Just like last season, the Miami Marlins are seeing Giancarlo Stanton struggle to open up the year. Last year, the concern was that pitchers were throwing more strikes at Stanton and that he was not able to handle the pitches in the zone. Once he did start handling them in May, pitchers learned their lesson and avoided him entirely.
This year, with no significant threats behind him, those pitchers have taken their lesson to the extreme and really avoided Stanton's bat.
The zone percentage indicates exactly what the Marlins and Marlins fans expected was in store for Stanton in 2013. With no lineup protection, Stanton was expected to see a lot fewer pitches in the strike zone and thus a lot fewer pitches to hit well. Prior to 2013, pitchers seemed to have found a stable level of attacking Stanton in the zone at around a 44 percent clip. Stanton, in return, had found a stable amount of swings and contact as a result of that approach, and that was working quite well for him.
This season, Stanton has yet to adjust to the change in approach to him, which is why you see his ugly numbers so far. Through yesterday night's games, he was batting just .174/.367/.261 (.303 wOBA) to start the season, and those numbers were frustrating Marlins fans who were expecting Stanton to help carry the Marlins' struggling offense.
The problem of his adjustment can easily be seen in the numbers. Stanton is swinging less often than he did in the past, but that is merely a byproduct of the lack of pitches available at which to swing. But the rates at which he swings at good and bad pitches have changed for the worst so far. He is swinging at fewer pitches in the strike zone and more pitches out of the zone, indicating that he may just be discombobulated at the plate right now. The current strategy against him is more on the extreme side; from 2010 to 2012, no qualified hitter in the majors saw a zone percentage less than 40 percent, with mad hacker Pablo Sandoval getting that mark because, well, he is a mad hacker. Stanton's 39 percent mark thus far displays the opposing pitchers' extreme aversion to his bat.
However, Stanton has seen this approach before. In June of last season, pitchers reacted in a major way to Stanton's spectacular May and started avoiding him at the plate badly. They threw only 40 percent of their pitches in the strike zone against him. Unsurprisingly, June was Stanton's second-worst month of the season last year, and he struggled for the same reasons he is struggling this year. That month, he ended up swinging at 45 percent of his pitches and 36 percent of the ones outside the strike zone. Sound familiar? Those are exactly the numbers he is posting right now, and while the results last season (.242/.339/.453, .346 wOBA) were better than this year's numbers, he still struck out in almost 30 percent of his plate appearances. So Stanton has faced similar problems in the past.
Are there any positives that we can glean from this? Well, the first and most obvious positive is that this performance is likely to see some regression. Stanton should regress a little towards his old ways and should start adjusting accordingly to the avoidance of his bat. Once he adjusts, pitchers may be less willing to walk him and should start challenging him a little more, and when that happens, Stanton should start mashing them again. Last year, we ran the initial analysis on pitcher approach to Stanton after the end of April. The Marlins are only a week and a half into the regular season, and while the approach by pitchers matches our expectations, Stanton still needs time to show adjustment to that approach. Marlins fans are well aware that Stanton is not a mindless basher at the plate and that he has a cerebral approach to his game, so there should be confidence in him to find the adjustments needed to succeed.
The other positive is that Stanton has historically had issues in spring. He has had slow springs in each of the past two seasons and recovered well from them afterwards, and there is no reason to believe that that will not happen this year as well. Last year, Stanton adjusted properly to the odd approach pitchers were taking against him, and the hope is that this year is no different. The only concern is that, if he does not begin to lay off outside pitches, pitchers will continue to aggressively avoid his bat and let him beat himself.
If Stanton can adjust as he has in the past to slow starts, he and the Marlins should be just fine. But the situation does merit further watching, so keep an eye on Fish Stripes for all the updates on Stanton's ongoing changes.