Marlins' Stanton a 'one in a million' talent
Recently recalled outfielder known for his towering home runs and chiseled physique
Florida Marlins outfielder Mike Stanton generates the inevitable Dave Winfield comparisons because he's a 6-foot-5, 240-pound right-handed slugger with a multisport background. His Double-A hitting coach called him "Paul Bunyan,'' and one opposing manager said he looks like a "15-year-old playing on an 8-year-old Little League team.'' Hello, Danny Almonte.
Still, it's only when Stanton starts eliciting classic 1960s sitcom references that you realize how extraordinary he can be.
Former big leaguer John Vander Wal, now a San Diego Padres scout, was at the baseball draft Monday when he recalled watching Stanton take batting practice earlier this spring for Jacksonville in the Southern League. Vander Wal's mind flashed back to Frank Thomas as he saw Stanton hit absurdly long home runs to all fields. Then another behemoth sprang to mind.
"The kid was hitting balls so far, it reminded me of that 'Munsters' episode where Herman tried out for the Dodgers,'' Vander Wal said.
In case you missed it, that's the one in which Herman Munster rips a hole through the third baseman's glove and launches balls so far into orbit, a stunned Leo Durocher observes, "I don't know whether to sign him with the Dodgers or send him to Vietnam.''
Stanton, 20, wasn't built in a lab, but he does possess a classic combination of maturity, a warrior's work ethic and a physique straight out of an NFL combine. If Stanton weren't playing right field and hitting seventh for manager Fredi Gonzalez, you could envision him lining up at tight end and knocking some poor defensive back all the way to concussion-land.
He's so chiseled by baseball standards, one veteran teammate couldn't resist giving him the business when he emerged from the showers Wednesday with only a towel around his waist.
"Is that a real body, or is that fake?'' third baseman Wes Helms yelled across the clubhouse.
It's real, all right. And teams in other National League cities might be wise to fortify the concrete on the facing to the upper deck.
Stanton's 3-for-5 debut against the Phillies on Tuesday fell through the cracks nationally because it coincided with Stephen Strasburg's 14-strikeout, no-walk, radar-gun-smashing extravaganza in Washington, but it was every bit as momentous to the Marlins, who envision him as a middle-of-the-order fixture as they prepare to move into a new ballpark in 2012.
Stanton is the latest addition to a National League rookie crop that's an embarrassment of riches. Strasburg and Atlanta right fielder Jason Heyward are the headline acts, but St. Louis lefty Jaime Garcia leads the team with a 1.47 ERA, and third baseman David Freese is hitting .311. Cincinnati's Mike Leake is 5-0 with a 2.68 ERA despite zero minor league experience, and San Francisco's Buster Posey, New York's Ike Davis and Jonathon Niese, Chicago's Starlin Castro and Milwaukee's Alcides Escobar should all be around a while. The league's coming attractions include Cuban defector Aroldis Chapman, who is moving closer to a ballyhooed debut in Cincinnati sometime this summer.
If one attribute sets Stanton above the crowd, it's that forehead-slapping power. After then-Marlins pitcher Dan Meyer returned from a Double-A rehab assignment in May, he practically hyperventilated when recalling a Stanton home run at Riverwalk Stadium in Montgomery, Ala. The ball cleared the fence at the 395-foot mark, sailed over the massive scoreboard behind it, crossed a set of railroad tracks and scattered squirrels and other wildlife as it landed somewhere in the forest beyond. We are not making this up.
"That's fairy tale type stuff,'' Meyer told the Miami Herald. "Honestly, if somebody said it went 550 [feet], I'd probably lean toward believing it.''
Stanton initially thought the baseball had conked off his JumboTron likeness, then realized it had cleared the board. True to form, he dropped his head, circled the bases and made the trip with minimal fanfare. As long as balls carry over the fence, he doesn't care where they land.
