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By David Golebiewski On September 19, 2011, Mike Stanton stepped into the batter's box at Sun Life Stadium to face Atlanta's Mike Minor. The 6-foot-5, 240 pound Stanton, just barely old enough to sip on hops and barley, belted a first-pitch fastball ten rows deep into the upper deck, which, luckily for those looking to avoid a trip to the ER, was closed off to fans earlier in the season. Stanton lingered at the plate after making contact, mouth open and eyebrows raised, as if wondering, "Did I really just do that?" "That," Marlins play-by-play announcer Rich Waltz bellowed, "was a Ring of Honor shot!" Waltz was referring to the names of retired Miami Dolphins greats that line the stadium's second tier. But he just as easily could have been talking about where Stanton's shots -- he hit a 461 foot rocket off Minor later in the game -- placed him among the game's all-time great young sluggers. With 34 home runs, Stanton went yard more often during his age-21 season than all but three players in the history of the game. Just being in the majors at 21 shows that a player is way ahead of the development curve, as most players that age are either chasing a trip to Omaha for the College World Series or racking up Greyhound rewards points in A-Ball. But being that young and ranking as one of the game's premier power bats? That's a good indication that a hitter could be headed for the ring of honor known as Cooperstown. Take a look at the company Stanton keeps among age 21 sluggers:
Most HR Hit During Age-21 Season
Player 1. Eddie Mathews 2. Albert Pujols 3. Hal Trosky 4. Mike Stanton T-5. Miguel Cabrera T-5. Jose Canseco T-5. Bob Horner Year 1953 HR 47 Player T-13. Cal Ripken T-13. Tony Conigliaro T-15. Juan Gonzalez T-15. Eddie Murray T-15. Orlando Cepeda T-15. Al Kaline T-15. Hank Aaron Year 1982 HR 28
T-5. Jimmie Foxx 9. Andruw Jones
T-20. Justin Upton
T-20. Darryl Strawberry T-20. Johnny Bench T-20. Ken Keltner
10. Ruben Sierra
T-11. Frank Robinson T-11. Joe DiMaggio
For those of you keeping score at home, that's 10 Hall of Famers, plus two future first-ballot Hall of Famers in Pujols and Cabrera. While this list is packed with legendary hitters, we do also see a few guys for whom young slugging didn't portend lots of plaques and press. We'll return to this list later, examining the career paths of age-21 power hitters to see what the future may hold for Stanton. But now, let's pop the hood on Stanton's historic season. Breaking Down Stanton's Slugging With run-scoring down yet again in 2011, Stanton hit his shots in a less homer-happy environment (0.94 home runs per game for each team) than other recent players like Upton (1.04 in 2009), Cabrera and Pujols (1.12 in 2004 and 2001, respectively). Sun Life Stadium wasn't a launching pad, ranking 18th in ESPN's home run park factor. Divisional games on the road were no picnic either, with Citizens Bank Park (16th in HR park factor), Turner Field (17th) and Citi Field (28th) also ranking in the bottom half. Despite these obstacles, Stanton crushed pitches of all velocity and movement. Trumedia Networks and Sportvision keep track of a batter's performance against both "hard" pitches (fastballs, sinkers, cutters and splitters) and "soft" pitches (curveballs, sliders and changeups). Against hard pitches, Stanton slugged .567. That ranked in the 92nd percentile among major league hitters, the baseball equivalent of scoring at genius level on those standardized tests we all took in school. Here is a heat map of Stanton's in-play slugging percentage against hard pitches by pitch location, compared to the league average. The more dark grey you see, the better. Stanton has a thick grey stripe that cuts across the middle of the strike zone:
Stanton's in-play slugging percentage vs. "Hard" stuff
League average in-play slugging percentage vs. "Hard" stuff
Lest you think Stanton was a one-dimensional, Pedro Cerrano-esque hitter, he slugged .491 against soft pitches. That ranked in the 94th percentile among big league batters. Unless a pitcher located his soft stuff low and away, Stanton annihilated it:
Stanton's in-play slugging percentage vs. "Soft" stuff
League average in-play slugging percentage vs. "Soft" stuff
Twenty of Stanton's home runs came against hard pitches, and 14 against soft ones. Stanton’s power-hitting prowess reached mythical levels even before he made his major league debut, as he obliterated a pitch at Double-A Montgomery in May of 2010 that sailed over the center field scoreboard and landed an estimated 500-550 feet from home plate. Around that same time, Mississippi manager Phil Wellman said to the Florida Times Union, “[Stanton] looks like a 15-year-old playing on an 8-year-old's Little League team.” Given how far Stanton’s homers traveled in 2011, it often looked like he was taking swings in a Little League Park.
