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Giancarlo Stanton powers Miami Marlins' chase for NL wild card

Giancarlo Stanton powers Miami Marlins' chase for NL wild card Photo:

The Miami Marlins have found themselves in a place few would have predicted with roughly six weeks left in the regular season: at .500 and firmly in the playoff hunt. With Sunday's 10-3 win over the Diamondbacks, the Marlins improved their record to 62-62, which matches their win total of last year. And while the National League East is out of reach -- Miami is 7 1/2 games back of the Nationals -- the wild card is still very much in play. The Marlins are just three games out of the second wild card spot, trailing the Giants, Pirates and Braves, and tied with the Reds.

That Miami should be flirting with an above-.500 record, let alone in contention, is one of the least likely stories of the season, and one that looked especially improbable once the team lost its ace, Jose Fernandez, to a torn elbow ligament in May. But while there are many factors that go into the Marlins' surprising success, it's been the team's other young star largely responsible for Miami's turnaround: Giancarlo Stanton. On Sunday, the Marlins' slugger bashed his league-leading 32nd home run of the year, breaking a three-way tie with Jose Abreu and Nelson Cruz, as part of a two-hit, four-RBI day. It was yet another impressive performance from a man who has bounced back from a lost 2013 to emerge as the favorite in the NL MVP race.

By the numbers, the 24-year-old (yes, really, only 24) Stanton is having his best season. Along with his MLB-best 32 homers, his 88 RBI are a career high and third in baseball, behind David Ortiz and Abreu, and his 77 walks are also third, behind Carlos Santana and Jose Bautista. His .964 OPS is the top mark in the game, his .398 OBP fourth and his .566 slugging percentage third. He also leads MLB in total bases with 259, just ahead of Mike Trout, and has played in all 124 games of Miami's season; only Melky Cabrera and Evan Longoria have done the same for their teams.

The advanced stats also give Stanton a lot of love. His 162 OPS+ puts him behind only Andrew McCutchen, Trout and Abreu. By Wins Above Replacement, Stanton clocks in at 5.9, good for third place in MLB behind Trout and Josh Donaldson. Although a lot of that WAR figure is built on Stanton's offensive contributions, he's been rated as a plus defender all year. By Defensive Runs Saved, Stanton is at +9, a nice bounceback from last year's -7 (though for what it's worth, Stanton has graded out positively in every season except 2013).

All of his stellar work this season is a positive sign after last year's injury-marred campaign. A severe hamstring strain cost Stanton two months of the season and limited him to 116 games, but his offense never truly recovered, as he hit just .249/.365/.480. A lot of that could be attributed to Stanton's inability to turn on a fastball. A career .289 hitter against four-seam fastballs (with a jaw-dropping .613 slugging percentage and .325 isolated power), Stanton slugged just .542 on four-seamers in 2013 with a .260 ISO. Sinkers, too, gave Stanton trouble. He hit just .250 with a .450 slugging percentage on those pitches in 2013, compared to .310/.518 for his career.

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That's all changed this year, as Stanton is back to obliterating any fastball put in his path. Against four-seamers, Stanton is hitting .327 with a ludicrous .708 slugging percentage and .381 isolated power; against sinkers, he's hitting .351/.481. Given how similar Stanton's swing and plate discipline's stats are between this year and last, the most likely explanation for his brief power outage is his strained hamstring was compromising his ability to put good swings on fastballs. That in turn opened him up to offspeed and breaking pitches, particularly sliders, against which Stanton hit .177 last year. He hasn't really been any better on that pitch this year, and is hitting just .162. But that difficulty can be overlooked when you're as good at hitting fastballs as Stanton is.

On Sunday, Stanton didn't get to show off that fastball-mashing prowess, but his three-run blast off Arizona starter Josh Collmenter was impressive enough. With two on and none out in the first inning, Stanton got a 77 mph curveball that Collmenter left in the middle of the strike zone. Stanton wasted no time in sending the ball into low-earth orbit, rocketing a ball into the visitors' bullpen in left field to give Miami the early 3-0 lead.

Stanton added an RBI single later in the game, but it was the homer that moved him up Miami's record books. With that dinger, the 149th of his Marlins career, Stanton moved into second place all-time on the franchise's home run leaders list. And barring injury, by season's end, he'll have first place all to himself as well. He's only five homers behind Dan Uggla.

Understandably, Stanton's power has put him in some rare company. Only 22 hitters have hit 150 or more career homers by the age of 25. Alex Rodriguez is tops on the list with 241 before his 25th birthday, though he got an early start having debuted at 18. Stanton, who turns 25 in November, won't be able to catch the likes of A-Rod by year's end, but he will pass at least one legend in homers hit before 25: Willie Mays, who had 152 homers before his 25th birthday.

It's obviously a bit premature to compare Stanton's career to Mays', but the Marlins' star is already building an impressive resume. Leading this surprise Marlins team to a playoff spot would certainly bolster it, as would winning the MVP award, which would be his first. The odds of Miami making the playoffs are slim -- Baseball Prospectus gives the team just a 4.8 percent chance of reaching the postseason -- but an MVP is very much in play. Stanton's biggest competition, Troy Tulowitzki, is done for the year with a torn labrum in his hip and last year's MVP, McCutchen, is currently on the disabled list with a rib injury. Going purely by WAR, only Clayton Kershaw outranks Stanton in the NL, but it remains to be seen whether the month-plus he missed with an injury will hurt his MVP odds.

Regardless, Stanton's career year has made him a strong contender, if not outright favorite, for the award, and a late playoff push by Miami would help his cause. But whether or not Miami makes the postseason, the franchise is in good shape with Stanton on board. The slugger won't be a free agent until 2017 at the earliest, and with the Marlins making noise about spending more money this offseason, it's worth wondering if a big extension for Stanton is part of that plan. Trading him would net an absurd haul, but after the debacle that was the 2012 season and the resulting fire sale, it's hard to imagine Miami pulling the same trick with a young, cheap, homegrown and enormously popular and productive player. 

Thirty-eight games remain in Miami's regular season. Whether the Marlins will get to play any games after that is unclear, but if Stanton keeps producing like he has, it's a fair bet that Miami will remain in this unexpected place: winning and contending against all odds.

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