The hottest hitter on the planet stepped up to the plate in the eighth inning in a tie game on Sunday. The San Diego Padres not only left in southpaw Clayton Richard instead of bringing in a right-hander, but Richard gave Giancarlo Stanton something to hit, and then this happened:
A week prior, Stanton came up in the seventh inning against Jacob deGrom of the New York Mets with the Miami Marlins up 2-1. With runners on first and third and one out, you might think deGrom would work carefully to Stanton, willing to load the bases to face a more normal human to escape the jam and keep the game close. Instead, he threw a first-pitch fastball and Stanton crushed it:
— Miami Marlins (@Marlins) August 21, 2017
Stanton has now mashed 30 home runs in his past 48 games after hitting his 51st of the season in the first inning of Tuesday’s 8-3 loss to the Washington Nationals. He just missed his 52nd home run in the fifth inning, when Edwin Jackson thought it was a good idea to throw a 3-0 center-cut fastball that Stanton just missed for a game-tying two-run home run, settling instead for a 370-foot sacrifice fly.
With Stanton’s historic blitz of home runs showing no signs of letting up, we’re left to wonder: Why continue to pitch to him? Consider that since his hot streak began on July 5, Stanton has walked 30 times. That’s a high total, seventh-most in the majors in that time, but pales in comparison to Joey Votto’s 56 walks and is just two more than Logan Forsythe has drawn — a guy with four home runs all season.
The simplest explanation is that pitchers always believe they can get a hitter out.
“These guys are high-salaried, high-priced, high-pride athletes,” Nationals manager Dusty Baker told ESPN.com’s Eddie Matz this week. “Nobody wants to run from anybody.
“Everybody out there was the best where they came from, and they will rise to every challenge that there is. And now you’re asking them to back down and say that guy’s so much better than me. I saw Hank Aaron. I remember Bob Gibson told Lynn McGlothen whatever you do, don’t throw Hank Aaron no fastball. He said throwing him a fastball was like trying to sneak the sun by a rooster. So Lynn McGlothen threw breaking balls all day. [But he] just couldn’t help himself. In the eighth or ninth, he had him set up for a fastball, and he threw him one, and he hit it over fence. Your pride will not let you not try, right?”
Nationals outfielder Jayson Werth agreed with Baker: “That’s how Barry [Bonds] hit 73 homers,” Werth said. “That’s why baseball is so great and so pure. From first pitch to last pitch, people want to compete.”
The game situation is important as well. When Stanton homered off Richard, Dee Gordon was on first with no outs. As risky as it is pitching to Stanton, you don’t want to walk him and put the go-ahead run on second base with no outs. In deGrom’s case, he’s a strikeout pitcher looking for a strikeout with a runner on third. The fastball he threw was actually in a good location, right on the inside corner, but Stanton isn’t missing many pitches these days. Jackson probably didn’t expect Stanton to swing 3-0.
Stanton himself isn’t surprised he’s still getting some meaty pitches to attack.
“Nope. I’ve got to be ready. Pitcher’s still got a competitive fire, too. You want to win. You want to be competitive,” he told Matz.
Still, it’s a little stunning that Stanton’s walk rate and percentage of pitches in the strike zone haven’t changed all that much during his barrage:
• Through July 4: 10.4 percent
• Walk rate since July 5: 14.7 percent
• Walk rate since Aug. 5: 11.4 percent
Percentage of pitches in the strike zone
• Through July 4: 44.8 percent
• Since July 5: 42.0 percent
• In zone since Aug. 5: 43.3 percent
Of course, back on July 5, pitchers didn’t know that Stanton’s new closed stance was going to change his season around. That stance has helped him to a more compact swing and helps keep his front shoulder from flying open as often. In Stanton’s case, he’s so strong he doesn’t need a long swing to hit the ball over the fence. He’s now punishing inside pitches better than ever as a result, hitting .416 and slugging an insane 1.156 on pitches on the inner third of the plate since July 5.
Another reason Stanton hasn’t walked as much is that he’s not the same type of hitter as Votto or Bonds, two supremely disciplined craftsmen. Stanton swings 43.3 percent of the time and misses on 31.9 percent of those swings. His chase rate is over 25 percent. Votto actually swings nearly as often as Stanton — 41.2 percent — but misses just 15.1 percent of the time and chases just 13.8 percent. Votto walks more not because he’s necessarily more feared, but because he has a better eye at the plate.
Here’s another look at Stanton’s approach, comparing him to the past four players to reach 50 home runs, plus three famous home run seasons you might be familiar with (intentional walks excluded from the swing rate and overall rate of strikes):
As you can see, Bonds and McGwire saw fewer strikes than the other guys, but Stanton fits in with the others. While pitchers did pitch to Bonds in 2001, his intentional walks went from 35 that year to 120 by 2004. He’s the one guy pitchers did eventually become afraid to challenge.
Will that happen to Stanton down the stretch? Unlikely. For one thing, the Marlins have a good lineup around him. He moved to the No. 2 spot back in May and Gordon has done a decent job getting on base in front of him, with a .336 OBP since July 5. It’s no coincidence that 11 of those 30 home runs have come with Gordon on base. It also helps having Christian Yelich and Marcell Ozuna following Stanton in the order, but as Curt Schilling once told me, people always talk about lineup protection, but if there’s a runner on first base, you can’t pitch around a batter, no matter who is on deck. You put two runners and now you’re in danger of a big inning.
As Baker explained: “You can’t stop him hitting home runs. You just hope they’re solos and it’s not when it really hurts you. It’s awesome. I try not to look at it every night. I urge my players not to look at it every night because then they end up getting nervous. I don’t know that there is a plan for him. He’s not hitting .400, but he is hitting a whole bunch of home runs. But he is making some outs. You want to stop the people getting on in front of him, which is difficult sometimes with Dee Gordon.”
Also, if Stanton can remain hot and not only challenge Roger Maris’ 61 home runs or even Bonds’ 73, pitchers might feel even more pressure to pitch to Stanton. Bonds hit 16 home runs in September of 2001. McGwire hit 15 home runs in September of 1998 when he broke Maris’ record and after walking 30-plus times in May, July and August, received just 19 walks in September.
So pitchers will continue pitching to Stanton. Which means these final few weeks have a chance to become something special.