Expectations were sky-high in the Bronx for the newest Yankee superstar, the high-powered Giancarlo Stanton, in 2018. The Yanks had quickly developed a formidable core of young homegrown talent with Luis Severino, Gary Sanchez and Aaron Judge and stormed their way to Game 7 of the ALCS the year prior. Excitement was in the air – and then the Yanks traded Starlin Castro for Stanton, who had just hit 59 home runs en route to the NL MVP. The Yankees were back; the lovable group of underdogs that surprised the league in 2017 was no more.
Those expectations inevitably meant some letdown, and sure enough, Giancarlo was welcomed to the Bronx in a stereotypical Bronx way: showered with boos, raging WFAN callers and semi-regular trade speculation. It was a true superstar’s welcome to pinstripes, one with which former big-name acquisitions like Jason Giambi, Alex Rodriguez and Mark Teixeira could empathize.
But with two notable exceptions (more on those shortly), Stanton did what Stanton does: hit the ball hard and far. His second year with New York figures to be a bit smoother for a number of reasons – personal adjustment, logistics, etc. are settled now – but let’s quickly dive into his 2018 before looking ahead.
A Disappointing Debut?
Giancarlo’s 2018 is considered disappointing by many fans and analysts, and it’s worth exploring that perception in a bit greater detail, as it will inform our expectations of what he can (and should) do going forward. Here’s his 2018 line compared to his career line:
- 2018: .266/.343/.509 (127 wRC+), .360 wOBA, 9.9 BB%, 29.9 K%, .243 ISO and .333 BABIP
- Career: .268/.358/.548 (142 wRC+), .381 wOBA, 11.5 BB%, 28.0 K%, .301 ISO and .298 BABIP
It’s worth noting that Stanton’s counting stats (38 homers and 100 RBI) and durability (158 games played) were exceptional. That accounted to 4.2 fWAR for the slugger, who was, despite the perception, one of the Yanks’ best players: only Aaron Judge (5.0), Aaron Hicks (4.9) and Didi Gregorius (4.6) were more productive offensively by fWAR. Crucially, all three missed significant time – meaning that Stanton was an indispensable force, and that without him, some of those August lineups would have looked mighty ugly.
His success was buoyed by the two-thirds of the season in which Stanton was a legitimate monster. Take a look at this:
- May 1 to August 18th: 301/.363/.581 (150 wRC+) with 27 home runs in 94 games
- Everything else: .194/.292/.346 (75 wRC+) in 55 games
That top number is the type of production that wins MVPs – and it was long enough that it should serve as proof that Stanton can “handle New York.” But that’s not to say that Stanton wasn’t simultaneously disappointing despite these successes. Two brutal slumps early and late in the season that totaled the remaining third of the season ruined an otherwise outstanding year during the two most visible stretches of the season. That’s why his critics are so loud.
Taken in the aggregate, it’s clear that Stanton underperformed expectations. He got on base less than normal – he was merely above average when usually excellent – and his isolated power was significantly below his career norm, a result of hammering the ball into the ground. He struck out in nearly a third of his at-bats (inevitably including some notable moments), which, although this was typical of him, managed to feel infuriating.
Fans must remember just how good Giancarlo is even with those caveats, though. Normal players don’t hit 40 home runs, drive in 100 runs, play every day but three and manage to be a true middle-of-the-order force on a 100-win juggernaut when they post a 75 wRC+ over a third of a season. That speaks to his natural talent and just how dominant he is as a player when things are clicking. He was worth 4 wins despite his two slumps – and a player for whom that’s the floor is a boon to every team.
Reducing His Grounders
The Yankees have championship aspirations, and to realize those dreams, they’ll need superstar production from Giancarlo across all of 2019. Or, at the very least, his slumps can’t be as severe or protracted in year two. That would go a long way toward his “rebound” and would likely rehabilitate him in the eyes of some of his sharpest critics. How can he accomplish that?
One of the more frustrating parts of Stanton’s 2018 was a sharp uptick in ground balls over his career average. 45% of balls Stanton hit last year were on the ground, far higher than his 42% norm and his highest since 2011 (though, to be fair, he did come close in 2017). His fly ball percentage dropped in concert, with only 36% of his balls hit in the air compared to his 39% career line.
