The secret is out. Major League Baseball is on to us. They know about Giancarlo Stanton.
They know he’s hitting home runs every day and they know he is pacing the NL in most offensive categories over the past two weeks. Everyone watching the highlights is talking about his new closed-off batting stance. There’s no need to break down Stanton’s stats to show you that he is performing well offensively this season — everyone knows that already.
I want to address another issue instead: are the Marlins getting maximum value out of Stanton batting second in the order?
Buried amidst the praise of Stanton’s recent hitting tear, there have been suggestions that it’s time to move Stanton back to the three or four hole in the batting order. At first, it’s easy to shirk off the suggestion — the cliché “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” immediately comes to mind at the idea of shaking up the order, especially in the middle of a relative hot streak for the Fish. But after dedicating some time to analyzing the stats, a case can be made for both: keeping Stanton batting second, or moving him down to third. Let’s take a look.
Keeping Stanton at 2nd
“If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”
Although this line of reasoning requires the least amount of analytical rigor, members of this party may be onto something. Below are Giancarlo Stanton’s splits by batting order, (not including when he was given a rest day, but brought in to pinch hit in the 9th spot.)
Giancarlo Stanton’s Stats by Lineup Spot
|4th||4/3 - 5/10, 5/17 - 5/23||35||155||0.261||0.335||0.565||0.370||128||0.304|
|5th||5/10 - 5/17||7||28||0.269||0.321||0.346||0.294||78||0.077|
|2nd||5/23 - present||72||319||0.305||0.408||0.721||0.455||184||0.415|
Remember that Giancarlo was fighting a decent slump in the month of May. At a time when the Marlins as a team were struggling as well, Don Mattingly shuffled the order a couple of times to see if he could jolt the sluggish offense. Stanton caught fire around May 24, and hasn’t looked back since.
Looking at the numbers though, Stanton wasn’t playing all that terribly before he was moved to the 2nd spot. Although the stats pale in comparison to his two-hole splits, Stanton batting cleanup was still sporting an above-average wOBA of .370 and was creating runs 28 percent better than average.
The argument is there; the numbers support that he is a stronger hitter in the second spot this year. But it’s not the best argument. Let’s keep digging.
More plate appearances for your best hitter
Stanton leads the team in home runs, walk percentage, ISO, OBP, SLG, wOBA, wRC+, and runs added above average. He is unequivocally the best hitter on the team.
This begs the obvious question: if you could have Stanton bat four times or five times, which would you choose? If you played man on the street, and asked every Marlins fan that came through the turnstiles at Marlins Park that question, anyone with a functioning baseball brain would answer that they want Stanton to bat five times.
Data has consistently shown that the higher a batter is in the batting order, the more likely they are to get more at-bats. This year for the Marlins, while the second batter has gotten 539 plate appearances, the third batter has received 527. That means that in 12 games this year, the second batter had the last plate appearance in the game. Some of these plate appearances are negligible, such as where the second batter makes the final out in the top of the 9th, in a game where the Marlins are up by 10. There, having Stanton batting second doesn’t necessarily make a difference.
However, in some of those occasions, that last plate appearance could represent the tying or winning run. The argument can be made that this is exactly where you want Stanton. When the game is on the line, you don’t want to take the bat out of your best player’s hands, especially when he is strong enough turn a fastball off the end of the bat into a home run to right field. While in 39 “high-leverage” plate appearances this year, Stanton has only a .250 wOBA, the fact remains that when Stanton is hot, anything can happen. You want Stanton to get those extra plate appearances.
More opportunities for hittable pitching
On August 10, Stanton hit his 39th home run of the season off Tanner Roark in the third inning. Dee Gordon led off the inning with a single, and then Stanton stepped into the box. Roark made a pick-off attempt to first before getting ahead of Stanton with a first-pitch slider. After that, he made two consecutive pick-off attempts. Finally, after Stanton evened the count, with Gordon running on the pitch, Roark served up a 91 mph high-inside fastball – one that Stanton dispatched into the left field seats at an exit velocity of 108.4 mph.
