Our eyes and our perceptions are imperfect.
This is why I don’t have blind faith in mine and I have even less faith in other peoples’ especially when it comes to their judgments of baseball players. It’s not that I dismiss anyone’s opinion outright, but I just want to see the data that supports it (or doesn’t) before I form my own opinion.
So when I said to myself for what felt like the 50th time this season, “Damn, Stanton hits the ball right at defenders an awful lot” I assumed that my fandom-fueled frustrations were playing with my perception a bit. So I checked.
Turns out my eyes aren’t so bad, because I was right. We’ll come back to that in a minute.
Giancarlo Stanton is in the middle of a very good 2022 season after having a very good 2021 season. In fact, he’s actually performing better in the batter’s box in ’22 than he did last season. His chase rate is slightly lower in ’22 than it was in ’21 and his walk and strikeout rates are a little better as a result. Additionally, even though he’s always been a vaporizer of baseballs, his 2022 barrel percentage is up pretty significantly from 2021 (22.9% up from 15.7% to be exact.)
Heck, he’s even hitting the ball over the wall at a higher rate this season. His current long ball rate of 7.5% is not only better than last year’s 6.0%, but it’s the best since his MVP-winning, 59 home run season of 2017.
Perhaps most tellingly, Stanton’s wOBA is currently at .483 after posting a .407 wOBA last season, and his xwOBA is currently .424 after a .363 xwOBA in ’21. That 61-point increase is the eighth highest from 2021 to 2022 among 175 qualified MLB batters. Albeit slightly, he’s simply putting together better at-bats this season than he did last season – and he was pretty damn good last season.
So then why are the results the same?
His current SLG of .516 is exactly the same as last season, and both his batting average and OBP are slightly down from last year. Of course, there are factors such as the ball, parks, pitching, etc. affecting that, but wRC+ takes that into account and despite performing better in ’22, his results-based 136 wRC+ is essentially the same as his 137 wRC+ in 2021.
What’s different in 2022 for Stanton is that his Batting Average on Balls In Play (BABIP) is .247, which is ridiculously low for a batter who hits the ball as hard as Stanton does. In fact, it’s 77 points lower than last season’s .324 (which is the 11th biggest drop from ’21 to ’22 in MLB) and is 60 points lower than his career average.
Luck and randomness are always big factors in BABIP. Sometimes you hit dying quails and ground balls with eyes, and other times you smoke a line drive right at a fielder – that’s baseball, Suzyn. So it’s pretty clear that my perception was at least partially correct in that Stanton is hitting into a lot of bad luck by hitting the ball hard, but right at defenders.
But it’s more than that: Teams are playing Stanton differently. Quite different in fact, as he’s faced a shift in almost one-third of his plate appearances in 2022 which is almost double the rate he was shifted against in 2021. He’s hitting the ball at defenders because they know where he hits them and they’re standing there. Combine that with the BABIP Gods of randomness (as David Cone likes to say) not being on your side and you get Stanton’s 2022 – a guy having great at-bats but having to settle for very good results.
To be clear, I’m not suggesting Stanton should change anything- when you have a thoroughbred, you let him sprint, not gallop. Luck evens out eventually which will help, and even with the increased shifting, right-handed batters by definition can’t be shifted against too often.
But I least I know I’m not losing my mind. When I see Stanton smoke a ball just to the right of the pitcher’s mound for a clear base hit up the middle, just to find that the second baseman is standing on the edge of the outfield grass, just a few steps to the right of second base, and I say “Damn, that happens a lot”, it’s all good – because it does.
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