Stanton didn’t hit any cheapies. His homers rocketed off the bat and landed (they did eventually land, right?) in parts of the bleachers that mere mortals could only dream of reaching. Hit Tracker Online shows that Stanton's home runs came off the bat at an average speed of 107.4 mph, four mph above the major league average. Factoring out the influence of wind, temperature and altitude, Stanton's shots traveled an average distance of 415 feet. The big league average? A mere 394 feet. And no NL hitter topped Stanton's 15 "No Doubt" homers, which are clouts that clear the fence by at least 20 vertical feet and land at least 50 feet past the fence. Who needs a space shuttle program when you've got Mike Stanton? What History Says about Stanton’s Slugging The young sluggers on the age 21 HR list at the beginning of the article went on to post some prolific home run totals. Five joined the 500 home run club (Hank Aaron, Frank Robinson, Jimmie Foxx, Eddie Mathews, Eddie Murray). Albert Pujols is poised to do so within the next two seasons, and Miguel Cabrera is a good bet to eventually reach that marker as well. Four others aside from Pujols topped 400 homers (Jose Canseco, Juan Gonzalez, Cal Ripken and stillactive Andruw Jones), and four more went deep over 350 times (Al Kaline, Johnny Bench, Orlando Cepeda and Joe DiMaggio). But, more impressively, these guys on that list are anything but all-or-nothing batters. The average career OPS+ of our young sluggers is 135, and the median OPS+ is 132. They not only hit for power, but also get on base and provided all-around value at the plate. Stanton is holding his own so far, posting a 132 OPS+ during his first two years in the majors. On average, our young sluggers showed marked improvement in their strike-zone control in subsequent seasons. At age 21, they had a collective 0.53 walk-to-strikeout ratio. At 22, they bumped that BB/K ratio up to 0.66, and at 23, it was 0.76. Whether it’s pitchers tiptoeing around the zone, respecting the hitters’ prodigious power, or batters learning to lay off junk pitches and make more contact, these guys quickly learn how to walk more and punch out less. It remains to be seen how Stanton’s plate approach evolves, but he took more free passes and whiffed less in 2011, increasing his BB/K ratio from 0.28 during his rookie year to 0.42. Ironically, the age-21 hitter that Stanton most resembles is Cabrera. Back in 2004 with the Marlins, Miggy hit 33 home runs and had a 0.46 BB/K ratio. He has since cut his strikeout rate drastically while averaging twenty-plus intentional walks per season. I don't know if Stanton can pare his strikeout total that much, but big-time power has its perks -- pitchers don't want to mess with you. Stanton's boost in walks (from 8.6 percent to 11.6 percent) and decline in Ks (31.1 percent to 27.6 percent) was due to a combination of pitchers showing caution and Stanton tweaking his two-strike approach. According to Trumedia data, Stanton’s rate of pitches seen within the strike zone fell from 44 percent to 42 percent, a figure similar to those of Adrian Gonzalez and Cabrera and one of the 10 lowest among qualified hitters. With two strikes, Stanton was more aggressive
(he swung at 60 percent of two-strike offerings, up from 58 percent) and missed less often (36 percent of the time that he swung, down from 38 percent). Stanton’s improved BB/K ratio is a great sign that he’s headed for sustained stardom instead of a career path akin to that of Ruben Sierra, one of the cautionary tales on the young sluggers list. Sierra was hardly a total bust – he finished with over 300 career home runs, made four All-Star teams and finished as the runner-up in the 1989 MVP race – but his production fell off in his mid-twenties and he turned into a journeyman in his thirties, finishing with a 105 OPS+ that is by far the lowest among the young sluggers. Sierra never walked much, routinely posting OBPs in the low .300s that dragged down his offensive value. Homers are important, but so is reaching base by other means. Aside from poor plate discipline, the other pitfall Stanton needs to avoid is injury. Hal Trosky, an Indians first baseman in the 1930s, routinely ranked among the game’s best home run hitters but had his career derailed by migraine headaches in his late twenties. Bob Horner’s