Miami Marlins outfielder Giancarlo Stanton is having an awful season so far this year. This is an unassailable fact. Stanton is now hitting .192/.299/.415 (.308 wOBA), a line that is nine percent worse than league average and is better than only one other Marlins starting player. His month-long slump has been hard to watch, and fans all around have already begun calling for his head thanks to his recent struggles.
This is understandable, if not a little frustrating. The Marlins have little recourse other than helping Stanton work through his struggles. He is a critical long-term piece for the team, so it is imperative the team do everything it can to help him out while not maiming his confidence. If he is injured (a possibility brought up a few weeks back by Ehsan Kassim of Call to the Pen), the team probably should allow him a little more rest on the disabled list.
Some Marlins fans, however, seem convinced that this is some career collapse in the making, despite Stanton's struggles occurring for only a month. There are a few problems with this, not the least of which is the fact that a collapse in a player this historically good through such a young age would be unprecedented.
Stanton has played from age 20 to age 25 before 2016, a six-year span with his first season being a half-year. In that time, he has posted almost 25 FanGraphs Wins Above Replacement. Since 1961, only 45 position players have posted more than 20 wins in such a time frame in their earliest youth. This ranges from the very best like Alex Rodriguez (43.4 fWAR) to Nomar Garciaparra (20.0 fWAR). Stanton ranked 23rd on this list.
How well did these players play in their subsequent three years? Presuming that three-year span is an adequate measure of their talent, most of these players were still very good afterward. Excluding Stanton and the two other players (Mike Trout and Jason Heyward) who have not yet played their following three seasons, these players averaged 26 wins during their various different playing times and 25 wins if taken per a 3000-plate appearance rate. Of note, Stanton exactly fits the average at about 25 wins in almost 3000 plate appearances, meaning that among the very best young players since 1961, Stanton is about average for them.
That cohort of players, 42 in total, averaged 1776 plate appearances over their age-26 to age-28 seasons, the theoretical primes of their careers. In that time frame, they averaged 15.3 Wins Above Replacement and 12.6 wins if prorated to 1500 plate appearances. Over three seasons, that is an average of 5.1 wins per season expected on average by the best young stars heading into their prime. Heading into this year, one would expect Stanton to put up that kind of performance, and indeed we projected a five-win season for him before the campaign started.
Of course, now we know more information about him after his struggles. The projection systems now have him hitting just .256/.356/.541 (.377 wOBA) going forward, meaning this month-long slump has done a decent number on his expectations going forward. Stanton is probably not the average player on this list, so expecting five wins per season at this point seems unlikely. What is the floor of these types of players? The two worst players on this list were two injured talents. Grady Sizemore was the 10th-best player on this list among the 42 players counted, but he put up just two wins in 938 plate appearances in parts of three seasons. He played one mostly full season then parts of only two years, and he was never the same player after a slew of injuries, most notably a knee injury requiring microfracture surgery. Jim Ray Hart was a strong third baseman who had a great first four seasons in the league, but he only played one more full year and ended up on the bench for much of the rest of his career; he only tallied 1098 plate appearances from age 26 to 28.
Only 10 of the 42 players ended with fewer than 10 wins in three seasons. Excluding the two injury/playing time concerns, you get eight guys with an average of 8.4 wins in that time span, or 2.8 wins per season. That list includes some great names, including current talents David Wright, Jose Reyes, and Hanley Ramirez and one Hall of Famer in Roberto Alomar. Presuming Stanton does not get hurt, this could represent the floor for his production in the future.
Taking all players into consideration and including the (relatively important) risk of a complete career collapse due to injury as was the case with Sizemore, the average of the lower third of players could represent the bottom-side risk for Stanton. The 13 worst players on this list averaged 8.0 wins in a three-year span, or 2.7 wins per season. To get a sense of what that means today, of the 141 qualified big-leaguers in 2015, 2.7 wins would have ranked 69th in baseball, squarely in the middle of big league expectations.
Now, that is a bottom-third expectation among the very best players on the planet at their youngest. It represents injury collapse as well as the kind of poor play that could happen to any player. It certainly is not enough production for a guy who is going to be paid like a star player. However, on average, it does not represent a complete collapse of a career. A nearly three-win player is still an above average guy, and that is the lower expectation that includes injury risk. If Stanton stays healthy (an admittedly decent-sized "if"), this is more likely to represent the floor of his performance. A three-win floor is not a bad thing, especially since most Marlins players would be lucky to reach a three-win level.
Now, this presumes Stanton is an appropriate member of this cohort. The one thing you could point to that says otherwise is that Stanton strikes out more than any other player on this cohort, and that could potentially lead him to being more vulnerable. Still, there have been other modestly high strikeout players like Dick Allen and Reggie Jackson who continued to go on and succeed at a high level. To be mentioned in the company of these types of names is a big honor, but it has been deserved so far for Stanton. There is no strong reason to believe that, barring injury, he is the one elite talent who will become useless in what should be the prime of his career.