When Giancarlo Stanton returned from his hamstring injury on June 10 versus the Milwaukee Brewers, Miami Marlins fans rejoiced. Stanton was back!
But the Stanton that showed up in April was not good enough to rejoice. That Stanton had hit .227/.341/.387 (.322 wOBA) and had three home runs only because he got them at the tail end of his stay before injuring his hamstring. Combine that with the questionable defensive decisions that seem to come every year from early-season Stanton, and Marlins fans were probably at least a little concerned that the injury may prolong his early-season woes.
After seven games in June, it seems those woes are long gone.
Stanton hit two home runs last night in the Marlins' 3-2 win over the Arizona Diamondbacks, including his 100th career home run, made all the more sweet because it came off of former public enemy no. 1 in Miami, Heath Bell. With that Stanton has notched seven home runs in 118 plate appearances thus far this year. For reference purposes, Stanton hit six homers last year in his first 118 plate appearances through 27 games, and he was batting just .251/.322/.481 at the time. Through Monday, Stanton had seven bombs and was hitting .272/.362/.534 (.385 wOBA), better than last season.
How did we reach this point after Stanton struggled so badly at the start of the year? Some of that is just a matter of good luck and regression to the mean being on Stanton's side. He had only homered three times in April, but his fly ball distances were not betraying him. Prior to his hamstring injury, the average distance on his fly balls and homers were a shade over 300 feet, That represented a number that was actually a few feet longer than his average from last year.
This month, 40 percent of his fly balls have left the yard, leading to a monstrous 379-foot average fly ball. Stanton certainly has run into a few pitches, but fly balls are finally leaving the yard at a more Stanton-esque rate. His 22.9 percent home run per fly ball (HR/FB) rate would rank as his lowest career mark, but that should continue to be on the rise as the year continues. Just getting back into the 20 percent area is a good start for Stanton.
Of course, making solid contact in a world where they avoid him is the challenge Stanton faces. So far, he has struggled to make great contact, as evidenced by his 10.4 percent line drive rate, 49 percent ground ball rate and his 14 percent popup rate in April. Thus far in June, Stanton has yet to hit one ball considered to be a popup, so at least that part of the game as begun to regress as well.
We know that Stanton has had to make adjustments thanks to teams avoiding the strike zone against him, I believe he has struggled in making these adjustments, but there is evidence that, in June at least, he is learning to adapt his approach. The keys to the numbers in June thus far are his selectivity and his contact inside the strike zone.
The biggest difference right now is that spectacular contact rate in the zone. Stanton has never necessarily struggled inside the strike zone, but he has never been good; among the 254 qualified players from 2010 to 2013, Stanton ranks 230th in in-zone contact rate. His performance in June thus far has proved to be beneficial, especially when you consider that he is swinging more inside the strike zone than he has previously.
Will the contact stick around? it is difficult to predict whether that is a real improvement or a blip in the radar, but I believe that his added aggressiveness in the strike zone is something that may stick around and could be very useful for him this season. The Marlins need Stanton to get hits, but teams are desperately avoiding the strike zone against him. Earlier in the year, he had yet to adjust and was swinging at fewer in-zone pitches and more out-of-zone pitches. Now he has flipped that performance and is putting the precious few pitches in the zone to good use.
Stanton still needs to make some improvements, and there is no doubt that he will not keep up this month's home run pace forever. But for the Fish to be bordering on respectable, Stanton will need to stop hitting it on the ground and start driving the ball better. If he keeps up this month's approach at the plate, that should come in no time, but for Stanton, this season will be a continuous set of adjustments. I can't wait to see the results.