In 2010, 20-year-old Giancarlo Stanton slugged 22 homers in 396 plate appearances. Only 11 20-year-olds had ever hit more home runs in a season, and only Bob Horner in 1978 hit more homers in fewer plate appearances. At 21, he hit 34 homers, fourth among 21-year olds, and nobody hit more in fewer than Stanton’s 601 plate appearances. His 37 homers the next year were eighth among all 22-year-olds, and nobody had more in fewer than Stanton’s 501 plate appearances.
At 23, Stanton had “only” 24 homers in 504 plate appearances, and at 24, he hit 37 without playing a full season. Last year, he hit 27 homers in 317 plate appearances and nobody at any age has ever hit as many home runs with fewer opportunities. If there is a theme, it’s that Stanton hits a ton of home runs. If there is a secondary theme, it is that he doesn’t play full seasons. The first one is great. The second one could be cause for concern.
This is cherry-picking the data a bit, but there have been 89 player seasons where a player hit at least 22 home runs and had 505 plate appearances or fewer before or during a player’s age-26 season, per Baseball-Reference Play Index. Of those 89 seasons, 74 happened once, including 11 in strike years. Five players have two such seasons, although Mike Piazza’s happened during the strike and lockout. The only player with more than two is Giancarlo Stanton, and with him out for the season, 2016 will make the fifth time it has happened in his career. Extend the age requirement up to 30, and still nobody has more than three such seasons. Get rid of the age requirement all together and the only other player with five such seasons is Jose Canseco, and two of those seasons were shortened by a strike.
Stanton’s injuries have generally varied enough that there does not appear to be anything chronic in nature. In review:
- 2012: missed less than a month due to arthroscopic knee surgery on his right knee.
- 2013: missed a little over a month with a strained right hamstring.
- 2014: missed last few weeks of season after getting hit in the face with a pitch. No DL stint due to expanded rosters.
- 2015: missed the rest of the season beginning in late June after a fractured bone in his hand due to a hard swing.
- 2016: missed the rest of the season beginning in mid-August due to a left groin strain.
We have four separate injuries, none overly serious, and after the first three, he came back at or near the same performance level that he exhibited previously. Despite all those injuries and missed time, his 26.7 WAR is still in the top-100 of all time through age-26, and his 206 homers are 16th through the same age.
To look for similar players, I looked back over the past 100 years and found players within five WAR and 500 plate appearances through age-26 of Stanton’s current marks. I found 36 players. To find players on a similar career path, they needed to start young like Stanton. Unfortunately, of those 36 players, only 15 even played at age-20, only one had more than 100 plate appearances (Johnny Callison) nad even he didn’t have half of Stanton’s 396 plate appearances. Close to the same was true including the age-21 season with Stanton having a more than 200 PA lead on everyone, and just a handful clearing 600 plate appearances.
As a result, even when looking at age-22 through age-26 for all 36 players, Stanton lagged behind all others in plate appearances, within even 500 plate appearances of just five players. Of those five, Paul Waner didn’t get his start until he was 23 and had nearly 700 plate appearances per year, Chet Lemon and Willie Wilson had years artificially reduced by strikes, Paul Blair makes for an interesting comparison, but his career was altered by a pitch that hit him in the face in 1970, and Jose Canseco exceeded 550 plate appearances in all of those years except for one, exceeding 650 plate appearances four times.
Trying to reverse the process above is just going to end up with players who either played a lot more or who have been more successful, often times both. Essentially, it is nearly impossible to find a group of meaningful comparable players for Giancarlo Stanton, which probably should not be a surprise given lack of comps for him when watching him swing the bat.
Perhaps a more narrative approach is required. Running back to that Play Index search I did towards the beginning, I didn’t cherry-pick as much, this time looking for players with the most seasons of at least 20 home runs and fewer than 550 plate appearances through age-30. Dave Kingman had more of those seasons with Stanton at six, but his low plate appearance totals had more to do with poor defense and tons of strikeouts that kept his value down. Other players with five seasons like Stanton include a couple catchers in Mike Napoli and Brian McCann, whose positions kept their PA down. Bob Horner sticks out, but his problems seemed to stem from the same wrist injury followed by the collusion in 1987 that forced him to Japan.
There are seven non-catchers outside of Stanton with at least four seasons of 20 homers and under 550 plate appearances before the end of the age-30 season. Four were all or nothing or defensive liability-types in Kingman, Rob Deer, Boog Powell, and Frank Howard. Horner was mentioned above. The final two, while not making for good statistical relevance do present two strikingly different paths.
The first player from age 24-28, averaged 530 plate appearances, never playing more than 135 games or receiving more than 562 plate appearances with minor injuries constantly keeping him from playing a full season. Despite those issues, he averaged 30 homers and 4.5 WAR per year with a 143 wRC+ during that time (Stanton is at 30 homers, 4.0 WAR and 145 wRC+). Sadly, Eric Davis seriously injured his spleen in the 1990 World Series and was not ever the same player, although he did put together good seasons in 1996 an 1998. This is the worst case.
The other player had some nagging injuries in his 20s, and being platooned some didn’t help, but from 24-28, he averaged 521 plate appearances, twice failed to qualify for the batting title and three times played in fewer than 135 games. He was a bigger guy–not Stanton big, but still big–and he averaged 25 homers with a 135 wRC+ in those seasons. Over the next seven seasons, Willie Stargell averaged 646 plate appearances, 36 homers and 5.7 WAR with a 156 wRC+ on his way to the Hall of Fame. This resembles something closer to best case.
It’s fair to wonder if Giancarlo Stanton is injury prone. He certainly has not played as much as one would expect a full-time player to play over his young career. Stanton finds few, if any comps for players of his caliber with this injury history. While the immediate impact of an injury might be ascertainable and injuries to the wrist or knee might have lingering affects, there is no way to determine his health for the future. This year will go down as a disappointing one for Stanton as his 116 wRC+ is 25 points below his career average, but his future still looks bright. The massive power is still there, and there is little reason to think he won’t rebound in 2017 after missing the rest of this year.
Craig Edwards can be found on twitter @craigjedwards.