Wednesday, June 6, 2012
More than just a one-trick Marlin
By Jerry Crasnick
Watch closely during Miami Miami right fielder Giancarlo Stanton's at-bats, and it's clear he travels in a different world than most hitters. When Stanton settles into the batter's box, the left fielder instinctively moves back a step or two. The third baseman's pupils dilate. And a hush falls over the stadium as concession stand traffic stalls, bladders inflate and fans attentively wait for the next big power display.
No landmark -- from the Citi Field Apple to the Citizens Bank Park Liberty Bell -- is safe when Stanton achieves full extension. So it's odd that the groundwork for his tape-measure jobs is laid with subtle brushstrokes rather than seat-busting fury. When Stanton dives into his pregame preparation, it might as well be Emilio Bonifacio or Chris Coghlan in the batter's box. There's not a thunderclap or exclamation point in sight.
During a recent batting practice session in Philadelphia, Stanton laid down the obligatory bunt to get things started. Over the next 12 minutes, he hit a series of line drives to right field, pop flies off the top of the cage and one-hoppers off the screen protecting BP pitcher Joe Espada. Only one of Stanton's 30 swings produced a ball to the left of second base. It was a screamer over shortstop that rolled to the W.B. Mason office supply sign in left-center field.
"I guarantee you that he's pissed about that one," Marlins hitting coach Eduardo Perez said.
It's tempting to be a 5 o'clock hero, because nothing is more ego-inflating than teeing off on 65-mph fastballs. But Stanton is past that point. He used to get his muscles limbered up with 10-12 hacks before aiming for the seats in what he called the "home run round." Then Jeff Conine, a special assistant with Miami, saw him in April and asked why he had stopped hitting the ball to right field. A light bulb clicked, and Stanton began taking the Derek Jeter, inside-out approach in batting practice. He found it addictive.
"I focus 100 percent to the opposite field in batting practice, so I'm not pulling off stuff," Stanton said. "If I try to yank the ball and hit it as hard as I can to left field, everything speeds up in the game, and I start to speed up too. So I like to stay inside everything and go up the middle or the opposite way."
Stanton casts an ominous shadow like few hitters in memory. Think back to Frank Howard, Willie McCovey and Willie Stargell in the 1960s and '70s, and on through Mark McGwire, Jose Canseco and Gary Sheffield in more recent years. When the pitcher has to worry about lost body parts along with a rising ERA, it alters the dynamic considerably.
But the fear factor is just a small part of Stanton's growing mystique. He wants to be more than a one-trick Marlin.
"Does he stop people from going to get a hot dog? Yes he does," Perez said. "Does he stop people from going to the bathroom? Yes he does. But he's a kid that's prepared, and he's really good at disciplining himself and getting ready for the game. He doesn't fall in love with who people believe he is. He knows who he is. He doesn't just go up there raw without an idea. That's the most respectful thing about him."
|Giancarlo Stanton has quickly become a must-see event whenever he steps into the batter's box.|
While Bryce Harper and Mike Trout continue to make waves at age 19 and 20, respectively, Stanton is striking a blow for the old guys at 22. After knee problems limited him to 21 at-bats in spring training, he had a tough time in April. But he has since displaced Josh Hamilton and the injured Matt Kemp as the most buzz-worthy hitter in baseball.
Stanton pocketed the National League Player of the Month award in May as a reward for hitting .343 with a 1.201 OPS and helping the Marlins to a 21-8 record for the month. His 12 home runs tied Dan Uggla's franchise record for a single month, and his 30 RBIs matched the franchise standard set by Miguel Cabrera in 2006. In contrast to Stanton's opposite-field batting practice approach, 12 of his 13 homers this season have been pulled to left field, while one landed in dead center.
Most of the Stanton-related chatter revolves around breathtaking takeoffs and destructive landings. ESPN Home Run Tracker divides home runs into three categories -- No Doubts, Just Enoughs and Lucky Homers -- and Stanton's three no-doubts place him behind Carlos Beltran, Pedro Alvarez and Marlins teammate Hanley Ramirez in the National League. But no one makes balls leave the yard faster. On May 21, Stanton hit a 462-foot shot off Colorado's Jamie Moyer to break the new scoreboard at Marlins Park. The homer was clocked at 122.4 mph off the bat, the fastest speed since the calculations began in 2006.
Stanton's biceps, triceps, deltoids and lats have a way of turning hardened baseball men into high school freshmen. A scout in Philadelphia last week texted his buddy with the message, "I'm here watching Herman" -- a joking reference to the power displayed by Herman Munster in his 1960s sitcom tryout with Dodgers manager Leo Durocher.
During a bull session with reporters, Marlins manager Ozzie Guillen expressed a mix of awe and concern over the harm Stanton might do to a defenseless pitcher or infielder. Throw Stanton a fastball down the middle, and it's the baseball equivalent of Messin' with Sasquatch.
"He will hurt somebody before his career is over," Guillen said. "I can't imagine people playing the infield in against him. I thought Jim Thome had some power. But this kid has some ridiculous power. I've never seen the ball jump off anyone's bat that much."
Logan Morrison, who recently moved from left field to first base when the Marlins sent the struggling Gaby Sanchez to Triple-A, has a lot more opportunity now to chat with opposing hitters who are fascinated by Stanton's exploits.
"Todd Helton told me, 'I wonder what it would feel like to hit a ball like that.' And I was like, 'I wish I knew,'" Morrison said. "Todd Helton is going to be a Hall of Famer and he's talking about Mike like he's head and shoulders above him. Physically, Mike is. He's head and shoulders above everybody in this game. Mentally, he's getting there. Once that happens, he's going to be the best player in the game."
