The Trials of Giancarlo

Let’s begin the week with a jarring tweet from Bill James:

That seems unduly harsh, right? There’s a certain stigma that comes with being compared with Dave Kingman … but that’s mostly because of personality. Kingman was a difficult guy. He was traded, sold, released and let go nine times in his career. He was people who didn’t like people, a man who once sent a live rat to a woman reporter seemingly because she was a woman, a man who left little doubt that what he really wanted was to be fishing on a lake somewhere, all alone.

Giancarlo Stanton is by all accounts nothing like Kingman. He’s a joy, a revered teammate, a young man who idolized Roberto Clemente and who hits home runs with such force and delight that to watch him connect is to become a baseball fan.

I mean … this happened Saturday:

That ball was out of the ballpark so fast it felt a bit like a cartoon — you don’t hit line drives over the center field wall. Giancarlo Stanton does.

But Bill wasn’t comparing their personalities. He was comparing their play. Dave Kingman was an amazing sort of player in his own way. He led the league in home runs twice (like Stanton has). He mashed 442 home runs in a time when homers were rare birds. Kingman hit some of the longest most majestic home runs anyone had ever seen. Stanton’s home runs are exit-velocity spectacles; the ball comes off the bat so hard it scrambles the mind. But Kingman hit home runs so high they seemed to stay in the air forever.

Kingman was 6-foot-6, 210 pounds of muscle. Stanton is 6-foot-6, 245 pounds of muscle. Kingman was called Kong. Stanton is called Bigfoot. Kingman was a great athlete with ridiculous bazooka for an arm; he pitched in college and many thought he could have become a big league pitcher. Stanton is a great athlete with a ridiculous bazooka for an arm too.

Here’s the hard part: Dave Kingman never became a great baseball player.

And Giancarlo Stanton … we love him so much that we don’t want to admit that the jury is still out.

In 2014, Stanton was great. He led the league in homers, total bases and slugging that year, he walked 94 times (24 intentionally) and posted a career high .395 on-base percentage, he stole 13 bases in 14 attempts, he played pretty good defense and, most importantly, he appeared in 145 games. That was the performance that motivated the Miami Marlins to give him an unprecedented 13-year deal, for $325 million. That contract goes out to 2028.

And even though we all know that long contracts often turn into financial disasters, the Stanton deal seemed admirable somehow. Here is one of the coolest players in baseball, so young, so much power, the future of baseball, and the Marlins were locking him up for his entire career. This is exactly what teams like the Marlins should do.

Only, two-plus years have passed. Stanton is now 27, and it’s unclear which way his career will go. Oh, he will keep hitting home runs. In 2015, he hit 27 of them in just 74 games — you can pretty quickly figure out how many he might have hit over a full season. Last year, he had a home run derby that absolutely blew up the senses; he crushed 61 home runs and made clear that nobody on earth hits baseballs as hard as Giancarlo Stanton.

But during the season, he hit just .240. His walks were down. He hit 27 home runs again, this time in 119 games. He did not slug .500. It was, like Bill James tweeted, kind of a Dave Kingman season.

Well, we Stanton fans told ourselves, he wasn’t healthy. And maybe he wasn’t. But so far this season, he has looked a whole lot like last season.

There’s a fine line for players like Giancarlo Stanton. He is unlikely to ever hit for a very high average because he swings and misses a lot and because his particular swing produces a lot of ground balls. He’s a phenomenal athlete but he’s slowing down with age and injuries. And so, he will have to make up for his imperfections with extraordinary power and by taking advantage of pitchers being very careful with him.

If you go to Stanton’s Baseball Reference page and scroll down to his similarity scores, you will see the possibilities. Dave Kingman is not on there, but Harmon Killebrew is. Killer couldn’t run, struggled defensively, struck out a lot and hit for a low average, but he walked a bunch, led the league in homers six times, was beloved by teammates and fans, and he bashed 573 home runs in all. He was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame.

You will also see Darryl Strawberry, Jose Canseco and Adam Dunn. Terrific players. But not quite all-time greats.

Giancarlo Stanton will remain must-watch TV, no question about that. But it’s still unclear if greatness lies ahead.

