For Giancarlo Stanton, there will be no escaping the spotlight in 2015. There will be more eyes and, in turn, more pressure on him than ever before. 

In an environment like that, stars can either fade or shine even brighter. And provided you know how to read and comprehend headlines, you can guess which outcome is about to be discussed in this space.

Stanton, the 25-year-old right fielder for the Miami Marlins, has already shown he can handle being one of baseball’s best players. It feels strange to refer to his 2014 season as his big breakout knowing that he came into the year with a career .889 OPS and 117 home runs in four seasons, but that’s what it was.

Beyond leading the National League with 37 home runs and a .555 slugging percentage, Stanton also posted a career-best .395 on-base percentage, stole a career-high 13 bases and, according to the defensive metrics found at FanGraphs, played quality defense in right field. 

It all added up to 6.2 wins above replacement, which put Stanton behind only Andrew McCutchen and Jonathan Lucroy among NL position players. That captures how he went from being one of the game’s elite sluggers to being one of the game’s elite players, period.

The one tragedy of Stanton’s 2014 season is that it ended both prematurely and gruesomely by way of a wayward Mike Fiers fastball. But he escaped that incident without career-altering injuries—or, judging from his spring training dominance, any ill effectsand still finished second in the NL MVP voting.

After a season like that, the anticipation for Stanton’s follow-up season in 2015 would have been high enough even if nothing of note had happened over the offseason. But as you might have noticed, two things of note happened.

First, Stanton signed a 13-year, $325 million contract. And though the fine print puts quotation marks around the length and dollars of the deal, as’s Jayson Stark explains, officially it’s the biggest contract in sports history. Because of how these things work, Stanton must now look the part of the most expensive athlete ever.

Second, the Marlins followed Stanton’s extension by going all-in on returning to the postseason in 2015. They traded for Mat Latos, Dee Gordon and Martin Prado, and they signed Michael Morse. Now the Marlins look good enough to convince very smart people such as Grantland’s Jonah Keri and Michael Baumann to pick them to win it all in 2015.

The last time anyone actually expected anything from a Marlins team featuring Stanton was in 2012, but the situation now is different. The focus then was on new additions Jose Reyes, Mark Buehrle and Heath Bell. The focus now is on whether Stanton can carry this new-look outfit.

He’s certainly committed to the task. Stanton has often expressed his desire to win, and he recently told Joe Frisario of that his sole focus for 2015 is to “just play the whole year and help the team.”

Nonetheless, what’s Buster Olney wrote in December still rings true:

What all of this means is that he’ll face far more scrutiny, far more pressure, than ever. In the past, a Stanton slump was like a tree falling in a forest — nobody heard it — but now everybody will notice. Look, his contract is so enormous that it will be impossible to match in production, and Stanton is known to be a smart guy who will understand that, and that nobody will ever feel sorry for him again.

But Stanton is stepping into a vortex in 2015, ready or not.

How well Stanton survives this vortex will depend on his performance. To live up to the hype and help the Marlins live up to the hype, he’ll need to show his superstar turn in 2014 was no fluke.

Thankfully, this is doable.

The one thing Stanton doesn’t have to prove to anyone is that his power is for real. Rating his power as an 80 on the 20-80 scouting scale might actually be underselling it, a point that he seems intent on making every time he hits one over the fence.

We really don’t need to, but let’s look at an example to illustrate the point:

So yeah, no. His power is not on the pile marked “Prove It” in 2015.

Rather, what’s front and center on that pile is the .395 OBP he posted last year. That’s astronomically higher than an average OBP (.314 in 2014) these days and 41 points higher than the .354 career mark he bore heading into 2014.

As such, it’s a mark that suggests he’s legitimately improving as a hitter. Thus does it compel one to ask, “But is he really?”

Oh, he might be. 

When Stanton first came into the league in 2010, he was basically Pedro Cerrano. Contact off his bat was loud, but he wasn’t wired for consistency. He struck out in 31.1 percent of his 396 plate appearances and walked in only 8.6 percent of those plate appearances.

Ever since then, however, Stanton has been making steady gains.

That’s most obvious when looking at his walks. He’s gone from an 8.6 BB percent in 2010 to 14.7 BB percent rates in each of the last two seasons, which is reflective of much-improved discipline. According to FanGraphs, he chased 34.3 percent of pitches he saw outside of the strike zone between 2010 and 2012. In the last two years, that figure has dropped to 30.8 percent.

Meanwhile, Stanton’s strikeout habit is rolling steadily downhill:

As the league’s strikeout habit has been getting worse, Stanton’s has been getting better.

Mind you, Stanton is never going to turn into a pure contact hitter. His giant 6’6″ frame may be good for generating power, but it also curses him with a big strike zone. And as Brooks Baseball can show, he hasn’t gotten the hang of cutting down his whiffs on breaking balls and off-speed pitches.

Slowly but surely, though, Stanton is doing himself a monumental favor by closing holes in his swing against the hard stuff.

Last September, Jonah Keri penned a piece that referenced how Stanton had largely stopped swinging through high pitches in 2014. Not surprisingly, a search on Baseball Savant revealed that most of the pitches he stopped swinging through were fastballs.

Elsewhere, another search on Baseball Savant revealed that Stanton finally achieved a balance between hitting both inside fastballs and outside fastballs in 2014:

It’s the improvement against outside heat that really stands out, and a closer look offers a hint at what made that possible. Stanton hit an awful lot of outside fastballs the other way to right field.

And that leads us to the biggest improvement Stanton made at the plate in 2014. Get a load of his before-and-after production to right field:

  • 2010-2013: .856 OPS and 15 HR
  • 2014: 1.057 OPS and 9 HR

Stanton always had the tools he needed to be an elite opposite-field producer. But for the first time in his career, he actually was in 2014.

On that note, I believe we’ve earned ourselves a look at another Stanton unreal dinger: 

Yes, good times. Now onward with the analysis.

Stanton’s superstar turn in 2014 wasn’t all about his hitting. He wouldn’t have qualified as one of the game’s elites without also contributing on the basepaths and on defense. And this is where things might look sketchy, as he doesn’t have much of a track record as a skilled baserunner or defender.

But it looks like that was due to circumstances beyond his control more so than to a lack of ability.

Stanton missed quite a few games with leg injuries between 2011 and 2013, most notably spending over 70 days on the disabled list with knee and hamstring injuries in 2012 and 2013. But in 2014, he was able to keep his legs healthy for a change.

As David G. Temple of FanGraphs observed, that provided us with our first real chance to see what Stanton can do on healthy legs. And beyond a stronger base to hit off of, that meant improved footspeed that served him well on the basepaths and helped boost his range in the outfield.

To the latter end, Stanton has already indicated that the good times are going to carry over to 2015 with this beauty of a grab on Wednesday night against the Atlanta Braves:

This, admittedly, is the only highlight Stanton has produced three games into the season. He started slow at the dish, collecting only one hit in his first 12 plate appearances against the Braves.

But rest assured, the highlights are coming. Stanton is coming off a year in which he was an asset in every phase of the game, and the talents that made that possible haven’t gone anywhere.

So all the extra people who will be watching this year? They’re in for quite the show. 


Note: Stats courtesy of Baseball-Reference unless otherwise noted/linked.

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