Giancarlo Stanton fights it every time he steps up to the plate. He's been fighting it ever since he reached the majors two years ago. He was 20 years old then, his legend not yet Harper-esque but a legend nonetheless, the great tales of baseballs being bludgeoned out of ballparks and into parking lots, golf courses and lakes already following him everywhere.
Every time he steps up to the plate, he feels the clash between the mind and the body. "The mind is calm. It knows I shouldn't be up there trying to hit home runs," he says. "But the temptation is always there. The body just wants to crush the ball."
The Miami Marlins outfielder was a 20-year-old with Double A Jacksonville when he hit a home run that sailed over the 60-foot-tall scoreboard in Montgomery, Ala., a shot that was "at least 500 feet, and probably a lot more," says his then manager, Tim Leiper. He once hit a 425-foot homer in Lake County, Fla., and after returning to the dugout he realized the bat that he used was a broken one that he'd meant to throw out. There was the strange and unbelievable, but entirely true, time at Chase Field in Phoenix when his low line drive whistled past the dives of the Diamondbacks' third baseman (to his left) and leftfielder (to his right) all the way to the outfield wall. "It defied physics," says then Marlins manager Edwin Rodriguez. "It didn't make sense."
Before games opposing players and coaches linger on the field just to watch Stanton take batting practice. One day in Philadelphia, Phillies manager Charlie Manuel asked Rodriguez if he could stand behind home plate to watch the prodigy hit. As Stanton launched bomb after bomb, Manuel just shook his head in silence, and afterward he said to Rodriguez, "I've never seen anything like this."
July 2, 2012
In May, Stanton was in the middle of a historic stretch of hitting—he would hit .343 with 12 home runs and 30 RBIs and become the youngest player since Joe DiMaggio to reach those totals in any month—when he stepped up to the plate against the Rockies with the bases loaded and the Marlins trailing by two runs. When the count ran full, the Marlins Park crowd rose to its feet. Everyone expected Stanton to do something amazing, but the thing about the greatest young slugger today is that even when the amazing is anticipated, he often trumps those expectations. He hit a grand slam, of course, but he also hit the ball with such force—according to hittrackeronline.com, the off-bat speed of the ball was 122.4 mph, the fastest-ever reading—that when it slammed into the auxiliary scoreboard in leftfield 462 feet away, it took out a panel of lights.
Someone later asked Stanton what won the battle that night, the body or the mind. "Sometimes they both win," he said.
Don't you miss these stories? Don't you miss the days of storybook sluggers roaming the earth?
Baseball, as you probably know, has turned into a pitcher's game. The winds started changing a few years ago, with a wave of talented young pitchers reaching the majors, with teams becoming smarter about developing arms and, yes, with the rise of drug testing. Last season players hit 4,552 homers, 1,141 fewer than the peak in 2000. This year, through week's end, players were on pace for 4,817 homers, a 15.4% drop since '00. All the offensive numbers, not just home runs, have fallen as well.
But baseball's best stories, whether real or fictitious, have always been about the long ball—Babe Ruth's called shot, Kirk Gibson limping around the bases, Roy Hobbs bashing a baseball into the lights at the end of The Natural. Don't you miss the mythic slugger?
Then Giancarlo Cruz Michael Stanton is the player for you. Growing up in Sunland, Calif., he was Mikey, a quiet kid who wore number 25, after one of his favorite players, Mark McGwire. In the minor leagues and during his dazzling first two seasons in the majors (he mashed 56 home runs; only Ken Griffey Jr. and Alex Rodriguez had as many before age 22 in the last 45 years), he was Mike. This spring, without explanation, he told reporters that he wanted to go by Giancarlo. His teammates still call him by his nickname: Bigfoot. "He does things no human should be able to do," says veteran Marlins reliever Randy Choate. "The only guy that I've ever heard players talk about like they talk about [Stanton] is Darryl Strawberry."
Choate was standing in leftfield during BP one day last season when Stanton launched a shot that improbably landed in the middle of the top deck of one of the most cavernous parks in the majors, the Mets' Citi Field. "The people in the stands gave him a standing ovation," says Choate. "It was the longest ball I've ever seen hit. By far."
Here is the player to bring back the magic and the thrill of the home run. Here is perhaps the first great slugger of the poststeroid era.
Given his age and skill set, he is certainly one of the most valuable players in the game. With run scoring at its lowest ebb since the early 1990s, teams are placing a greater premium on power and are more willing to swallow poor defense in order to add punch to the lineup. The Angels' decision to move first baseman Mark Trumbo to third and later to the outfield, just to keep his bat in the lineup, has paid big dividends—he leads the team in home runs (17) and slugging (.612). The Mariners, who were at the front of a defensive revolution in baseball a few years go, traded a future ace, Michael Pineda, for a young talented hitter, Jesus Montero, despite his reputation as a poor defensive catcher. The smartest front offices in the game are investing in power: G.M. Billy Beane and the A's signed Cuban slugger Yoenis Cespedes (.480 slugging this season) over the winter to a four-year, $36 million deal.
"People have said that homegrown power arms is the most important commodity in the game, but that middle-of-the-order, 30-home-run guy is becoming almost as valuable, given how few of them there are now," says an American League G.M. "You can't find these guys on the free agent market anymore. He's the guy you build around."
