You’re 11 years old. You toss your flattened “Piña Mango” Capri Sun pouch to the floor of your mother’s dog hair riddled Honda Odyssey and pull the door handle that activates the painfully slow automatic sliding door. As the door creeps along and the heat of the mid-July sun begins to fill the smelly minivan, you grab your sweet airbrushed helmet and -7 Easton Stealth aluminum bat from the backseat and race towards the dusty fields.
As you begin warming up with your teammates by playing a bit of catch (see: chase balls thrown over your head and down that stupid hill into the woods), you can’t help but begin scouting the other team. “Those kids are huge,” you think to your prepubescent self. Your attention is drawn to one child in particular, due in part to his hulking stature but also to the audible POP! of his partner’s glove. With each subsequent throw and POP! of the glove, you and your entire team begin to quiver in your size-7 Mizuno youth baseball cleats, questioning your own talent, self-worth, and ultimate place in this world. POP! Without doing anything, he’s already gotten in your head.
That child is Giancarlo Stanton.
You hear about hitters being feared. “Jim Rice was the most feared hitter in the game,” say his Hall of Fame supporters. If you had to pick the most feared hitter in today’s MLB, who would you pick? Jose Bautista, maybe. Miguel Cabrera, perhaps. A lot of people would probably pick Giancarlo Stanton, and if the numbers are any indication, that’d be the correct choice.
I dove into some data of 3-0 counts last week and it revealed Oswaldo Arcia’s astounding tendencies. It also spawned another interesting little nugget. What follows is simply the number of times players found themselves in a 3-0 count, and their rates of doing so, from last season:
|3-0 count rate, 2014
You see Giancarlo Stanton, a gap, and the field.
More than 1-in-10 Stanton plate appearances led to a 3-0 count, which is remarkable. Stanton led the league by working a 3-0 count 72 times, and nobody else was within 15 counts of that total. He held nearly a three percentage point lead on the rest of the league, and those are all the different ways I could say that Giancarlo Stanton did this a whole bunch more than anyone else last year.
Those same numbers, but since Stanton’s first full season in 2011:
|3-0 count rate, 2011-Present
It should come as little surprise that this has always been a part of Stanton’s game, but it reached unprecedented levels in 2014.
Of course, some of that is inflated by the intentional walk. Stanton had 24 of them last year — second-most in the MLB — and you might argue that the intentional walks were largely a result of his lack of protection in the lineup. To that, I’d point you towards the throngs of folks who believe lineup protection is a myth, and the compelling arguments they have to back it up. Regardless of how you feel, the intentional walk, more often than not, has value of its own, so it can’t be dismissed. And even with intentional walks excluded, Stanton’s 49 forced 3-0 counts ranked third to Granderson and Werth.
It goes without saying that 3-0 counts are good for hitters. The league’s slash line, through 3-0 counts, is .283/.735/.475, for an OPS of 1.210. Stanton’s OPS, through 3-0 counts last year, was 1.534, with similar numbers over his career.
More often than not, a 3-0 count eventually leads to to walk. But falling behind can also force pitchers to throw pitches like this:
And when Stanton swings at pitches like that, he can do this:
Let’s work backwards with this.
You can’t get to a 3-0 count without first being in a 2-0 count, and it made me wonder how Stanton might be pitched differently than the league in those situations. For instance, hitters saw fastballs in 2-0 counts, on average, 74% of the time last year. For Stanton, it was just 55% fastballs. Less fastballs means more breaking and offspeed pitches, and that means less pitches thrown for strikes. The league average percentage of pitches thrown in the strike zone on 2-0 is 48%. Stanton’s is just 40%.
When Stanton is looking to damage with his bat, pitchers are going to do anything they can to avoid it, even if it means falling behind 3-0. At that point, you might as well concede the walk rather than give Stanton a pitch to hit in a hitter’s count. And that leads us to the important trend in the bigger picture.
Stanton’s career rate of in-zone pitches seen, over all counts, split into two chunks:
- 2010-12: 45%
- 2013-14: 41%
Stanton has been pitched to the league’s lowest zone rate over the last two years, and he’s magnified that by becoming more selective and chasing less. In turn, his walk rate has done this:
- 2010-12: 10%, 67th-highest among qualified hitters
- 2013-14: 15%, 2nd-highest
That’s how this year’s version of Giancarlo Stanton — the best version yet — was able to post on-base percentage pushing .400, despite striking out in more than a quarter of his plate appearances. The Giancarlo Stanton of years past didn’t have that.
There’s a couple of ways to post an elite walk rate. One is by being ultra-selective and having a great eye at the plate. That’s how someone like Matt Carpenter does it. The other way is be so good at destroying all of the pitches that nobody throws you strikes anymore, and that’s the way Giancarlo Stanton does it.
The pitchers have made their adjustment. Stanton now finds himself in 1-0 counts more than anybody. He finds himself in 2-0 counts more than anybody. He finds himself in 3-0 counts more than anybody. He’s walking more than just about anybody, and of course he’s still got arguably the game’s best power. Of course, you still have to credit Stanton for his keen pitch recognition and discipline, but the adjustment has been made by the pitchers on account of Stanton’s reputation.
On one hand, all of this means the pitchers are doing their job in trying not to give Stanton good pitches to hit. On the other hand, there’s the inverse effect of Stanton now being in hitters counts more often than any other player in baseball, giving pitchers even less room for error.
As long as Giancarlo Stanton keeps crushing baseballs, he’ll continue to be pitched the way he’s been the last two years. Who knows, perhaps it gets even more extreme. But if there’s one thing we can bet on Giancarlo Stanton to keep doing, it’s crushing baseballs. He’s the most feared hitter in the league for a reason, after all.
August used to cover the Indians for MLB and ohio.com, but now he's here and thinks writing these in the third person is weird. So you can reach me on Twitter @AugustFG_ or e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.