I’m going to say it loud for the pitchers in the back: Giancarlo does not miss inner-half pitching. If you don’t believe it every time Rich Waltz says it, just take a look at G’s slugging Heatmap. Sure there’s an awful lot of red on the map in general, but look at those really big numbers on the inside half. Why would any pitcher in his right mind throw anything inside to Giancarlo? Why did Roark challenge Stanton up-and-in?
Dee Gordon may be the answer here. Despite popular belief, Stanton does get hits that don’t fly out of the ballpark. If Dee Gordon – batting in front of Stanton – can make it to scoring position on his own, he can make Stanton’s job easier by scoring on just a base hit. In this situation, the speed threat forces the pitcher to divide his attention between him and Stanton. Something has to give, and in the above instance, while Roark was clearly preoccupied with keeping Gordon at first, Stanton took advantage of a mistake pitch.
The best thing that a pitcher could do is ignore Dee on first and focus on making quality pitches, just as Ty Blach did Monday for the Giants. Here, Blach didn’t once throw over to check on Dee, and this time...oh wait a second...oh...
It was only a matter of time.— Miami Marlins (@Marlins) August 14, 2017
Congratulations to our new single-season home run leader, @Giancarlo818! #StantonSmash | #LetsGoFish pic.twitter.com/sKNllpmTXd
Moving Stanton down to 3rd
Maximizing run-scoring opportunities
Let’s go back to that August 10th game versus the Nationals. Stanton broke the ice for the Marlins with his home run in the 3rd inning. However, that was all the Marlins scored, and ultimately, Miami lost the game 3-2.
While it would be foolish to assert that Stanton batting second was the main cause of the Marlins’ loss, consider the following. Of Giancarlo’s 43 home runs this year, he has hit 10 in the first inning — the most in any frame. With just Gordon batting in front of him, Stanton can drive in at most two runs in the first inning. The inning in which Giancarlo has hit the second-most home runs is the third, where the three batters that precede him are the 8th hitter, the pitcher, and Gordon.
While in the traditional sense, Gordon is a prototypical speedy leadoff hitter, he is not the most surefire option available to set the table for Stanton. Amongst players with 300 plate appearances, Gordon ranks seventh on the team in walk percentage and sixth in OBP.
Since May 26, after he was moved to 2nd, Stanton has hit 32 home runs. Of those 32 bombs, 21 have been solo shots, and eight have been two-run shots with Gordon scoring. Only three have been worth more than two runs.
Now that Stanton is clearing the bases once a game, it may be time to dispose of the superstition and move him to third to get him more RBI chances. Try to hold down your food as I present to you this outrageous lineup:
Without being so hard on Gordon so as to strip him of his leadoff spot, you now have three high on-base/recently hot hitters lined up to get on base before Stanton. Notorious for having one of the best eyes in the game, Yelich would benefit from Stanton’s protection in the lineup, and would get on base more for Stanton to potentially drive him in. G would still retain some lineup protection for himself by batting in front of Marcell Ozuna.
With whatever permutation of players you choose, moving Stanton to third in any scenario yields the same result — another player on base for him to drive in. Now that Stanton is seemingly impervious to any batting weaknesses, it may be worth taking a shot on him back in the three-hole.
Letting Stanton Focus on Hitting
Just as having a base-stealer on base can burden a pitcher, the prospect of batting with a base-stealer on base can be equally burdensome. This is the double-edged sword of batting Stanton second, behind the leadoff hitter.
Dee Gordon bats first for the Fish because of his steal tool. This year, Flash is stealing bases at a welcomed 80 percent clip. With that being said, base-stealers have needs, and those needs often fall on the batters that follow them. Batters have to be aware of certain favorable base-stealing counts; sometimes, batters need to protect their runners by fouling off a pitch. Other times, they have to take a potentially good pitch in order to let their teammate take the next base. In either event, it’s probably not a good idea to impose this burden on your team’s most productive hitter; you want him to take advantage of favorable pitching, not let it pass to fall behind in the count.
Now take into account that base-stealers do occasionally get thrown out. Dee Gordon is undeniably one of the best in the game, and he has still gotten caught stealing 10 times, and picked off three times this year.
