Stanton poised to live up to MVP pedigree

March 19th, 2021

This is what Giancarlo Stanton did with the Marlins just four years ago: 59 home runs hit, knocked in 132, scored 123 runs and had a slugging percentage of .631, an on-base percentage of .376 and an OPS of 1.007. He hit .281 that year and won the National League’s Most Valuable Player Award. Maybe the most staggering statistic of all, considering what has happened to him with injuries the last couple of years in New York, is that he played 159 games.

You know how many players whose names haven't been associated with modern performance-enhancing drugs have hit that many home runs in one season, in all of baseball history? Two. Babe Ruth and Roger Maris.

Four years later, the Yankees hope this is the season in which Stanton stays on the field and hits home runs like that; when he can look like an MVP again. That he can play a full season and scare the living daylights out of other teams the way he did in last year’s postseason, when he hit six home runs in the seven October games the Yankees played.

Don Mattingly was Stanton’s manager in 2017. I asked Mattingly on Thursday what it was like having a front-row seat to a season like that, and seeing Stanton at his best before the Marlins traded him and the remaining decade of his $325 million, 13-year contract to Mattingly’s old team, the Yankees.

“He changed the way the other team approached him in the order,” Mattingly said. “And he changed me as a manager trying to get him pitched to.”

And by the way? The Marlins weren’t exactly defenseless on offense that year. J.T. Realmuto was still in Miami, and so were Christian Yelich and Marcell Ozuna. Justin Bour hit 26 home runs for the 2017 Marlins. They even had Ichiro coming off the bench.

You know what happened next. The Marlins, who made it to the second round of last year’s postseason in a year when Mattingly was Manager of the Year, decided they couldn’t go forward and try to build a young and competitive team while working around Stanton’s contract.

The Yankees hadn’t even gotten to the plate with Shohei Ohtani, a star they coveted more than somewhat, when they decided to go after Stanton. They were willing to make a big splash and absorb Stanton’s contract, even though they’d just gotten out from under Alex Rodriguez’s 10-year, $275 million deal. The Marlins were a more than willing trade partner, even with Stanton coming off the monster season he’d just had.

Stanton did well enough in his first season with the Yankees, hitting 38 homers and knocking in 100 runs, even though he struck out 48 more times than he had the year before. The postseason was another matter. After hitting a home run in the Yankees’ Wild Card game against the A’s at Yankee Stadium, he knocked just four singles in the Yankees' four-game American League Division Series loss to the Red Sox, with no homers and not a single RBI, having left what felt like a subway car full of runners on base.

Since then? Well, you know what’s happened since then.

Stanton missed 144 out of 162 games in 2019 and he missed 37 regular-season games out of 60 last season. There was a biceps strain in ’19 and then a problem with his left shoulder and finally a knee injury. Last year, a hamstring injury put him back on the injured list in August, before he rose up the way he did in the playoffs: In the division series against the Rays, which the Yankees lost in five games, his slugging percentage was a fancy, shiny 1.000.

Now Stanton is healthy, at least so far. He’s only hit one Spring Training home run, but it was something to see against the Pirates, a ball that seemed to be on its way to Pittsburgh. And Aaron Judge, who hasn’t been able to stay on the field either lately, has also had no physical issues so far. It is why the Yankees are once again hopeful this is the year the two of them turn into Maris and Mantle 2.0. Of course, Judge also has a 50-homer season on his resume, also in 2017.

“We saw [in the playoffs] what I feel like, if [Stanton] had been healthy in ’19 and ’20, what we would have seen throughout those seasons,’’ Aaron Boone said the other day. “If he can stay healthy, he’s gonna turn in a special season. I feel in a lot of ways, he’s a better hitter than when he won the MVP.”

We’ll see, starting in a couple of weeks, if Stanton can build this season on the way last season ended, when he once again looked like the right-handed-hitting version of The Bambino. Babe Ruth had a couple of injury-shortened seasons, too, in the '20s. But starting in 1926, around the same point in his career where Stanton is, Babe Ruth missed a total of 42 games over the next six seasons, while averaging 50 homers a year.

The Yankees still think, and hope, Stanton -- and Judge -- can be that kind of slugger in New York. Not on the injured list.