Espada has a similar dialogue with Ryan Zimmerman, Chipper Jones, David Wright and other National League third basemen from his post as Marlins third base coach. When Stanton first arrived in Florida from the minors, third basemen would occasionally move in a step just in case he might drop down a bunt. They've since gotten wise to the risks.
"I stay almost on the grass when he comes to the plate," Espada said. "You'll see umpires take a couple of steps back because they're afraid he's going to pull something and they're not going to have time to react. Gary Sheffield's name always comes up -- how fast his bat was and how he pulled the ball so much. I never had the chance to watch Sheffield. But Stanton is one of the strongest baseball players I've seen when it comes to pure, raw strength."
Stanton's burning desire to be great is reflected in his attention to detail. Perez routinely approaches him with observations about the opposing pitcher that night and finds that Stanton has already seen the same thing on video or scouting reports. When pitchers began pounding him with inside fastballs so that he couldn't extend his arms, Stanton adjusted and made them come up with a new strategy -- or risk having their stadium's scoreboard destroyed.
Joel Wolfe, Stanton's agent at the Wasserman Media Group who also represents Phillies second baseman Chase Utley, said he sees some of the same competitive traits in the two players. If you've ever heard the sense of reverence voiced by teammates and opponents when they talk about Utley, you'd understand what a compliment that is.
Stanton has had a chance to hang out with Utley on occasion in Southern California and pick his brain about baseball. But Utley's influence on him goes back to the Game 1 of the 2009 World Series, when he homered twice off CC Sabathia in New York.
"He hit the second homer and everybody was going nuts," Stanton said. "The commentators couldn't even keep it together, and they panned on him and he was just sitting there like nothing happened. I really liked that. There was an expectation that said, 'That's what I should have done,' instead of jumping around when you're going good and being all droopy when you're bad. You have to find a happy medium every day in this game."
Stanton has made enormous strides in a few short years. He was a tight end at Notre Dame High in Sherman Oaks, Calif., and received an offer to play football and baseball at USC before the Marlins shelled out $475,000 to sign him. He struck out 371 times in 1,195 minor league at-bats, prompting teammates and scouts to wonder how long it would take the raw, unpolished gem to morph into a big league player.
"When I first saw him in a baseball uniform I was like, 'I don't know,'" Morrison said. "Then he started to wear his hat a little different -- a little better. He was kind of clumsy in the outfield, but he's leaps and bounds better now. They talk about walking with a purpose and having a routine and carrying yourself a certain way, and that kind of gets bred into you in the minor leagues. It's pretty crazy to see how far he's come."
Stanton was blessed with a strong throwing arm, but he's made himself a more proficient outfielder through long hours in the offseason with Marlins instructor Tarrik Brock. They have a level of comfort and familiarity that allows them to have a frank exchange of information, good or bad.
"It's always good to be close to someone like that," Stanton said. "You don't get offended if they say, 'Hey, you suck at this.' I like being straight up. Don't tell me it 'was an OK job' when it was terrible. Tell me exactly how it is and I won't get offended, because it's the truth."
High strikeout totals will always be an issue for Stanton, but he knows how to work a count. Last year, he tied for 12th in the National League with 3.96 pitches per plate appearance. And after drawing only four bases on balls in April, he walked 16 times in May. With patience and selectivity, he plans to achieve his goal of hitting for a high average and not following the path of Dave Kingman, Rob Deer and other boom-or-bust sluggers.
Mike, meet Giancarlo
When teammates, reporters and fans aren't calling him a phenom or a freak of nature, they're getting used to the new nomenclature. Stanton's given name is Giancarlo Cruz Michael Stanton, so he was going back to his roots, rather than going Hollywood, when he asked people to stop calling him "Mike" during spring training. But some observers reacted as if he had changed his name to Metta World Peace.
"For the first month and a half I was like, 'Oh my gosh. If I knew this was going to happen, I wouldn't have done it,'" Stanton said. "I wasn't playing too well in April, and people were like, 'Mike would be hitting home runs now,' or, 'Mike would have made that catch.' It was kind of funny. But it's a lot better now. People are saying it right."
The more Stanton produces, the more the debate will shift from his numbers and his name change to his long-term outlook as a Marlin. Stanton won't be eligible for free agency until after the 2016 season, but he admits the thought of a multiyear deal crossed his mind recently when Adam Jones signed a five-year, guaranteed $85.5 million extension with Baltimore. The thought was quickly blotted out by a new day and another game.
"It's not like I'm thinking, 'Tomorrow I'm going to get a call or we're going to have a meeting,'" Stanton said. "I really don't care until the time comes. The better I play, maybe the faster they'll want to do something."
Stanton doesn't care all that much about Home Run Derby invitations, All-Star Game nods and Silver Slugger awards, either, but they're sure to start coming his way if he stays focused on the business at hand.
"I hear about all the expectations," he said. "I'm not trying to live up to those, but if I have all the tools and resources to be one of best players in the game, I'm going to squeeze out every last bit of my ability. You never know how long your career is going to last. I don't want to sit back and say, 'I could have worked harder here,' or, 'Somebody told me to do this and I ignored them.'"
One day after another, Stanton just listens, absorbs and keeps getting better. At 5 or 7 p.m., he's a budding force of nature. He has only one goal in mind, and it's building a memorable career one swing at a time.
He will hurt somebody before his career is over.
This kid has some ridiculous power. I've never seen the ball jump off anyone's bat that much.
-- Marlins manager Ozzie Guillen
on Mike Stanton