That’s far too many balls on the ground for a player with Giancarlo’s power, let alone considering the fact that balls in the air at Yankee Stadium tend to fly out of the yard even for lesser talents. That means a lot of hard-hit balls gone to waste – and Stanton hit the ball extremely, extremely hard in 2018. Take a look at his batted ball rankings among the 96 other MLBers with 400 or more batted ball events (BBE) last year, per Statcast/Baseball Savant:
- Barrels per plate appearance: 8.9% (5th)
- Barrels per BBE: 15.1% (3rd)
- Balls hit 95 mph or harder: 211 (9th)
- Percentage of BBE hit 95 mph or harder: 50.7% (5th)
- Average exit velocity: 93.7 mph (2nd, with the hardest hit individual BBE of any player in baseball at 121.7 mph)
Few players hit the ball harder. That’s right in line with who he is as a hitter, and we can all expect to see more of the same in 2019. Even in 2018, with more grounders and less fly balls, his line drive percentage stayed constant at 16%. It’s the uptick in grounders that will reduce his power and extra-base hits, not his actual ability to hit the ball hard.
The good news here is that his GB/FB rates were outliers last year, not a return to normal. That suggests that we can expect those numbers to increase – maybe pitchers attacked him differently, maybe he was pressing, maybe he made an ill-advised mechanical change, etc. – and stabilize around his career averages. That should mean more home runs and a higher batting average, as grounders are generally converted into outs – even if Stanton became an unlikely infield single threat. Improving on this figure would likely significantly help Giancarlo find more consistency next year.
A Potential Path to Replicating 2017
There were two other categories in which Giancarlo struggled last year compared to 2017: he struck out more and walked less. The big difference here compared to the above is that 2018 marked a return to normal. It was 2017 that was the outlier.
It’s important to say this: Stanton strikes out a lot. He always has and he always will. He struck out 23% of the time in 2017 in what was the lowest mark of his career by a considerable margin. He made a much-publicized mid-season change to his stance at the plate, the idea of which was to cut down on strikeouts and increase his power. It worked in the short-term but 2018 saw his strikeout rate return to normal, as he fanned 29% of the time (his career average is 28%).
On its own, that would be fine. Stanton was worth 5.0 fWAR in 2012 and 6.8 fWAR in 2014 when he struck out 28 and 26 percent of the time, respectively. But it’s more of a concern when coupled with a declining walk rate, and that’s exactly what happened in 2018: his 9.9% walk rate was much lower than the 12% he posted in 2017 and was his lowest since that 2012 season.
That suggests that Stanton was chasing more pitches out of the zone last year, and the numbers bear that out, but again in a return to career norms rather than an outlier. His 2018 chase rate was just under 31%, which is right in line with his career average of 30.6% – it was 2017 (27.9%) that was the true outlier. Perhaps 2017 isn’t repeatable (it turns out that hitting 59 homers isn’t so easy!) but it’s worth noting that Stanton did swing more overall last year than normal. He swung at 45% of pitches in 2018. That’s in line with his career data but a raw figure he has only exceeded three times in nine seasons.
Hopefully, a year with the Yankees coaching and a season’s experience facing American League pitching means that he will have better recognition in 2019 – for what it’s worth, he’s flatly not interested in discussing his stance – and unleash the Stanton the National League saw in 2017. It would be great to see his walk rate return to normal, and I think there’s plenty of evidence to suggest that this figure will rebound because Stanton generally walks more than he did last year.
The strikeout rate is more likely to remain high moving forward because that’s just who he is as a hitter – but it’s worth remembering that he has found considerable success at the plate as a big leaguer regardless.
What to Expect
There will likely be little change in the way Giancarlo is used in 2019. He’ll remain a primary DH who gets some time in the outfield (although I’d be curious to hear why the Yanks seem to think he can’t play the outfield regularly given that he has spent his career as an outfielder in the National League). He’ll hit in the middle of the order and he’ll hit dozens of home runs and hundreds of balls really hard. That’s just who he is and who he’ll always be. Here are the projections, for whatever they’re worth:
- ZiPS: .255/.344/.557 (138 wRC+)
- Steamer: .267/.354/.569 (145 wRC+)
- PECOTA: .258/.354/.512 (134 DRC+)
Each of those has Stanton outperforming his 2018 debut in the Bronx, and I think that’s a fair assessment. Stanton was very, very good in his first season as a Yankee – and that was with two career outliers in his GB% and reduced BB%. A reset to normal there alone should improve his production, and that’s without considering the external factors that could lead to a more comfortable approach, like being settled in on the team and in New York, familiarity with pitchers, etc.
The Yankees will be an excellent team this year, and Giancarlo Stanton is going to play a major role in that success. Even though he was very good in 2018, Giancarlo seems a safe bet to return to “form” and remind fans why it was that he was the National League MVP just two years ago.