Giancarlo Stanton comes into his fourth big league season as a 23-year old and feeling lonely. Gone are the plethora of major league stars that surrounded him in the Miami Marlins lineup last season, only to be replaced by a bunch of used to be’s and never were’s. This mass abandonment of quality hitters around Stanton in the lineup brings to mind questions and doubts of how his production will be affected by a lack of “protection”.
The scenario is sadly familiar for this franchise as just seven years prior, then Florida Marlin, Miguel Cabrera found himself in the exact same predicament entering his fourth big league season also as a 23 year old. Maybe Cabrera’s 2006 season can help provide some clues on what to expect from Stanton this season.
The concepts of “line up protection” and “getting pitched around” affecting a particular hitter’s production is debatable. It is difficult to prove statistically how a pitcher changes strategies because a hitter of a lesser or better quality is in the on deck circle. Logically, however, you would think that if a pitcher finds himself facing Stanton with a base open and sees Greg Dobbs coming up next, he would elect to throw nothing close to the strike zone. The question for Stanton becomes will he have the discipline to lay off those pitches and take a base on balls or will he choose to swing at pitches out of the strike zone thus producing more strike outs or weakly hit balls? Let’s look at what we know about Stanton’s tendencies so far.
Giancarlo Stanton’s brief big league history has shown him to be a typical slugger when it comes to strike outs meaning there are plenty swings and misses in his game. His career strike out rate stands at 28.9% of his plate appearances and his contact percentage on swing attempts is about 68%. Last year’s top 10 home run leaders had a cumulative strike out rate of 22.7%. Stanton’s career walk rate is about 10% of plate appearances which again is about typical for that top 10 home run hitters group where the walk rate was about 11% last season. From an on base percentage perspective his career mark stands at .350 including a career high of .361 last season. Having this information as a background, let’s look to see if and how Miguel Cabrera’s season was affected by the mass turnover in the Marlins 2006 lineup.
The offseason prior to the 2006 season the Marlins had just executed their latest fire sale trading away established stars Josh Beckett, Mike Lowell, Carlos Delgado and Juan Pierre. Cabrera had already been a two time All Star himself and had posted a terrific slash line of .323/.385/.561 in the season prior. The 2005 season had been his best to date as he established career highs in batting average, on base percentage and slugging percentage as well as tying his career high with 33 home runs. Still, there were questions coming into the season as to how Cabrera’s production would be affected by having no “protection” in the line up. If you were to judge his season by what happened on one June night of that season when he swung at and singled on an intentional walk attempt by the Orioles you may surmise that Cabrera was overcome with desperation. However, why don’t we examine what really happened over the full season using the same metrics discussed for Stanton.
Coming into 2006, Cabrera had established a career strike out rate of 20.8% and a contact percentage of about 75%. Cabrera’s superior ability to solidly connect the bat with the ball is what makes him one of the best overall hitters in the game, but his walk rate was a tick below Stanton’s at about 9%. The data from the 2006 season suggests that a change in Cabrera’s approach to hitting and opposing pitchers approach to him did occur. Maybe it was due in part to the perceived lack of “protection” in the line up, but was also likely attributable to Cabrera’s continuing maturation as a major league hitter. Whatever the reason, the 2006 season saw Cabrera lower his strike out rate to 16% and improve his walk rate to almost 13%. He lowered his strike outs by 17 and walked 22 more times than in the 2005 season and his on base percentage improved from .385 to .430. Cabrera again set career highs in all three triple slash categories with an outstanding .339/.430/.568 line and finished in the top 5 in MVP voting despite playing on a fourth place team.
It is unfair to expect a similar level of improvement from Stanton this season as he is being compared to one of the elite hitters of this generation and, in truth, that “weak” 2006 Marlins lineup included breakout years by Hanley Ramirez, Dan Uggla and Josh Willingham. However, what we do see is that it is possible for the lack of protection Stanton is expected to get from the lineup to actually turn into a positive for him personally if he adapts his approach and can take advantage of the opportunities he does get. Which direction do you expect Stanton’s production to go in this season?