After a few days of heightened speculation, word finally came down on Monday that the Miami Marlins and Giancarlo Stanton had come to an agreement on a historic 13-year, $325M deal. Terms have not been fully disclosed, but it seems clear that Stanton will have the ability to opt out of the deal at some point, most likely after the 2019 season. This is massive news on many levels – it’s the largest dollar guarantee to a single player in the history of the sport, and a huge departure in operating procedure on the part of the club.
It furthers the ongoing industry trend toward diminished free agent pools, as teams continue to lock up their best and brightest in advance of the exhaustion of their six years of team control. Today, let’s take a quick and dirty look at the potential outcomes for player and club by examining Stanton’s foremost attribute – his peerless ball-striking ability.
I’ve gone into fairly significant detail regarding Stanton’s offensive game in previous articles; today I’m going to take a slightly different path, by considering the authority with which he hits the baseball.
We don’t have access to all manner of batted-ball velocity data, but from Home Run Tracker, one finds that Stanton hit the hardest home run (119.9 mph) in all of 2014. He also hit the third-hardest home run. He also hit the 19th-hardest home run of the entire season.
Here’s the top-20 hardest-hit home runs:
What we notice first is that, while Stanton had three of the league’s 20 hardest-hit home runs, no other player had no more than one. Using home-run velocities is just a proxy for overall bat speed, obviously, but Stanton is the best player by this measure.
We else we notice is that there aren’t many Stantons on the table. There are a few different classes of player, a portion of them somewhat mediocre overall. There are some young legitimate power hitters, like Anthony Rizzo and Justin Upton. There is the established, somewhat mediocre free-swinging type, like Pedro Alvarez and Ian Desmond (the latter of whom is a good hitter for a shortstop, but not necessarily overall). Finally, there’s the fresh-faced youngsters with raw power, who don’t yet have a semblance of plate discipline, or even a plan, really – this would encompass Oswaldo Arcia and C.J. Cron.
There aren’t many established, fully-formed all-around star hitters in their mid-thirties on this list. David Ortiz, Matt Holliday, and Jose Bautista are the only three I see. A couple of years ago, Bautista’s name would have been all around a list like this. Since then, however, he has made “The Adjustment”. More on that later.
With Stanton, it goes way beyond the homers. He hits his fly balls, line drives and ground balls harder than anyone else. A season ticket holder in any of the 19 parks in which he played last year was unlikely to see any other hitter – even their home team’s stars, like Mike Trout, Andrew McCutchen or Yasiel Puig – hit a single baseball as hard in 81 games as Stanton did in as few as two or three.
How then, could this massive investment turn out for the Marlins? There are a range of possibilities, and my gut tells me it’s more likely to turn out relatively well. Let’s look at a range of potential outcomes anyway:
– Stanton follows something resembling the classic development path for a player of his age and ability. This player has just turned 25 years old – if the deal goes its full term, at least two-thirds of its length should be composed of peak-level seasons. Stanton is a power-before-hit guy, not hit-before-power, but is about as good as a 25-year-old power-before-hit guy can be. His late-thirties project to be more Mickey Mantle than Hank Aaron, but that’s about as critical as I can be. His strikeout rate is high but improving, and his popup rate is high but acceptable given his prodigious power. His liner rate is slightly below average, but not a problem, and his walk rate is strong. If he can get his unintentional walk rate back to his 2013 level, .400 OBPs might be in his immediate future.
– The national, global and industry economics are strong over the contract period. If times are good, there is labor peace, and attendance remains strong with cable money continuing to exponentially increase, this deal could be a real bargain within a few years.
– Obviously, serious injury can befall any player. Stanton is no more or less prone to such an occurrence relative to other star players. There is one situation that bears watching, however. Let’s call this the “Casper Wells Effect”. In the summer of 2011, when I was employed by the Seattle Mariners, we acquired Wells in the ill-fated – for us – Doug Fister deal with the Tigers. Wells was no star, but he did have legitimate power. He slugged .538 in limited duty in Detroit in 2010, and .442 for the Tigers before the deal in 2011. He was on fire his first couple of weeks in Seattle, batting .326-.415-.652, with 5 HR – all in Safeco, to the big part of the yard – in just 46 at-bats.
Then, on August 17, 2011, Wells was hit in the face by a Brandon Morrow pitch. He batted all of .125-.222-.250 for the rest of 2011, hit .228-.302-.396 in 2012, and then was Mr. Waiver Wire in 2013, hitting .126-.186-.147. From a scouting perspective, you could easily see him bailing just the slightest bit – he was never the same after the pivotal HBP. His confidence, the one thing a hitter can’t lose, was shot.
Now Giancarlo Stanton is a whole different class of cat than Casper Wells, but the fact remains that the Miami Marlins just guaranteed $325M to a guy who hasn’t had an at bat since being hit in the face with a pitch – and the scene last September in Milwaukee was infinitely scarier than when Wells was – relatively – grazed in the nose by Morrow. This clearly will be something to watch next spring.
– The national, global and industry economics deteriorate over the life of the contract. Bubbles eventually burst. The TV money bubble, at least in some markets, is already showing signs of doing so. The stock market is at an all-time high, but what happens when the Fed stops printing money at will, which they are now in fact saying is their intention? There is a whole lot of crazy stuff going on in the world, in case you haven’t noticed. Some of it could make baseball, and in fact all major sports, seem very inconsequential should circumstances intensify. These are all factors way out of Stanton/baseball’s control, but when any corporation has a long-term $325M debt on its books, long-term outside uncertainties at least have a chance of intruding.
– He doesn’t make “The Adjustment”. In my formative years, I had the privilege of watching Mike Schmidt play baseball for the Phillies every day. For most of the 1970’s, Schmidt struck out a lot, but hit a ton of massive, no-doubt homers to the pull side, while all the way playing Gold Glove caliber defense at third base. A few years after Schmidt’s debut, the Braves’ Dale Murphy entered the league, and began doing the same things, except as a center fielder. As the 1980’s opened, they were the two best players in the National League, with Schmidt winning the MVP in 1980-81, and Murphy matching him in 1983-84.
In his early 30’s, Schmidt noticed that his natural strength was ebbing just the slightest bit, and made some changes to his offensive game. He focused a bit more on contact, and on using the entire field. His average home run distance came way down – but his home run frequency did not. He led the league in homers two more times in 1984 and 1986 at ages 34 and 36, as his K total plunged from an NL-leading 148 in 1983 all the way to 84 in 1986. He copped a final MVP Award in 1986 for his efforts.
On the other hand, Murphy never made “The Adjustment”. He had his last great year at age 31 in 1987, drilling 44 homers and putting up a .295-.417-.580 line. He never again slugged above .421 – he went from superstar to below average offensive corner outfielder in record time. Could there have been other factors at play? Sure – a lot of players seemed to get a lot bigger around that time, while Murphy did not – but in any event, he did not make the adjustments necessary for continued excellence once his natural gifts began to decline.
Jose Bautista showed many signs of making “The Adjustment” last season. His popup totals are way down, and his K rate continues to improve. He isn’t hitting the ball as hard or as far, but his “technical merit” scores are clearly improving, at the age of 33. I like his intermediate-term prognosis a lot more than I did a couple of years ago.
Bautista represents a good role model for Stanton, stylistically. The Marlin Masher is nowhere near the point where he needs to make material adjustments at the plate, but that day will come. If he can pull a Bautista once his physical gifts show signs of natural erosion, he can still be an offensive force in the latter stages of his earth-moving deal. Making “The Adjustment” could be the difference between it being a merely good, or great deal from the Marlins’ perspective.