Giancarlo Stanton’s Present and Future

For all of the natural ebbs and flows of individual player performance, the game’s ruling class — the elite of the elite — is a fairly closed society that remains fairly static from year to year. Any given season might have its Yasiel Puig, or its Albert Pujols conceding his seat. But the core membership is fairly predictable. What might happen in any given year, though, is one of these elite players taking a temporary step up in class ‚ reaching an even more rarified air than before. This week, let’s take a deeper look at the 2014 performance of some of the game’s elite and determine whether they have taken things to the next level. Today: Giancarlo Stanton.

Stanton has hit for big power since he arrived on the major-league scene in 2010 at age 20, after decimating the minor leagues to the tune of a .272-.365-.565 line, with 91 homers in 1,226 at bats. Some guys gradually grow into their power, but not Stanton. At the major-league level it’s been more of the same, with Stanton posting a career .270-.359-.542 line despite playing his home games in one of the more pitcher-friendly ballparks in the majors.

Based on my own park factors, which were calculated utilizing granular batted ball data, Marlins Park was the third most pitcher-friendly park in MLB last season, with an overall park factor of 90.2. It was the fifth most pitcher-friendly park with regard to fly balls (76.1) and eighth most with regard to line drives (96.2). It had a home run park factor of 68, dead last among MLB parks. Does this affect Mr. Stanton? Well, no, as most of his home runs would leave Yellowstone with room to spare.

Let’s attempt to put Stanton’s batted ball authority into some sort of perspective: In 2013, 0.52% of major league fly balls were hit at 105 mph or harder; 5.63% of Stanton’s were. Among line drives, 1.6% were hit at 105 or harder. An amazing 39.66% of Stanton’s were. Among grounders, 0.69% were hit at 105 mph or harder; 15.13% of Stanton’s were. That’s some pretty staggering stuff. Oh, and 2013 was Stanton’s worst season to date. This year, there have been 30 balls hit harder than 110 mph. Stanton hit 13 of them. Only two other players — Yasiel Puig and Mike Trout — have three of the top 30. Stanton has hit the three hardest homers in MLB this season, and four of the top five. When it comes to pure high-end, ball-striking thunder, Stanton stands alone.

There’s a whole lot more to being a successful major league hitter than pure explosiveness, though. The late Tony Gwynn may be the best evidence of that. Hitting a ton of line drives and never striking out gets it done, as well. Mark Trumbo is also convincing evidence. While he doesn’t hammer the ball quite as hard as Stanton, he does reside in the upper thunder tier. He’s been unable to crack the upper echelon of major league hitters because of several factors: his poor K and BB rates, and his exceedingly high ground-ball rate. Destroying the baseball gives Stanton a very significant margin for error in all of the other key offensive categories: strikeout, walk, popup, fly ball, line drive and ground-ball rates. Still, power alone does not guarantee his status as an elite offensive player.

On the surface, at the very least Stanton appears to be on track for the best season of his career. He’s pacing the NL in homers and RBI despite his home ballpark, and he’s flirting with the .300 mark for the first time in his career. Has Stanton truly taken a step forward and become an even greater threat at age 24 than at any other point during his relatively brief career? Or is he still the same pretty darned good Giancarlo Stanton he’s always been? Let’s take a closer look at his 2013 and 2014 plate appearance outcome frequency and production by BIP type data to see what, if any, changes have taken place. First, the frequency information:

FREQ – 2013
Stanton % REL PCT
K 27.8% 153 94
BB 14.7% 182 98
POP 11.4% 144 87
FLY 25.6% 89 26
LD 20.6% 95 38
GB 42.3% 102 58

FREQ – 2014
Stanton % REL PCT
K 25.1% 124 87
BB 13.4% 168 92
POP 10.7% 139 89
FLY 28.7% 103 57
LD 23.6% 113 84
GB 37.1% 85 13

First, and most obviously, Stanton resides near the top of both the K- and BB-rate scale. Though his 2014 K-rate percentile rank of 87 remain very high, it should be noted that he has shown small but steady progress in this department over his five MLB seasons, from 99 to 97 to 95 to 94 to 87. Baby steps. Though his BB percentile rank has declined from 98 in 2013 to 92 thus far in 2014, his trend remains positive: His BB rate percentile rank was 66 as recently as 2012. Stanton is getting an increasing share of “respect” walks; he’s already received 14 intentional ones in 2014, as many as in 2012 and 2013 combined. He gets plenty of unintentional intentional ones, as well.

Stanton also has consistently been a popup generator throughout his career. His 87 and 89 percentile ranks in this category in 2013 and 2014 are firmly in line with his career norms. A high K-high popup combination is an extremely risky one, which can only be overcome by extreme batted ball authority. Adam Dunn is a perfect example of such a player that went from superstar to one-dimensional power guy once the flower of his youth faded.

