Here's why Stanton is off to such hot start

May 11th, 2021

That’s more like it. Giancarlo Stanton is off to one of the best starts of his career and is finally playing like the Yankees envisioned when they traded for the reigning NL MVP in December 2017. Entering 2021, he’d hit .266 and slugged .507 in the first three seasons of his Yankees career -- playing in just 199 regular-season games due to injury. His best stretch in a Yankees uniform had arguably been the team’s seven-game postseason run last year, when he homered in the first five games and hit .308 overall with a whopping 1.038 slugging percentage.

Thus far in 2021, his production has more closely mirrored what he did with the Marlins, especially in that final year in Florida, when he won MVP by leading the Majors with 59 homers and the NL with a .631 slugging percentage.

Stanton’s batting average (.292) is his best in the first 30 games of a season in his career, and his OPS (.914) is second on that list only to the 2014 season, when he finished second for NL MVP in a campaign that ended early due to a hit-by-pitch in September.

He’s had two overlapping 15-game stretches since the middle of April where he hit .413 or better -- both of which are within the top 10 best such spans of his career. The eight others on that list? None occurred in a Yankees uniform. They were all before the trade, in 2010, 2014 and 2017.

There’s no question that a lot of this is a great player simply being healthy again. But there are still specific elements to his approach that are leading to his current performance. Here’s a look at what’s been working for Stanton so far in 2021.

Seeing more pitches in the zone -- and feasting

Stanton is seeing more pitches in the zone this season than in any other season of his career. 47.8% of pitches he’s seen -- yes, almost half -- have been in the zone. The highest rate of in-zone pitches he’s seen in any completed season of his career is 44.6%, in 2012, which was his third year in the league.

Not only is he seeing more of those pitches, but, on a rate basis, he’s swinging at them more frequently, too, being more aggressive. His 70.4% swing rate on in-zone pitches would be the highest of his career, surpassing the 66.5% he had in 2017, when he hit 59 homers and won that MVP Award.

Of course, the next question is, is he crushing those pitches? And the answer is yes, with a .349 batting average and .709 slugging percentage in at-bats ending on in-zone pitches.

We can zero in on specific parts of the zone, too, and it’s worth noting that 8.1% of the pitches he’s seen have been ‘meatballs’ -- middle-middle pitches. He’s never seen more than 6.9% of pitches like that in a season before this year, and with good reason. Throwing a middle-middle pitch to Stanton is not advised. He’s hit .408 with a .980 slugging percentage in at-bats ending on meatballs in his career, with 73 of his 321 career home runs coming on those pitches.

Using the whole field

In 2020, Stanton pulled the ball 55.1% of the time, the highest such rate of his career. This year, he’s been hitting the ball more equally across the field, with a 31.8% pull rate, 43.5% of his batted balls going straightaway and 24.7% to the opposite field.

Those rates to straightaway and the opposite field would each be the second-highest of his career, while his pull rate would be a career-low. He historically hits better when pulling the ball, overall, but with how well he has been hitting, he hasn’t needed to rely on that. He’s hitting .448 on non-pulled batted balls, which would be the second-highest mark of his career.

Crushing the ball -- even by his standard

We know that Stanton is the king of hitting the ball hard. He’s had the hardest-hit batted ball in each individual season tracked by Statcast (since 2015), even in 2019, when he played just 18 games, and 2020, when he played 23 in a 60-game season. Lo and behold, he’s hitting the ball very hard again this year, with a 64.7% hard-hit rate, which leads qualified hitters. That means that almost a third of the time, when he makes contact, it has a 95+ mph exit velocity.

That hard-hit rate is bound to come down in some way before season’s end, but the context worth keeping in mind is this: his highest for a completed season of his career since 2015 is 53.8%, in ‘15 -- but he only played 74 games that year.

One other thing to consider

Stanton also has a 17.6% barrel rate this season, which is among the top 15 in the league, but might sound low for a player that’s making hard contact close to a third of the time. That barrel rate would likely be higher if he was elevating the ball a bit more, since barrels consider the ideal combination of launch angle and exit velocity. For all Stanton has done this season, his sweet-spot rate -- which is the percentage of batted balls with a launch angle from 8-32 degrees -- is at 25.9%, which would be the lowest he’s had since ‘15. For all of his hard-hit singles this year, elevating the ball could certainly yield some more homers. But he’s hitting well all the same.

After a slower start than was expected, the Yankees are now 18-16, three games behind the surprising, division-leading Red Sox. And they have an 11-5 record since April 23 which is third-best in MLB, while Stanton has hit .413 and slugged .762 in that span. It’s all coming together for Stanton and the Yankees.