The Rare Sight of Shutouts

Saturday night, we had our first two nine-inning complete games of the season. Both were shutouts. Colorado’s Tyler Chatwood pitched a beauty in San Francisco, allowing just two hits — Chatwood was perfect through five and he really had the ball really moving. The Giants made 18 ground ball outs.

Minnesota’s Ervin Santana was even better. He allowed a single to Chicago’s Omar Narvaez in the third inning, walked Avisail Garcia in the fourth … and that was all. He got the last 18 outs in order, six by strikeout. Santana has been crazy good so far this season.

The point, of course, is that this is what it takes these days to get a complete game in 2017. It’s not enough to be good. You have to be absurdly good … and your team has to be winning by a sizable amount … and you have to have a reasonable pitch count … and your manager has to be in a good mood. You know that complete games have been declining pretty much since the very beginning of baseball — you’ve undoubtedly seen charts like this one:

We all know that. What is interesting over the last 20 or so years is how rarely pitchers get to complete their own shutouts. Even well into the 1990s, if you were throwing a shutout the manager was likely to leave you in there. This isn’t true anymore. I realize this is not a surprise to anyone paying attention, but the numbers are starker than I expected.

Here is the percentage of individual shutouts compared to team shutouts:

Last year, pitchers completed their own shutout only 13% of the time. This year, so far, there have been 19 team shutouts and only the two we saw Saturday night were shutouts by the starting pitcher.

It will get to the point, very quickly I think, where the only way a manager will let a starter finish ANY game is if he has a perfect game or no-hitter going … or if he’s so utterly cruising that it isn’t even worth the effort to walk out to the mound.

Twitter poll of the day:

PANCON updates

You will remember the PANCON ratings to measure Panic Conditions for any team and their fans. My pal Joe Sheehan has an interesting poll up on Twitter — before getting to that, this seems a good time to say that you should sign up for Joe’s baseball writing but only because it’s awesome.

Anyway: The poll.

I imagine Joe put up this poll because St. Louis fans were basically panicking AT HIM. He had tweeted how good and successful an organization the Cardinals are, and few in St. Louis want to hear that right now. Panic is such a funny emotion. Joe was basically saying, “The Cardinals are an amazing organization, they have been winning like crazy for more than 20 years, they are off to a rough start but they’ll be fine.” That seems nice, right?

And some Cardinals fans were ANGRY at this niceness because they see this 3–9 start (and last year’s 86-win season) as black storm clouds gathering, they see hail in the distance, tornadoes touching down, hurricanes a’ blowin’, and they apparently want Joe and others to acknowledge their anxiety.

So weird … but I understand it entirely. We all do as sports fans, right? So much of the draw of sports is to FEEL, and that means overreacting in every direction, overreacting to the good, overreacting to the bad, overreacting to the mediocre. Everything Joe says about the Cardinals is right. They’re probably not going to hit .212 and slug .332 all year. They have a lot of good players and things should balance out as the season progresses.

But what fun is there in that? The team is 3–9. Everybody freak out!

That’s what I like about the poll, it forces Cardinals fans to step outside of their panic and admit that while, yes, the Cardinals are 3–9, they would not trade places with the hot-starting Reds, who lost 94 games last year with perhaps the worst bullpen ever and, fast start aside, are still picked to be one of the worst teams in baseball.

At last check, 25% of Cardinals fans chose the Reds.

Statcast™ Thought of the Day

Jered Weaver is pitching for the Padres today in Atlanta … he’s one of a kind. Weaver’s average fastball in 2017 is 84 mph. That’s the third-slowest fastball in the game behind only reliever Brad Ziegler, a unique character himself, and R.A. Dickey who is, of course, a knuckleballer.

Weaver complements (if you want to use that word) his fastball with an 80 mph slider, a 79 mph change-up and a 72 mph curveball. I have no earthly idea how he gets Major League hitters out with this stuff. Weaver used to be a fantastic pitcher — he finished second in the Cy Young voting in 2011 — and he didn’t have electric stuff even then. But he had four pitches, all at least average. And his 79-mph change-up then was devastating because it backed up his 90-mph fastball.

But an 84-mph fastball and a 79-mph changeup, I mean, they’re basically the same pitch. It is fun to watch Weaver these days because it’s like a little magic show. He is trying to win with smoke and mirrors and trap doors and thread and sleight of hand and misdirection and psychology and all the tools of the magician. Every out is a little miracle.