bulky, beat-up body made him a defensive liability at third base. He played a year in Japan after collusion left him without a real big league offer in 1987, and he retired at age 30 due to injury. Darryl Strawberry dealt with injury, among other issues, during his career, and Juan Gonzalez couldn't stay on the field in his early thirties. And then there’s the tragic tale of Tony Conigliaro, a local Boston boy who became the youngest HR champion in American League history. On August 18, 1967, Tony C. was hit a Jack Hamilton fastball under his left eye, ruining his vision and shattering his cheekbone. He attempted two comebacks but was out of baseball by age 30. So far, Stanton's Hulk-like physique hasn't been bothered by more than an eye infection and a tweaked hamstring. But Conigliaro’s case goes to show you that no matter how much we analyze and prognosticate, baseball is a capricious game. The Quest For 500, 763 Could Stanton one day join the likes of Aaron, Robinson, Foxx, Mathews and Murray among the game's all-time great home run hitters? There's a pretty good chance if you ask Oliver, a projection system developed by Brian Cartwright that is featured on The Hardball Times' website. Oliver envisions Stanton becoming the pre-eminent slugger in baseball, averaging just under 48 home runs per season from 2012-2017. If Stanton meets that forecast, he'll have a staggering 341 career homers through his age-27 season. That would be more than The Kid, The Machine, The Mick and Hammerin' Hank. In fact, only Alex Rodriguez hit more home runs through that age in the history of the game:
Most HR Hit Through Age-27 Season
Player Years HR
1. Alex Rodriguez 2. *Mike Stanton Projected* 3.Jimmie Foxx 4. Eddie Mathews 5. Ken Griffey Jr. 6. Albert Pujols 7. Mickey Mantle 8. Mel Ott
19251935 19521959 19891997 20012007 19511959 19261936 19561963 19891997 19541961 19962004 20032010 19671975 20012007
9. Frank Robinson 10. Juan Gonzalez 11. Hank Aaron 12. Andruw Jones 13. Miguel Cabrera 14. Johnny Bench 15. Adam Dunn
David Gassko developed a tool that predicts a hitter's chances of reaching certain career milestones based on his stats from the past three seasons (weighing the most recent season more heavily), his career totals to that point and his age. Based on Stanton's work so far (56 career home runs through age 21), Gassko's tool gives the Marlin a 46 percent chance of reaching 500 home runs and a 25 percent chance of one day becoming the all-time HR champ by hitting his 763rd homer (though A-Rod or Pujols could have something to say about that total). Out of curiosity, I plugged Stanton's Oliver projections into the tool to find how his chances changed if he indeed finished his age-27 season with 341 career jacks. Under those conditions, Gassko's tool shows Stanton with a 75 percent chance of joining the 500 HR club and an 18 percent chance of usurping Barry Bonds as history's greatest home run hitter. A three-quarters'
chance of going deep at least 500 times and nearly a one-in-five shot of becoming the most prolific homer hitter ever. Prettay, prettay, prettay good. While I don’t have near as powerful a crystal ball as Oliver or Gassko, I do have one prediction. At some point in spring training, new Marlins manager Ozzie Guillen watches Stanton take BP, turns to the guy next to him and says, “can you #$&*n’ believe there were rumors about trading him for me?” Stanton’s Competition for Best Young Slugger We’ve established that Stanton has enjoyed one of the best starts to a career of any young power hitter in history, and that Oliver would propose marriage to him if computer/human unions weren’t so taboo. But is it possible that some other hot shot could challenge Stanton for the title of best young slugger in baseball? I’m loosely defining “young slugger” as any hitter who played pro ball in 2011 at age 23 or younger. Within those parameters, three names stick out: Justin Upton, Jesus Montero and Bryce Harper. Upton, who himself appeared on the list of age-21 sluggers, has cracked 91 career home runs through his age-23 season. Oliver predicts that the first overall pick in the ’05 draft will settle in as a perennial 25-30 homer guy, though I think that might sell him short. Upton’s forecast could be dinged by a relatively down 2010 during which he suffered through a shoulder injury, and