Stanton’s line-drive rate has jumped quite a bit, from a 38 percentile rank in 2013 to 84 so far this year. This would seem to ripe for regression as the season continues, as line-drive rates tend to fluctuate greatly for most hitters from year to year, and Stanton’s previous career high percentile rank of 45 suggests he isn’t likely to be one of the exceptions to the rule.

The biggest positive change in Stanton’s plate appearance outcome frequencies is his increased fly ball rate — from a 26 percentile rank in 2013 to 57 in 2014. For a hitter like Stanton who absolutely pulverizes the ball in the air, this is huge. Last year was a particularly poor one in this category for him, though, as his previous career-low fly ball percentile rank was 41 in his rookie 2010 season. In fact, all he has done this season is climb back near his previous career high percentile rank of 59, which was set in 2012. That, not coincidentally, was his best overall season prior to this year.

Let’s take a look at Stanton’s production by BIP type in 2013 and 2014, both before and after adjustment for context:

PROD – 2013
FLY 0.394 1.268 250 364
LD 0.845 1.397 205 163
GB 0.235 0.269 103 138
ALL BIP 0.370 0.715 163 185
ALL PA 0.248 0.359 0.479 135 149

PROD – 2014
FLY 0.412 1.314 273 322
LD 0.810 1.405 190 152
GB 0.318 0.348 176 140
ALL BIP 0.426 0.825 214 202
ALL PA 0.300 0.395 0.581 175 167

Stanton’s actual production on each BIP type is indicated in the AVG and SLG columns, and it’s converted to run values and compared to MLB average in the REL PRD column. That figure then is adjusted for context, such as home park, luck, etc., in the ADJ PRD column. For the purposes of this exercise, SH and SF are included as outs and HBP are excluded from the OBP calculation.

First of all, it must be emphasized that these are massive batted-ball authority numbers. Stanton batted a lusty .394 AVG-1.268 SLG on fly balls in 2013. After adjustment for context, he had an ADJ PRD figure of 364 on fly balls, which was second in the majors to Chris Davis, and just ahead of Miguel Cabrera and Pedro Alvarez. His REL PRD of 273 has been even better in 2014, though his contextual adjustment isn’t quite as large and gives him an ADJ PRD on fly balls of 322. Not a problem, however, as he is hitting a bunch more fly balls this season as compared to 2013.

Stanton’s actual production on line drives in both 2013 and 2014 has been incredible. Even after conservative adjustments for context, his ADJ PRD figures of 163 an 152 in those two years respectively, are off the charts. To add some perspective, Jose Bautista was the only other player to come close to Stanton in 2013, with a 146 ADJ PRD. Even Stanton’s ground ball authority is well above average, with 140 and 138 REL PRD figures in 2013 and 2014, despite a large number of soft, roll-over grounders in both seasons.

Overall, when all BIP are taken into consideration, Stanton’s REL PRD jumps from 185 in 2013 — which ranked fifth in the major behind Cabrera, Davis, Mike Napoli and Paul Goldschmidt — to 202 in 2014. This increase does not come from an increase in batted-ball authority, but actually from the improved batted-ball mix we covered earlier.

Stanton’s status as an extreme ground-ball puller is an area of concern to be monitored going forward. Thus far in 2014, he has 50 grounders to the left field-left-center field sectors, and only five to right field-right-center field. This makes him a rare right-handed-hitting shift candidate. The only other big-time righty power source who runs such an extreme split is Edwin Encarnacion. Today, with Stanton at the apex of his physical prowess, this is not a material issue, but it is an area of potential risk in the future.

So, has Giancarlo Stanton taken it to the next level? I’d say no, on balance. He has simply brought things back to where they were in 2012, except for a slight step forward in his K rate, and what is likely a temporary positive blip in his liner rate. Stanton is the elite thunder-maker, as he has been since he has arrived on the big-league stage. The K/BB combo remains an area of concern. The extreme pulling on the ground remains an area of concern. His ability to absolutely destroy the baseball when it is in his comfort zone enables him to shrug off these shortcomings and be one of the foremost offensive players in the game.

He will remain so, certainly through his twenties, but there will come a time when he goes from the most forceful impactor of the baseball to one of the best. He will need to develop a more well-rounded, nuanced offensive portfolio by then to remain there. Miguel Cabrera doesn’t pop up, he doesn’t roll over an inordinate number of grounders to the pull side and he strikes out at a much lower rate than Stanton.

Stanton doesn’t need to be Cabrera, but he needs to make some degree of progress in those categories to avoid Adam Dunn-like risk as he enters his early thirties and potentially pursues a second massive payday.

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