If this offseason was a nightmare for Giancarlo Stanton, it has continued into the regular season, and there's no telling when the Miami Marlins right fielder is going to wake up. Through Tuesday's doubleheader split against the Minnesota Twins, Stanton was hitting .200/.333/.255 (.588 OPS).
Just months removed from an astonishing conclusion to his 2012 -- 8 home runs, 3 doubles, a triple and 10 walks in the last 21 games of the season -- Stanton was expected to be the only jewel remaining in the Marlins' crown following owner Jeffrey Loria's offseason fire sale. While it's true that the season as a whole hasn't been kind to Miami so far and that it's unlikely to become more so as the team gets deeper into its schedule, the one constant was supposed to be the ability of Giancarlo Stanton to launch baseballs all over -- and outside of -- a major league baseball diamond. So far, he's just not doing that. Why?
The simple answer is that the power just isn't there. This isn't apparent just in his raw slugging numbers -- no home runs and only two doubles in his first 57 plate appearances, or in his slugging percentage of .229 against last year's .608, but in how hard the ball is coming off the bat. Generally speaking, groundballs are less well-hit than flyballs; players that hit mostly groundballs with some line drives mixed in can be effective players in the majors, but not as annual threats to win the home run title like Stanton has been the past two seasons. As far as those two numbers go, Stanton's hitting about 50% flyballs, 50% groundballs, which is fine -- he hit more flyballs than groundballs last year on his way to 37 HR (0.87 GB/FB ratio), but the year before when he hit 34, he hit just as many more grounders than balls in the air (1.18 GB/FB). However, in both those seasons Stanton was doing something he has not as of yet in 2013: consistently hitting line drives. Here are the line drives Stanton has hit from 2010-2012, as a percentage of balls in play: 16.5%, 16.3%, 22.1%. So far in 2013? 7.1%.
That's a massive, massive outlier; it fact, it's so massive that while on the face of it this is bad news, it is also good news, because barring a major collapse in Stanton's swing it is almost certain to rectify itself shortly. Every major league hitter has periods of time at the plate when they just can't size up a ball the way they know they're able to; so far, this appears to be one of those, instead of a hitting version of what happened to Rick Ankiel on the mound. There don't appear to be any massive mechanical problems with how Stanton's swinging the bat at the plate, and he has been nursing a shoulder contusion to start the year which might have something to do with his struggles, though he managed to avoid the disabled list for the injury, so there's reasonable hope that the Marlins slugger will go back to hitting line drives around at least his career average 18 LD%, and at that point he should start to look a lot like the guy from the past two years.
There will likely be a couple key differences though, even once Stanton gets back on track -- considering he's the only legitimate hitter on that team, other clubs have no real reason to ever pitch to him, since the bases will usually be empty when he steps up to bat and if he works a walk, no one coming up behind him is a huge threat to score him from there. Generally the idea of lineup protection -- that is, that the hitter after the current hitter has a significant impact on how the opposing team pitches to the current hitter and whether or not the current hitter sees good pitches to hit -- has been shown to be inconclusive at best on major league lineups, but what the Marlins are trotting out there every day isn't one of those.
I'd expect Stanton, should he spend the entire year in Miami, to show career-high numbers of walks and intentional walks along with a moderate decline in his power stats (as well as not too many more RBI than HR, though that's neither here nor there when discussing a player's actual performance at the plate). The early season has borne this out so far, Stanton's posting a career high 15.8 BB% (walks as a percentage of plate appearances) so far. Considering the lineup composition around him, I'd expect that number to stay somewhere around there. Opposing teams just aren't going to care if they walk Stanton if the next guy to come up is Austin Kearns.
One thing that is concerning is that Stanton's K% (the number of times he strikes out as a percentage of his plate appearances) is also well up over his career norms early in the season; Stanton is already well-known as a high-strikeout power hitter, but during his last two, very effective seasons, that percentage was around 27-28%. Currently it sits a tick above 35%. At this pace, if Stanton gets 600 plate appearances he'll strikeout 210 times, which is a Mark Reynolds-esque number of outs made in the batters' box. Being Mark Reynolds is not a bad thing -- as Indians fans are finding out so far this year, he has definite value as a baseball player -- but one of the primary reasons Reynolds isn't one of the most valuable hitters in baseball and is, instead, a frustrating and deeply-flawed hitter is that he doesn't have anything approaching a complete game at the plate. Stanton was already testing the upper boundaries of how much a player can strikeout and still produce at an elite level; he can't go into Reynolds territory and be as productive as he's been in the past. Part of this is perhaps related to the walks rising as well in that Stanton is likely seeing more pitches out of the zone and on bad parts of the plate and hasn't adjusted his approach yet to compensate for it.
Then there's the wild card, which is that Giancarlo Stanton is unhappy with playing baseball for the ownership of the Miami Marlins. He's been quiet about it since Spring Training, but nothing's really changed for the Marlins since then except now he's going out there and losing games every day with the team because instead of Jose Reyes being the next most productive hitter on the team behind him, that guy's Juan Pierre (or Justin Ruggiano, if you think Justin Ruggiano being even league average with a bat is for real, which the smart money is against despite his production last year in limited action).
It feels a lot like the clubhouses the Baltimore Orioles had back before Andy McPhail took over the team, where there were a bunch of veterans who didn't quite deserve to be there collecting paychecks along with a number of young players, of whom only a small few had any sort of reasonably bright future. Unfortunately for the Marlins, that problem was created (and compounded) by an ownership that clearly shows a disdain for its fans and no real compunction or desire to put a winning product on the field or do anything besides secure the most profitable bottom line possible, something that's never been true of Peter Angelos's Orioles. For an elite outfielder to be in a situation like that, with a team tied around his ankles like a rope, it's easy to see how it might not be the happiest workplace in the world for him. While there's no way Stanton is as bad as he is at the plate right now the rest of the year, and while the reasons for his performance so far have a lot more to do with random variance and bad contact than any sort of morale issue in the Marlins clubhouse, it's hard to think of any player in baseball that would benefit more from a change of scenery than Giancarlo Stanton.