleveland Indians, beat Stanton's season in terms of wRC+, as Thome's .291/.416/.624 year (.428 wOBA) was a whopping 66 percent better than the league average. It is exquisitely difficult to put up the season that Stanton has with the strikeouts that he is posting.
We also learned that it is extra difficult to do when you are not walking often enough. No player in the lower walk group posted a wOBA or wRC+ close to Stanton's this year, with the highest mark being the .378 wOBA and 138 wRC+ of, well, Giancarlo Stanton of 2011! Following 2011 Stanton, no other season had higher than a .366 wOBA, and the overall group was barely better than league average as a whole. So not only is it hard to put up a superb season like Stanton's 2012 with his strikeouts, but it is almost impossible to do with his currently poor walk rate.
Power and Hope
What are the options for Stanton for him to continue his success? Well, the evidence shows that it is just really difficult to be a consistently great hitter with strikeout rates this high and walk rates this low. The best bet for Stanton would be to lower his strikeouts and up the walks, and for at least, he has a model to follow: his 2011 version. Stanton struck out in 27.9 percent of his non-intentional walk PA last season and walked in 10.8 percent of those. He did that mostly by keeping the same approach he had as a rookie in 2010: make good contact when the ball is in the zone and let the pitchers pitch their way into walks. He chased a lot less in 2011 (31 percent swing percentage on pitches out of the zone) versus in 2012 (35 percent), so that would be a good start in both avoiding strikeouts and drawing more walks.
But the other method he could accomplish this is simply by continuing his run of power. We mentioned yesterday that his sort of power stands alongside some of the best power hitters of the decade, but it is unique in that it is coming at such a young age. I wondered before the season whether Stanton's power could actually improve over a level that was already among the best in baseball, but it seems this season he has taken it up a notch, and it is hard to imagine that this is simply a career year that will fizzle back down in a year or two. While it is unlikely that Stanton can improve on this season's power, he can certainly come closer to maintaining it and keep himself at least a great hitter rather than an elite one. Only two players in the lower walk group other than Stanton in 2011 had the sort of ISO that he is posting this year, and one of them, Ryan Howard, can be the model for a player who did not develop sufficient ability to draw walks or avoid strikeouts. Howard's season on that list, his 2008 campaign, was still good for a wRC+ of 129, thanks primarily to a .292 ISO that is close to Stanton's 2012 ISO of .314.
So no, it is not likely that Stanton can continue to be one of the elite hitters in baseball if he continues to strike out as much as he does and walk as little as he has this season. But his past has already shown that he can at least draw walks at a decent pace just by laying off the bad pitches to which he has been prone as of late. And if he never develops the sort of strike zone control that greats like Jim Thome developed, his power should still be good enough to at least make him a south Florida version of Ryan Howard, but in the outfield. Despite all the concerns, there are worse outcomes in baseball than "becoming Ryan Howard."