March 31, 2013

Miami Marlins’ Giancarlo Stanton might thrive as lone slugging threat

Giancarlo Stanton faces a difficult challenge as the Marlins’ only proven power threat. But history might be on his side.

Back when they were big boppers on bad ball clubs, “The Toy Cannon” and “The Capital Punisher” used to hear people say the same thing Giancarlo Stanton is hearing now.

They’ll pitch around him.

He’ll never get anything to hit.

They’ll take their chances with everyone else, but not him.

Jim Wynn and Frank Howard weren’t just sluggers on crummy teams, like Stanton is now with the denuded Marlins, who are almost universally targeted for 90 to 100 losses this season.

They were the only guys in the lineup who put fear in pitchers.

And, yet, despite all the skeptics, Wynn and Howard got their homers. As bad as their teams were, Howard’s Washington Senators and Wynn’s Houston Astros/Colt .45s, they piled up home runs, season after season.

They see no reason why Stanton, despite being the lone man on the totem pole, can’t do the same.

“You might suppress that kind of talent for a week, a month, or maybe two months,” said Howard, 6-foot-7, 255 pounds who belted tape-measure blasts to equal his size. “But after 162 games, that ability is going to surface. You’re not going to suppress that kind of ability. They might try to pitch around him, but he’s going to catch his 40 or 45 – maybe 50 – home runs.”

Said Wynn: “Stanton will be on his own. But he’s a good ballplayer, and once he learns the strike zone, he’s going to be a very good ballplayer. He can hit the ball out of any park.”

Stanton might have won the home run crown – probably would have won the home run crown – last season when he cranked out 37. But he missed a month because of a knee injury and finished second to Ryan Braun, who hit 41.

He’s already tallied 93 homers in his brief career, making him one of only six players in major-league history to hit that many before his 23rd birthday. The others are Mel Ott (115), Eddie Mathews (112), Tony Conigliaro (104), Alex Rodriguez (95) and Frank Robinson (93).

But how in the world will he continue putting the ball over the fence if he’s the only concern for opposing pitchers in the Marlins’ thinned lineup? Manager Mike Redmond is thinking of having Placido Polanco provide “protection” in the cleanup spot behind Stanton. Polanco has 13 home runs in the past three seasons combined.

“He’s got to be patient,” said Andre Dawson, a Hall of Famer and Marlins’ front office assistant who once managed to win the Most Valuable Player Award with the last-place Chicago Cubs in 1987. “They’re going to take the approach they’re not going to let him beat them. They’re going to avoid him at all costs and pitch to him only when they have to. When they do make mistakes, that’s when he has to capitalize. He’s going to get pitches to hit, but not many.”

It’s not going to be easy. But it’s also not impossible.

Take Wynn, for example. The expansion Colt .45s of 1962 finished either last or next-to-last in seven of Wynn’s 11 seasons with Houston from 1963-73, and had 90 or more losses in the first six of those.

Yet the 5-foot-10 Wynn somehow managed to hit 223 home runs during that time, and he did so in a terrible park for hitters, especially power guys like Wynn: the Astrodome, which opened in 1965.

“It was the toughest ballpark to hit a home run in in the ’60s and the early ’70s,” Wynn said. “And Stanton is dealing with the same thing now with their new ballpark.”

But if Wynn could do it, it stands to reason Stanton can to.

Wynn said the key for him was learning to take what pitchers gave him and not being impatient by swinging at anything thrown even remotely close to the strike zone. Wynn led the league in strikeouts in 1967. Two years later, he led the league in walks.

“I was probably the only player on our team that could hit the ball out on any different pitcher on any given day,” Wynn said. “At first, I struck out a lot. It finally dawned on me that if I could get on base and steal a run that way, I’d be helping us win. So I learned the strike zone and said, Hey, I’ll take the base on balls.”

Wynn still got his homers, though.

So did Howard with the lowly Senators.

From 1967-71, Howard hit more home runs than anyone else in the majors. His 198 were one more than Hank Aaron.

The Senators finished last two of those years and were almost always bad.

“I was just a cut and slash guy up until I was about 27 or 28 years old,” Howard said. “I told people I was young and naive, but I was just young and dumb. Had I made some adjustments earlier in my career, I would have been a better player.”

Stanton understands his situation, knows what lies ahead for him.

“I just know I have to better myself in terms of not falling into swinging at balls out of the zone,” Stanton said. “They [pitchers] know they’ve got to be careful and they’ve got to be smart. So do I at the same time. He has his plan. I have mine.”

Dawson said one factor working in Stanton’s favor is that he’s smart but willing to learn.

“I think when they started trading those players last year, he got a feel for what was starting to transpire, what was happening with pitchers and how they were starting to approach him,” Dawson said. “He’s going to get pitches to hit. He just can’t miss them, and he can’t get frustrated when he does. He’s got to take what they give him, not force anything. He’ll find himself struggling even more if he tries to force it. But the one thing he has to understand is, they’re not going to let Giancarlo beat them.”

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