The Miami Marlins and Giancarlo Stanton have agreed to a 13-year, $325 million contract that is, as of right now, the largest contract in baseball history. Never mind that the Fish likely will not be paying that money through, as there will almost be an opt-out after the 2020 season that will likely lead to another mammoth contract for Stanton. The deal, as currently constituted, is a huge sum of money and a lot of years for a player who has had at best three good seasons cut short by injury.
The thought is that Giancarlo Stanton has not proven himself well enough to earn that kind of contract. There are warts that you can point out in his game. He gets hurt, though the Marlins are not as concerned. He strikes out a lot. He does not appear to be graceful at his linebacker-size in the outfield. After years of glorifying the slugger in the steroid era, we are starting to be more keenly aware of value elsewhere, and there is a thought that Stanton is a one-trick slugging pony.
Except this could not be further from the truth.
Stanton is well-deserving of this contract, and the reasons are numerous. He strikes out a lot, but he draws plenty of walks and gets on base, and despite the high strikeout rate, he also hosts a respectable batting average that buoys his other fantastic abilities. He is actually a good right fielder for his career, having had one bad season only according to the metrics. And while injuries remain a concern, his relatively healthy 2014 season is at least a positive sign.
But most importantly, all of those tiny warts cannot deny one thing: Giancarlo Stanton is potentially an all-time hitter.
We live in an era of depressed offense. Beginning in the 2010 season, offense slowly began to decline across the league. In 2013, the scoring environment had dropped to the lowest levels it had seen since 1989. This past season, run scoring dropped to its lowest levels since the strike-shortened 1981 season. Before that, the last time the league scored under 4.1 runs per game as a whole was in 1976. The 2014 run-scoring environment was the same as the one from 1969. We are a long ways away from the power-laden seasons of the mid-to-late 90's, which recorded some of the highest scoring environments in league history.
The Marlins were born in that era, but their best young hitter of all time grew up in this one. Stanton's prodigious power actually stands out among similar young players, even those in the era of lumbering giants. Since 1993, among all players with at least 1000 plate appearances through their age-24 season, here are the top ten home run totals.
These players all represent some of the best hitters in their respective times. The worst hitter among them was Andruw Jones. When the worst hitter in a given list is young Andruw Jones, your list must be doing something right. And there stands Stanton, the only player who played most of his years primarily in the worst offensive era of the last three decades, sitting a cool six homers shy of the greatest player of the past generation, Albert Pujols.
Stanton was always known for power, so hitting the third most homers among the youngest guys in the bigs is no surprise. But only three players on that list had fewer chances than Stanton, and even if you account for opportunities, Stanton's power is fantastic. Among a list including Pujols and Alex Rodriguez, Stanton ranks as the second best home run hitter on a rate basis among the guys younger than 24 years old. Stanton beat out all of those guys except Pujols, who averaged 17.06 plate appearances per home versus Stanton's 17.15.
So Stanton hits home runs at rates rarely seen at his age and in this era. But Stanton has flaws that guys like Pujols and Rodriguez and even Prince Fieler did not have. Among the same guys with at least 1000 plate appearances before age 25, Stanton owns the third highest strikeout rate. Surely all those strikeouts should make Stanton a less valuable hitter than his counterparts!
Nothing could be further from the truth.
Stanton plays in a depressed run environment where his offensive skills are more valuable relative to his historical peers. When we compare batting lines, his are not at the very top. His .271/.364/.540 (.385 wOBA) batting line ranks 14th in all of baseball in that group of players, right next to Yasiel Puig's line in two seasons of play! But when you use wRC+, which corrects wOBA for both park and league run environments, things change drastically. Here are the top ten batting lines among that group, ranked by wRC+, where the higher the number over 100, the better percentage-wise the line over league average.
|Ken Griffey Jr||1184||.315||.405||.641||.434||164|
Park and league run environments make a huge difference. No one could match the unparalleled offensive production of Albert Pujols, but Mike Trout and Ken Griffey are the only two freak athletes who could approach him. Two spots after that pantheon of play is Stanton, fifth among a list of potential Hall of Famers and perennial All-Stars.
But you will note from that list of stars that many had not played very long to accumulate those numbers. Puig has just two seasons under his belt. Ryan Braun and Jim Thome did as well. If we narrow it down further, only to the players who have accumulated 2000 plate appearances before age 25, we can see where Stanton stands among the true greats. These are the 40 players since 1993 who were good enough to be promoted early in their careers and hold onto jobs in the league. These players almost certainly represent the best young players in the game during this time. Here are the five best batting lines.
Stanton stands only behind the best player of the 2000's and the likely best player of the 2010's as the best young hitter in the game. All of those warts cannot diminish what Stanton has accomplished in a short time frame, just four and a half seasons. His batting line, when compared to the lower league average, is better than A-Rod's. It's better than former Marlin Hanley Ramirez's run through 2009. Better than Fielder. Better than Dunn. Better than Grady Sizemore. Better than Scott Rolen. Better than any number of great players and some potential Hall of Famers!
If you extend that further, back to 1961, which is considered the beginning of the "expansion" era of baseball, the comparison still stands very well. Stanton stands fifth among all of the young players who played that much at that age, behind only Pujols, Trout, Griffey, and DIck Allen.
If you prefer Wins Above Replacement, the story is similar. In terms of FanGraphs Wins Above Replacement (fWAR), Stanton is tenth in the game, just a tick behind Sizemore, Cabrera, and Evan Longoria. In Baseball-Reference WAR, (rWAR), he is sixth, behind Jason Heyward (who has hefty defensive contributions) and the quartet of Pujols, Rodriguez, Andruw Jones, and Mike Trout.
Sit back and think about this. Aside from Pujols, Trout, and Rodriguez, is there anyone who is clearly better than Stanton at a younger age in recent baseball history? What is the value of signing a generational talent at the plate at such a young age? The Marlins signed Stanton to such a ridiculous contract because the value of players who play this well this early is often through the roof. Andruw Jones hit .251/.345/.506 from age 25 to age 30 and accumulated 30 to 35 wins in that time. Pujols hit .330/.434/.625, picked up three MVP awards, and racked up 48 to 52 wins.
The most chillng comparison is that of Miguel Cabrera, who more closely matched Stanton's batting line and win production through age 24. From age 25 to age 30, he hit .327/.407/.588, an improvement over his previous line. He also racked up 36 wins in that time frame. If Stanton could do the same thing as his spiritual predecessor, he would easily bowl past the value of his contract in the first six years.
This is why the Marlins signed Stanton. A generational talent does not come around often. This kind of prodigious bat does not appear as often as you think. The Marlins want Stanton's hitting, and they paid a hefty price. But that price is the right one for one of the best young hitters to ever