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Giancarlo Stanton wins 2016 MLB Home Run Derby
0:42 | MLB
Giancarlo Stanton wins 2016 MLB Home Run Derby
Wednesday July 13th, 2016

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Giancarlo Stanton put on a show at the Home Run Derby, drilling a record 61 homers while knocking off this season’s home run leader—Mark Trumbo—and last year’s derby champ—Todd Frazier—to take home the crown. Stanton didn’t play in the actual game for the first time since 2013 and second time in the last five seasons, a reflection of his relatively poor first half, outside of his power numbers. It’s entirely likely, however, that brighter days are ahead for him, and it has nothing to do with the Home Run Derby.

Stanton’s 61 jacks in the derby were a fitting total. Some still want to honor that as the single-season record, belonging to Roger Maris, and Stanton is believed to be one of the few players in the majors with power prodigious enough to chase it down before his career ends. While the derby turning around Stanton’s season would be a convenient narrative, especially with that significant 61 next to his name, the slugger started to find his groove in the days leading up to the All-Star break.

Home Run Derby highlights: Stanton, Trumbo launch massive shots

Before looking at Stanton’s slow and steady ascent back to his status as one of the game’s most prolific power hitters, remember how far he fell and why buying him at this juncture of the season remains a risk. On May 14, in the first game of a doubleheader with the Nationals, Stanton went 0-for-5 with three strikeouts. From that day through July 4 (arbitrary endpoints, yes, but the point holds), Stanton hit .218/.292/.428 with 105 strikeouts in 316 plate appearances. That translates to a 33.2% strikeout rate, which is a statistical outlier even for a guy like Stanton, who entered this season with a career 28.3% K-rate. That increase comes out to about an extra strikeout every five plate appearances, which is nearly one per game, and is a dramatic increase impossible for anyone to absorb, even someone who already fanned as frequently as Stanton did in the first six years of his career.

It’s impossible to simply brush strikeout issues under the rug. If you’re making an out without putting the ball in play in one-third of your plate appearances, it’s going to be tough to accumulate significant fantasy value, no matter what you do in the other two-thirds of trips to the plate. Thanks to his homer and RBI production, Stanton was able to finish the first half ranked 116th overall, 68th among hitters and 32nd among outfielders in standard 5x5 leagues. In other words, he essentially maxed out his fantasy value for a player who strikes out once out of every three times he steps in the box.

If you can get beyond the strikeouts for a second, though, you can start to find some good in Stanton’s numbers. Again, we do this not by dismissing the strikeouts, but by accepting them as a given and then building a case to buy him anyway. Stanton is still walking in 11.8% of his plate appearances, which is right in line with his career total. That walk rate is down from 2013 and 2014, but up 2.6 percentage points from 2012, his best per-game season. His hard-hit rate and HR/FB ratio, too, are in line with their career marks and down only from that 2012 season in which he hit .290/.361/.608 with 37 homers in 123 games and might have won the MVP had he not missed all that time due to injury. He’s taking his walks and, when he makes contact, doing so in almost typically Stantonian ways.

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There is one element missing from his game this season. Stanton is the king of the laser beam home run, the line drive that is hit so hard it somehow stays on its trajectory while being no more than 20 or 30 feet off the ground. You know Stanton is right when he is hitting impossibly far line drives. The one batted-ball area in which Stanton has lagged significantly behind his career total is line-drive rate. His 15.6% rate is the worst of his career, three full percentage points lower than his career number. He hasn’t had a line-drive rate lower than 18% since 2011, and was at 19.7% or better in three of the four previous seasons. This is nearly as serious a problem as the strikeouts.

In Miami’s last five games of the second half, Stanton went 8-for-18 with five homers and 10 RBI. He struck out at least once in every game, but, remember, we’re taking those as a given. In fact, if you’re fine working with incredibly small sample sizes, his six whiffs in 21 plate appearances was a tiny improvement from what we saw all through June and back into May.

For Stanton, it isn’t just the five homers in as many games that signal he might finally be finding himself at the plate. It’s the manner in which he hit them. Here’s a homer he hit off Steven Matz in the seventh inning to draw the Marlins even in a game they would eventually win.

And here’s one he hit off Jacob deGrom the next day, his second of that game and fourth in his last five plate appearances (the other one resulted in a walk).

The camera keeps both of those homers in view without ever having to pan toward the sky. Those are the homers you see other players in the majors hit every so often, while Stanton hits them regularly. What Aroldis Chapman is to 100 mph pitches, Stanton is to home runs that seem to defy the laws of physics.

Stanton is still going to cost you a hefty sum in a trade, as he should. He still has a bankable track record and, despite an ugly first half, there’s far more reason to believe in him than not over the final two-plus months of the season. The bet here is that Stanton ends up being worth that price.