While everyone knows that getting runners into scoring position for your best hitters is important, the risks sometimes outweigh the rewards — especially with a hitter like Stanton at the plate. It’s bad enough that Gordon is often times Stanton’s only table-setter; in any given moment, a bout of over-aggressive baserunning can turn into one-less run if Stanton were to cash in after Dee was caught stealing. To potentially take the bat out of Stanton’s hands would be a huge mistake in any situation. Although, in the eight times Dee has been caught stealing since May 26, Stanton has only subsequently reached base once, there is always the possibility of running the team out of an inning by taking a chance in front of your best hitter.
It could work to the Marlins’ advantage to place a hitter like Christian Yelich or J.T. Realmuto in front of Stanton. Yelich is a spray hitter with even batted ball percentages to all fields. Realmuto has an outside-the-zone-contact-percentage almost 20 points higher than Stanton’s. With Stanton at the dish, you should only want one thing: violent baseball-to-bat collisions. Stanton shouldn’t have to take a hanging curveball, try and execute a hit-and-run, or get behind in the count by fouling off a ball. On the other hand, by buffering Dee and G with either Yelich or Realmuto, Don Mattingly can be as creative as he wants in the interest of engineering run scoring opportunities.
At the end of the day, when Giancarlo hits a home run, it doesn’t matter whether Dee is on first base or second base — it counts as a two-run homer either way. So why risk it? If Giancarlo hits a double in the gap, Dee is fast enough where he could probably score from first base anyway. So why risk it? If the Marlins want to let Dee run wild, they should try and double-down by creating run-scoring opportunities for Stanton, not with him.
Scoring easier runs
In the same interest of increasing run production, the Marlins could take a page out of their NL East rival’s book to take advantage of low-hanging fruit.
On August 9, the Marlins were trounced by the Nationals 10-1. In one interesting sequence of events, Brian Goodwin led off the third inning with a double and Adrian Sanchez bunted, sacrificing himself to get Goodwin to 3rd base for Bryce Harper with less than 2 outs. For some reason, the move resonated deeply enough with me that I felt the urge to tweet about it.
But if I can increase my chances of getting a runner to third with less than two outs for Bryce Harper by bunting, I'm bunting. Every time.— Mitchell Custer (@mitch_cust12) August 9, 2017
Scoring the run here was just too easy – it was almost automatic. Although he only needed to hit a sacrifice fly, Harper would go on to hit a dying quail that dropped in front of Ozuna and scored the run. Consider the following lineup:
In addition to his high on-base and walk percentages, Yelich is second on the team in steals, and leads the team in doubles with 26. Just as the Nationals lineup does, this lineup could yield a great amount of aforementioned “automatic runs.” The game or inning would start with Yelich hitting a double, or getting to first and stealing second. With no outs, if Dee could successfully bunt Yelich to third, the burden on Giancarlo to score the run would be mitigated. All he would have to do is hit something hard and Yelich would score.
In our minds, the home runs stand out. The real truth is that this season, Giancarlo has become a better all-around hitter. Stanton’s BABIP (batting average on balls in play) is higher so far in August (.367) than it has been in any other month.
Given that BABIP doesn’t account for home runs, Stanton’s jump in BABIP means he is either hittin’ it where they ain’t, making harder contact, or facing easier pitching. I would submit to you that it’s more of the former two choices than the latter. Thus, without forcing him to hit a home run every at-bat, (which he might just do anyway), Stanton would still benefit from increased traffic on the bases by moving him down to third.
To conclude, there are excellent arguments for both sides. After an impressive sweep of the Colorado Rockies, and taking two of three from the San Francisco Giants, the Fish Faithful have turned a steady eye back towards the NL Wild Card Race, taking notice that the Marlins are only 7.5 games back from getting into the playoffs.
It’s undeniable that the Marlins have a good thing going right now with G, and if you asked our more skeptical fans, they would prefer that Don Mattingly refrain from messing with Stanton’s “mojo” at the moment. On the other hand, the potential for more is out there, and if Mattingly can tap into that last hidden boost with the perfect lineup shuffle, it could make the season for the Marlins.
Where in the order do you think Giancarlo Stanton should bat?
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Statistics courtesy of Fangraphs.com and Baseball-Reference.com