Chase Field smiles upon power hitters. Montero didn’t have a huge power year at Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre, but 18 home runs and a near-.470 slugging percentage from a 21-year-old is very impressive. Oliver thinks that Montero could hit around 25 homers annually over the next few seasons, peaking with around 30 shots per year. And then, of course, there’s Harper. At just 18 years old, Harper dominated in the minors to the tune of a .297/.392/.501 line and 17 home runs between Low-A Hagerstown and Double-A Harrisburg. To fully appreciate how special that kind of performance is, consider that the average age of South Atlantic League hitters in 2011 was 21.4, and 24.2 in the Eastern League. Can you imagine the numbers Harper would have posted if, instead of getting his GED and becoming eligible for the 2010 draft, he had played high school ball this year? Yeesh. Oliver projects that Harper could hit 15 home runs as a teenager in the majors next season. Only five teenagers have hit double-digit dingers in major league history: Conigliaro (24 in 1964), Mel Ott (18 in 1928), Ken Griffey Jr. (16 in 1989), Mickey Mantle (13 in 1951) and Ed Kranepool (10 in 1964). We might not get to see Harper hit bombs and blow kisses in April 2012, but he figures to be a strong divisional nemesis to Stanton and has a 20-25 HR projection for 2014,
when he’ll be 21. A word of advice to fans thinking about buying Marlins/Nats bleacher seats in future years: duck. Other guys who could enter the conversation are Jason Heyward, Freddie Freeman, Mike Moustakas and Eric Hosmer, though Oliver sees low-20s homer totals for those guys in future seasons. The HR Wild Card: The New Stadium Gone are the days of the Marlins playing home games amid a sea of empty orange seats at Sun Life Stadium. The newly-dubbed Miami Marlins move into a new retractable-roof ballpark in 2012. We don’t yet know how the new park will play, but here are the expected dimensions of the Marlins’ new digs compared to Sun Life Stadium:
Part of Park Miami Ballpark 340 feet 384 feet 416 feet 392 feet 335 feet Sun Life Stadium
Left Field Left-Center Center Field Right-Center Right Field
330 feet 360 feet 404 feet 385 feet 345 feet
There are other factors that could influence how hitter or pitcher-friendly the park is, such as temperature, altitude, wind and the height of the outfield fences. Sun Life, for instance, featured a “Teal Monster” in left field that was 26.5 feet tall and had eight foot fences elsewhere in the park. The “Bermuda Triangle” in center will be a feature in the new ballpark, though it will be 420 feet instead of 434 feet. We don’t yet know the height of the fences in the new park, however. During his first two seasons, Stanton has been a pull hitter. Thirty-six of his homers have been hit to left field, 13 to center field and seven have gone the opposite way. At first blush, it doesn’t seem like the new park, with deeper dimensions to left, left-center and straightaway center, will do Stanton many favors. But again, that’s speculative. One thing Stanton has going for him is that Hit Tracker Online indicates the vast majority of his homers would clear any fence. Of his 56 home runs, 33 would have gone out of every major league stadium. Twelve would have left between 25-29 stadiums, three would have gone out of 20-24 parks, and one would have exited 15-19 venues. Only seven homers would have left less than half of MLB ballparks. Conclusion
Mike Stanton just bashed his way into an elite group of young power hitters, the great majority of whom went on to enjoy many All-Star seasons or even Cooperstown-worthy careers. The former three-sport star, who just easy easily could be playing tight end in the NFL or power forward in the NBA, has put himself on a path that could one day place him among the game’s all-time power-hitting luminaries. Pitchers are approaching him cautiously and Stanton is adapting his two-strike approach to punch out less often, resulting in improved walk and K rates that make him a quality all-around hitter instead of a one-trick pony. He’ll have to stay healthy and will face stiff competition from the likes of Upton, Montero and Harper, but Stanton currently wears the crown as baseball’s best young power hitter. One day, he could join an even more exclusive ring of honor.