The legend of Bigfoot began before his senior year of high school, in the summer of 2006, at the annual Area Code Games in Long Beach, Calif., where high school talent is trotted out like poodles at the Westminster dog show. Stanton was a three-sport athlete who excelled in basketball (he earned all-conference honors) and football (he was offered a scholarship by UNLV) at Notre Dame High in Sherman Oaks, Calif. His baseball skills, however, lagged (he hit around .200 and batted near the bottom of the lineup in his junior year), so much so that a scout organizing the Games didn't think he was good enough even to be among the 200 invitees before a Stanton family friend convinced him to give the kid a chance.
He took a total of 15 batting practice swings that day, and six of the balls he hit left Long Beach State's Blair Field. Two ended up on a golf course beyond an access road. "The thing about Blair is that it's got to be the worst place to hit in college baseball. It's huge—the ocean breeze knocks the ball down," says Marlins scout Tim McDonnell, one of the talent evaluators there that day. "What he did was silly."
Stanton was the talk of the event. Without the showcase Stanton says he wouldn't have been drafted in the first 10 or 15 rounds. "It pissed me off a little bit," Stanton says. "I was like, Where have you guys been? Is it really just going to take one batting practice for you to turn a nobody into a somebody?"
The truth was that scouts didn't know what to make of Stanton, who, at 6'5", 245 pounds, has the build of a freakishly athletic tight end—he didn't look like a baseball player. And because of how much time he spent away from baseball, many wondered how committed he was to the game. McDonnell wasn't convinced until he and the team's scouting director, Stan Meek, visited Stanton during his senior season. "We wanted to see him take BP, but there was a track meet that day, and the track was beyond leftfield," says McDonnell. "So in batting practice he had to hit everything to right field, and he did a good job of that. But he didn't always know where he was hitting it, and he got early on a few and hit them into the stands of the track meet, and people scattered. We were like, number 1, he has a feel for hitting the ball the other way. And number 2, just by mistake, this guy just hit one 420. What's not to like?"
Scouts rate players' tools on a 20-to-80 scale. Stanton is the only player McDonnell has ever given an 80 power score. "He's an athlete, a complete package of strength," says McDonnell, a former coach at Long Beach State. "I coached Troy Tulowitzki and Evan Longoria in college, and they might be better pure hitters than Mike, but Mikey's power was better than either of those guys. Honestly, I'd be shocked if I ever see another guy with that kind of raw power."
Stanton is able to produce his power "because of his tremendous bat speed," says McDonnell. "But a lot of it is also how he generates such tremendous leverage with his lower body. That comes from the football and basketball."
After a senior year in which Stanton hit .393 with 12 homers, the Marlins took him in the second round of the 2007 draft. As a rookie, he hit 22 home runs in 100 games after he was called up to the majors on June 8, and he hit 34 home runs last year, his first full season. In '11 he also hit the longest home runs ever measured at four ballparks.
But Stanton doesn't want to be known as just a player who can hit a ball 500 feet. "He wants to be known as a great all-around hitter," says Marlins third base coach Joey Espada. "What's so scary about the whole thing is that he's still learning."
Lately there have been fewer fireworks during Stanton's batting practices. Boston outfielder Cody Ross, a former teammate of Stanton's, told his fellow Red Sox to watch Stanton's BP before a recent game at Marlins Park, but Stanton spent the session hitting liners the other way.
These are the things he must do now, to win the battle between the mind and the body. "It gets so addicting, crushing the ball," he says. "You see everyone in practice, sometimes players on the other team, come out and watch, and in the game, you just want to unleash, too. But you have to be more controlled than powerful in the game. Sometimes you've got to bottle it up. Because when you go up there wanting to hit a home run, you don't."
One recent afternoon before a game at Tropicana Field, Stanton was taking BP, and a crowd of Marlins fans gathered in the stands near the visitors' dugout. Each time Stanton stepped up to the plate for his round of swings, they let loose with chants of "Big-foot! Big-foot!"
Stanton kept hitting the ball to rightfield, none out of the park. Then, on the last swing, he uncoiled, ripping a ball that landed about 10 rows deep in the stands in left center before rattling around the seats like a pinball. The fans cheered. Stanton walked away from the plate with his head down.
He may not have heard the cheers or the chants. But he does know what the people still go to the ballpark to see.
HERE IS THE PLAYER TO BRING BACK THE MAGIC AND THE THRILL OF THE HOME RUN. HERE IS PERHAPS THE FIRST GREAT SLUGGER OF THE POSTSTEROID ERA.
In 2011, Giancarlo Stanton was one of four players 25 or younger to hit 30 home runs; his 34 led that group. Only one player from that age group (Carlos Gonzalez) reached 30 in 2010. The number of young 30-dinger sluggers is not what it was a decade ago—or even in '09.
[The following text appears within a chart. Please see hardcopy or PDF for actual chart.]
Troy Glaus 47
Alex Rodriguez 52
Pat Burrell 37
Albert Pujols 43
Adrian Beltre 48
Mark Teixeira 43
Nick Swisher 35
Prince Fielder 50
Ryan Braun and Miguel Cabrera (below) 37
Prince Fielder 46
Carlos Gonzalez 34
Giancarlo Stanton 34