We’re in the pennant race home stretch, when thoughts of hardcore and casual baseball fans alike turn to the individual and team hardware that will be presented in the coming weeks. Memories will be made, and the annual class of heroes and goats will be added to the game’s record. This year, in addition to the “official” MLB awards that will be handed out to the game’s best, Fangraphs is getting into the act, with its first annual Player of the Year Award. I am privileged to be one of the 11 voters, and rest assured, I will take my vote quite seriously. One player who is likely to fill a spot on my Top Ten is Giancarlo Stanton – a player who hasn’t had a single at bat since he was hit in the face by a Mike Fiers pitch on September 11. How should this and other factors, such as the offensive context of Marlins Park, affect the thought processes of award voters?
The Fangraphs voters’ award ballots will be made public, and I have a strong feeling that they’re not simply going to be a regurgitation of the year-end WAR standings. Still, I would imagine that every voter will at least take a gander at those numbers before submitting his or her final ballot. At the end of Sunday’s games, here are the position player WAR rankings behind some guy who plays center field for the Angels:
Quite a logjam there, and that’s before you count a bunch of other guys at 5.5-5.6 WAR, plus the three top starting pitchers – Clayton Kershaw, Corey Kluber and Felix Hernandez – who are clearly worthy of Player of the Year ballot consideration. Not to mention a handful of other niche competitors who fall a bit short on WAR but are at least worthy of down-ballot consideration. What on earth does one do to separate the players within this group? Every voter will have their own way of doing so. Of all of these players, however, exactly one player’s season is 100% in the books, and that’s Stanton’s.
One thing that I will not be holding against Stanton is the 17 games he missed at the end of the season. The other players in the same WAR area code will play more games than him – McCutchen’s total will likely be the same. On a per game basis, Stanton deserves a slight bump in his WAR total compared to this group. He was on track to play 162 games this season, and while no one can say for sure if that would have come to pass, I’m not about to hold a pitch to the face against him when he was already 90% of the way there.
I’m also going to regress defensive statistics a bit when I put my final ballot together. Guys who get too much of their value from the more esoteric, subjective side of the ledger are going to take a little bit of a hit. I’m going to look at defensive numbers over multiple years, with 2014 getting the heaviest weighting. This probably doesn’t bode too well for Alex Gordon, for example, but it probably won’t hurt Stanton, who gets virtually all of his value from his offense.
I’m also going to do everything I can to ensure that context is properly weighed when evaluating each player. On the surface, this would appear to be a key area of consideration when Stanton is put under the microscope. He plays his home games in one of the more pitcher-friendly parks in the major leagues – according to my own park factors, which rely upon granular batted-ball data, Marlins’ Park was the 3rd most pitcher-friendly park in the majors in 2013, with a 90.2 park factor. It had the 5th lowest fly ball park factor (76.1), and the 8th lowest line drive park factor (96.2). At the midpoint of the 2014 season, the picture wasn’t much different – a 90.5 fly ball, and 95.9 liner PF. Does Stanton’s 2014 WAR figure properly represent the context in which he has performed?
Let’s take a closer look at Stanton’s 2014 plate appearance outcome frequency and production by BIP type data to attempt to answer these questions. First, the frequency information:
|FREQ – 2014|
Though Stanton remains a very high K guy, he is showing some progress in that area. His 26.6% K rate and 90 percentile rank are both career lows – he makes such thunderous contact, as we shall see, that every additional bit of it makes a difference. His 14.7% BB rate matches the career high he set in 2013, and his percentile rank of 97 comes up fractionally short. A much higher percentage of his free passes were intentional this season – if he can bounce back to his 2013 unintentional pass level, his OBP could pass the .400 mark going forward.
Except for his injury-plagued 2013 season, when he had a very low fly ball percentile rank of 26, Stanton’s fly ball rate has been near league average, in a narrow band between percentile ranks of 41 and 59 (52 in 2014). His liner rate has been operating within an even narrower band, between his 2014 mark of 38 and 45, for the last four seasons. His popup rate is high – 83 percentile rank in 2014 – but manageable for a power hitter.
Frequency-wise, Stanton basically is who he is, though he is making some small strides around the margins. With a guy who impacts the ball like Stanton, the really interesting stuff – especially with regard to context – will show up in his production by BIP type information:
|PROD – 2014|
|Stanton||AVG||OBP||SLG||REL PRD||ADJ PRD|
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.
