As I sit here in the winter meetings media room, there’s a press conference taking place in front of me, with Giancarlo Stanton being officially introduced as a member of the New York Yankees. If you’re a Yankees fan, you love it, and if you’re a fan of anyone else, you don’t, but one thing every fan understands is that this gives the Yankees something extraordinary. Your mind goes directly to one place: The Yankees lineup is about to feature both Stanton and Aaron Judge, and Stanton and Judge are amazing.
If you’re analytically inclined, you know that Stanton and Judge are Statcast outliers. They’re the two players who most frequently push the upper boundaries of exit velocity. And even if you’ve never heard the word “Statcast” at all, you can understand that Judge just led the American League in home runs, while Stanton led the majors. Stanton was Judge before Judge, Judge v1.0, and he’s as big a power threat as anyone in baseball. Stanton could hit the ball out anywhere even before the ball started flying, and he’s associated with his power in the way Aroldis Chapman is associated with his fastball. The Yankees have landed a premium slugger, to go along with their other premium slugger.
But Stanton’s reputation might be a little misleading. Power is his biggest strength, sure, but there’s more to his game. Stanton’s more of a complete player than you might realize, after making some changes in the regular season.
You could always start with the fact that Stanton just played in 159 games. He has an extended injury history, and that can’t be erased, but his fragility or injury-proneness is probably overstated as a consequence. If Stanton isn’t actually durable, well, he was durable in 2017, which is a promising indicator for the seasons ahead. We know he can play a whole year, because he just finished playing a whole year. It’s the most you could ask.
But there’s also the matter of what happened with his numbers. Here’s one way of looking at things — Stanton’s career percentile rankings in strikeout rate and isolated power.
Stanton has always been a power hitter, from day one. He’s arguably the best power hitter in the game. But you can see that something just happened with Stanton’s strikeouts. This past season, Stanton’s strikeout rate ranked in the 26th percentile. That’s not good, not on its own — Stanton will never be mistaken for Jose Altuve. Yet Stanton’s previous high was the 12th percentile. In 2016, he ranked in the sixth. Stanton just meaningfully improved his contact, and here’s a plot that maybe makes a stronger impression.
I looked at every hitter from the past two years who batted at least 300 times in each season. I’ve plotted them by their changes in power and strikeouts. Stanton is marked in yellow.
We’re accustomed to thinking of power and contact as an either/or. And, generally speaking, that is indeed the relationship, but there are exceptions. Stanton just posted the 11th-biggest drop in strikeout rate, and he also had the eighth-biggest improvement in power. Now, Stanton had shown something like this power ability in the past, but he never made so much contact. Stanton worked to make himself more complete, and in that plot, his is a dot that’s hard not to notice.
I should note that Stanton isn’t alone. The three somewhat similar points in there belong to Justin Smoak, Eddie Rosario, and Whit Merrifield. Nevertheless, you don’t see many players do what Stanton just did. And I think there’s a pretty good chance this is going to stick.
There’s a mechanical explanation, as Stanton has adopted an extremely closed-off batting stance. Even before that, in fact, there were signs that Stanton was consciously trying to cut down on his whiffs, and in this era, with the ball taking off, Stanton doesn’t need to swing as hard as possible every time. You still find him atop exit-velocity leaderboards, though, and yet he’s kept his strikeout rate lower for several months. Stanton seems to have made one improvement without a consequential sacrifice.
You can also look at the player-pool history. I went back to the 1995 season and found players who batted at least 400 times in three consecutive seasons. I isolated all the players who reduced their strikeout rates by at least five percentage points between the first two years. The average reduction was 6.4 percentage points, roughly matching what Stanton just did. In the third year, on average, those players’ strikeout rates went back up less than two percentage points. There was regression, but only part of the way, with the bulk of the contact improvement sticking.
Every player has his own story, and follows his own course, but Stanton no longer seems so extremely whiff-prone. This past season, he struck out about as often as Addison Russell and Kevin Kiermaier. No one will ever confuse Stanton for being a pure hitter, but he’s trending more in that direction, his swing having fewer holes. This gets lost in the conversation about how hard he hits the ball.
And it should also be noted that Stanton isn’t only a good hitter. His offense is about more than his power, and his game is about more than his offense. No, Stanton isn’t that much of a threat on the bases. His career baserunning value is right around average. Yet his career Defensive Runs Saved total is +45. By Ultimate Zone Rating, he shows up at +29. And this isn’t just an artifact of his earliest, youngest seasons.
Over the past three years, 39 different players have played at least 1,000 innings in right field. By DRS, as a rate stat, Stanton ranks seventh-best. By UZR, as a rate stat, Stanton also ranks seventh-best. While Stanton isn’t as good of a defender as, say, Jason Heyward or Mookie Betts, he is a legitimate outfield plus. He’s a quality defender, which means he’s not by any means one-dimensional. Stanton is, overall, pretty well-rounded, which is one of the reasons why the Yankees feel comfortable rotating Stanton, Judge, and Brett Gardner. They can all handle a certain amount of versatility.
It’s perfectly natural to focus on power. There’s nothing in baseball more valuable than a home run, and no hitters hit more last year than Stanton did. Stanton’s power is his calling card, and, in the past, he did come with other concerns. In the most recent year, however, Stanton didn’t get hurt. In the most recent year, Stanton significantly cut down on his strikeouts. And, in the most recent year, Stanton continued to play a good right field. The Yankees didn’t trade for a source of home runs. The Yankees traded for a source of value, to be delivered in a number of different ways. You could say that Stanton’s reputation almost does the reality of his game a disservice.
Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.