Mike Stanton is a man-child. His 22nd birthday is next week. He’s already hit 56 home runs in fewer than 1,000 plate appearances. He’s got a jaw built to make ladies faint, quads as wide as his shoulders, gorgeous chest hair and enough power to push a poor team to relevance.
But like Superman before him, Stanton has his kryptonite. Since he debuted in 2010, he has the third-worst strikeout rate in the league (minimum 700 plate appearances).
Will these strikeouts be a speed bump on the way the superstardom — or will they be a fatal flaw that will dog him his entire career? Let’s take a look at some comparable, expansion-era players.
Take all rookie seasons with more than 300 plate appearances and find rookie-eligible players who put in a similar amount of time in their first real seasons since 1969. Sort for strikeouts and take all seasons with more than 25% strikeouts. Then subtract all the players with isolated power numbers less than .200. Now you have your list of high-power, low-contact rookies.
What you get is 31 rookie seasons that look similar to Stanton’s rookie year. On average, these players struck out 28.2% of the time and had a .234 ISO in their first full years, so that fits right in with Stanton’s 31.1% strikeout rate and .248 ISO. These players averaged 22 home runs. Stanton hit 22, as well. So we have our sample.
How did this group do in their sophomore seasons? As a whole, they bettered their strikeout rate to 26.28%. That’s about a 7% relative improvement. Stanton’s change — from 31.1% to 27.6% — was more like an 11% improvement. That should make us feel good about his inclusion in this group; he improved as they did, just a little more.
The third year is the one that’s most interesting to us, since that would be Stanton’s 2012 season. The group improved once again — to 24.39%, or another 7% relative to their rookie year. There’s a slight erosion of the sample at this point — we only have third-year numbers for 25 players because some (Stanton, Pedro Alvarez, Josh Fields, J.P. Arencibia and Tyler Colvin) haven’t made it there yet. We lost one (Victor Diaz) to the end of a career. But this goes along with research that suggests players (or at least elite hitters) strike out less often as they age, so it makes sense.
If Stanton were to fall back to the group and improve 7%, he would show a strikeout rate of 25.4% next year. If he continued to outpace the group, he might get the number down to 24.2%. Both of those numbers are better, but not great: the first would have been tenth-worst among qualified batters last year, the second 14th-worst.
Here come the warm caveats: For one, our sample’s career strikeout rate was higher than their third-year rate (25.5%). Strikeout rate might be something that improves for a while and then starts to go the other way once the player hits his peak.
Another caveat comes from Stanton’s high swinging-strike rate. We only have these numbers since 2002, but 20 of our players have registered swinging strike numbers — and they averaged 12.6% in that category. Stanton’s career 14.2% is worse than average there. We don’t want to degrade our sample too much, but among players with a 14% swinging strike rate or worse (five players), the improvement was much less impressive. That group only improved 4.2% the first year and 2% the next year. They also averaged a 28.62% strikeout rate for their careers. Swinging-strike rate is highly correlated with a batter’s strikeout rate, but Josh Hamilton shows us that there always are outliers.
Ryan Howard might be our best comp for the young Marlin. Howard has a 14.9% swinging strike rate for his career and debuted with a 28.7% strikeout rate, with 10.5% improvement from his rookie to second years. All those numbers look remarkably like Stanton’s — and the two share elite power. Since this conversation began in the comments of a RotoGraphs piece, it’s worth mentioning that Howard’s career batting average (.275) might provide Stanton fans with a roadmap. But Howard’s .313/.425/.659 peak season might also be within Stanton’s range.
Before the Marlins mess themselves with anticipation — a Ryan Howard with decent outfield defense is an exciting proposition — there’s also the case of Jonny Gomes. Gomes improved his 27.8% strikeout rate almost 10% in his sophomore year. He had a 12.6% swinging strike rate and a .253 ISO. It’s not exactly the same (he actually strikes out less often than Stanton), but Gomes does have similarities, and his career might exist as a potential path.
In all likelihood, the celebrated Stanton is more Howard than Gomes, and either way he’s likely to improve over the course of his career — the question is how much. Looking through the prism of strikeouts and swinging strikes helps us narrow our focus. Projecting future output gets baseball fans through the cold, dark offseason. Too bad we’ll have to wait until next year to see which path Super Stanton takes.