To put it bluntly, Stanton devastates the baseball. He’s batting .416 AVG-1.347 SLG on fly balls this season, for actual REL PRD of 290. Adjustment for context pushes that figure up to an ADJ PRD of 352 – it doesn’t get much higher than that. In 2013, Stanton’s 364 ADJ PRD on fly balls was 2nd in the majors to Chris Davis‘ 393. Stanton’s raw numbers on liners are ridiculous – .808 AVG-1.384 SLG, including an amazing 7 line drive homers. As good as Stanton is, adjustment for context reins in his 190 REL PRD on liners to a 147 ADJ PRD. No one in baseball besides Stanton – who had a 163 ADJ PRD on liners – matched this figure last season. Oh, and he hits his grounders hard too, with his 181 REL PRD adjusted down to 142 ADJ PRD for context.
On all BIP, Stanton has batted .417 AVG-.798 SLG this season, for a 206 REL PRD, which is adjusted downward to 194 ADJ PRD for context. This was actually a step up from his 185 ADJ PRD on all BIP in 2013, when Stanton struggled to get the ball in the air with frequency. When the K’s and BB’s are added back, his overall 2014 figures fall to 173 REL PRD and 165 ADJ PRD, due to Stanton’s very high K rate.
Let’s take a second to step back and put Stanton’s ball-striking ability into some sort of perspective. There have been 198 fly balls hit at 105 MPH or higher in the major leagues this season. Stanton has hit 14 of them. No one else has hit more than 8 105 MPH fly balls – Mike Trout, Mike Morse and George Springer have hit that many, while Chris Carter has hit 7. Stanton has hit the two single hardest fly balls, 3 of the hardest 8, and 7 of the hardest 28 fly balls hit in the major leagues this season. In all of 2014 only two lefties – Pablo Sandoval and Ryan Howard – and six righties – Hunter Pence, Justin Ruggiano, Ian Desmond, Josh Donaldson, Stanton and Springer – have hit 105 MPH fly balls to the opposite field. In the first half of 2014, 0.7% of fly balls were hit at 105 MPH or higher – 13.7% of Stanton’s were.
In addition to the 14 105 MPH fly balls hit by Stanton, he hit another 19 between 100-105 MPH. The vast majority of these fly balls are home runs regardless of the park in which they are hit. Most “normal” power hitters hit maybe one or two 105 MPH fly balls, and maybe a dozen more between 100-105 MPH. Adam Jones, for example, had 2 105 MPH fly balls and 12 100-105 MPH fly balls in 2013, and he’s no slouch. It’s the batted balls in the next couple of buckets down that are most affected by context – Stanton hit only six 97.5-100 MPH and four 95-97.5 MPH fly balls in 2014. By contrast, in 2013 Jones hit 14 and 13, respectively. Giancarlo Stanton defies context. Whereas you might want to adjust Marcell Ozuna’s – or any other mortal Marlins righty hitter’s with power in the normal range – numbers upward a little bit for the effects of Marlins Park, there is no need to do so for Stanton.
I am comfortable with the numbers in Stanton’s production by BIP type table above – if anything, his 2014 numbers are inflated a bit by relative overperformance on liners and grounders. He hits his liners hard, but .808 AVG-1.384 SLG? No way that requires an upward adjustment. His pull ratio – ground balls hit to (LF-LCF sectors)/(RCF-RF sectors) – on the ground is extreme at 6.11. He is an automatic overshift guy who has a large amount of batting average risk on the ground. Stanton’s greatness – and he is great, make no mistake about it – is fully reflected in his WAR total. He doesn’t need any further help, beyond making him a 162-game player.
Things change awfully quickly in this game. A year ago, most assumed that the Marlins were in long-term rebuild mode, and that Stanton would be moved to rebuild the organization yet again from the ground up. Now, the Phillies and Braves’ arrows are pointed down, the Mets’ is pointed sideways, and only the Nationals stand in the ascendant Marlins’ path in the NL East in the near term. Stanton is very likely staying in town, with a youthful, exciting, rapidly improving cast around him. He isn’t without risk – the K rate and the excessive grounder pulling are cases in point – but thunderous contact such as his takes a long, long while to regress to anywhere near the mean. He’ll be on my Player of the Year ballot, though not at the top, and I wouldn’t expect him to win the NL MVP, either. His long term future may be brighter than anyone on the ballot, however – at 24, he’s two months younger than George Springer.