[Mike Stanton] can miss a pitch and hit it 430 feet. With most guys, that's the longest ball they'll ever hit.” -- Marlins third baseman Wes Helms
"I'm trying to be the best baseball player I can, to learn from what I see and get better every day,'' Stanton said. "I don't want to be thought of as just a guy who just hits the ball far.''
He's laying a brick-by-brick foundation to make it happen. During spring training, Stanton's fellow Marlins noticed that he would set the pitching machine to throw him one hellacious slider after another. When the machine dropped in a gift hanger every seventh or eighth pitch, Stanton would uncoil and knock the bejeesus out of it. In 52 games with Jacksonville this year, Stanton hit 21 homers and slugged .726. Almost as impressive, he posted a strikeout-walk ratio of 53-44 and an on-base percentage of .441.
Before Stanton made the jump from Double-A ball to the majors, Jacksonville manager Tim Leiper told Gonzalez, "He'll screw a play up, but he won't do it twice." That's a tribute to Stanton's routine and attention to detail. When Stanton isn't lifting weights, stretching in the trainer's room or taking his cuts in the cage, he's probably working on his outfield jumps or studying angles off the wall. Dave Collins, Florida's first base coach, sees a world of difference between Stanton's raw defense and baserunning in spring training and the skills on display now.
"He's very coachable, he's humble and he's hungry at the same time,'' Collins said, "and that's very rare because his talent is off the charts. He does the dirty work, and that's what separates this kid. He's one in a million from what I've seen.''
The back story adds to his appeal. Stanton's given name is Giancarlo Cruz-Michael Stanton, and as he recently told Fort Lauderdale columnist Dave Hyde, "I'm a quarter-black, a quarter-Puerto Rican and half-Irish.'' Stanton's parents gave him an Italian first name, he said, because "they just liked the name Giancarlo.''
After distinguishing himself as an outfielder, tight end and basketball forward at Notre Dame High in Sherman Oaks, Calif., Stanton received an offer to play football and baseball at Southern California. But he spurned the Trojans to sign with Florida for a $475,000 bonus as a second-round pick in the 2007 draft.
The story has often been told, but bears repeating because it's so mind-blowing: The Marlins considered taking Heyward in the first round -- and could have had Heyward and Stanton manning their outfield corners right now -- but used their first draft pick that year on Matt Dominguez, a high school third baseman from California.
Although Heyward has the early jump on Stanton in the Rookie of the Year sweepstakes, Stanton's debut was certainly memorable. First he put on the obligatory show in batting practice at Citizens Bank Park while barely trying, outdistancing Hanley Ramirez and Dan Uggla with 2-iron shots to left field.
"He can miss a pitch and hit it 430 feet,'' Helms said. "With most guys, that's the longest ball they'll ever hit.''
Then the game began, and Stanton beat out two infield hits and lined a 97 mph Jose Contreras fastball the opposite way for a single. At 20 years, 212 days, he became the youngest player to amass three hits in a debut since Danny Ainge went 3-for-4 for the Toronto Blue Jays in May 1979.
If anything impresses Stanton's fellow Marlins more than his pop, it's his calorie consumption. Helms took Stanton out for a couple of get-acquainted dinners in spring training, and came away thinking that the kid had the maturity and world view of a 26-year-old rather than someone three years removed from his senior prom.
Between the appetizers and dessert, something else became readily apparent: While Stanton hits the ball like Herman Munster, he cleans a plate like "Beverly Hillbillies'' bumpkin Jethro Bodine.
"It's amazing how much food he can consume,'' Helms said. "He's going to enjoy the spreads here. We might want to make him wait until the end of the line. If he goes first, they might not have a lot left over.''
That's true, concedes Stanton, who is partial to grilled chicken breasts, but made sure to seek out a good cheesesteak joint during the Marlins' series in Philadelphia this week.
"I don't eat a bunch of things,'' Stanton said. "I just eat a few things a lot.''
And when he hits a baseball just right, it stays gone for a very long time.