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.
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.
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.
Lance McCullers, SP, Astros
McCullers dealt with a shoulder injury that cost him the first six weeks of the season, and needed some time to shake off the rust once he returned to the mound. His first half was filled with fits and starts, but it’s not hard to find last year’s surprising rookie pitcher in his stats. McCullers fanned 72 batters in 57 innings, racking up an impressive 28.2% strikeout rate. He kept the ball in the yard and did a good job limiting hard contact. McCullers got into trouble with his control, compiling a 13.3% walk rate that helped undo him on more than one occasion. If you’re trying to buy him, however, that’s a plus, not a minus. If not for McCullers’s inconsistency, it would be nearly impossible to pry him away from his owner. Use that to your advantage.
Ryan Dull, RP, A’s
The A’s will not be participating in the playoffs this season, and that could make closer Ryan Madson a very popular man over the next three weeks. If the A’s end up trading him to a contender, Dull would likely assume the closer’s role. The 26-year-old rookie is having a great season, totaling a 2.01 ERA, 0.72 WHIP and 47 strikeouts in 44 2/3 innings. He recently earned his first save of the season with Madson unavailable for an outing last week, as sure a sign as any that he would step into the ninth if Madson is wearing a new uniform by August 1. Dull is owned in fewer than 10% of leagues, so chances are all he’ll cost you is the worst player on your roster. If you’re speculating for saves, Dull is one of the best investments you can make.
Carlos Beltran, OF, Yankees
Beltran is in the midst of a resurgent season, hitting .299/.338/.550 with 19 homers and 56 RBI. He’ll soon surpass everything he did in 531 plate appearances last season, and he’s still 200 plate appearances shy of that number. While the DH has helped keep his legs fresh, there’s reason to doubt his ability to keep this going over the second half. Beltran hasn’t even hinted at this sort of production in his late-30s. This isn’t like David Ortiz, who was great in his age-37 through age-39 seasons, and somehow found an extra gear this season. Beltran was merely average the last three years, and is now having his best season since 2012 at 39 years old. He’s striking out more, walking less, and enjoying the third-best HR/FB ratio of his career. Beltran has earned his success to this point of the season, but if you can get dollar-for-dollar value on his first-half stats in a trade, it’s a move you should make.
Michael Saunders, OF, Blue Jays
The last time Saunders played 100 games in a season was 2013. He hit .236/.323/.397 with the Mariners that year, another one in which his production did not match his potential. He played just 87 games total over the next two seasons before breaking out with the Blue Jays this year. Saunders has always had this ability residing within him, but he is officially in uncharted territory. Those are the types of players you want to bet against at this stage of the season, especially those who aren’t elite prospects at the beginning of their careers. Just as is the case with Beltran, there’s nothing wrong with keeping Saunders on your roster the rest of the season. It’s not like we’re looking at a second-half bust you need to unload no matter the consequences. The point, however, is that a dollar-for-dollar trade for Saunders would likely benefit the owner who sells him, not the one who buys. Again, at this stage of the season, those are the kinds of deals that are not only realistic, but could also be the difference in the standings or in the playoffs.
Michael Brantley, OF, Indians
Brantley played in his first rehab game on Monday, going 1-for-2 with a walk at Low A Mahoning Valley. He is expected to play his second game at High A Lake County on Wednesday and, if all goes well there, move up to Double A Akron over the weekend. If Brantley keeps up that pace, he could be back with the Indians sometime in the third full week of July. Those of you who have had him stashed on your DL are finally about to get your reward.
Dee Gordon, 2B, Marlins
At least Brantley owners haven’t had to sacrifice a roster spot to keep him around this season. Gordon owners who decided to bite the bullet and hold onto him have been playing a man down since he was suspended 80 games for a PED violation on April 28. Their long wait, however, is nearly over. Gordon is eligible to play in minor league games starting next week, and will rejoin the Marlins on July 29. While the PED violation precludes Gordon from playing in the postseason, should the Marlins get there, he’s going to be a key piece for the team down the stretch. Gordon should be back atop the Miami lineup and starting at second base the day he’s eligible to return, and there’s no real reason to believe he’ll be anything other than the player he was before the suspension.