This Marlins season was supposed to be over in mid-May, soon after it began, remember? It was supposed to unravel into five dreary months of irrelevant losing from the moment ace pitcher Jose Fernandez was lost for the year to elbow surgery.
Instead, Miami’s Fighting Fish are back up to .500 and within 3 1/2 games of a wild-card playoff spot in one of the season’s sweet little stories. At the doorstep of football season, against odds, baseball still matters in South Florida — and that is reason enough why the National League’s Most Valuable Player race should be no contest right now.
It should be Giancarlo Stanton’s to lose. No Marlin has ever won an MVP award, but this one should if he keeps this up.
Two things speak to the extraordinary power of the 6-6, 240-pound Stanton.
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One is that seven of his major league-leading 32 home runs have soared 450-plus feet, more than everybody else’s team total. You do not miss a Stanton at-bat. You stop what you are doing and watch, expecting to be amazed.
“I don’t even know if I can come up with a word that describes his power,” manager Mike Redmond said Monday. “I’ve only seen a couple guys from my day that would be worthy of watching take batting practice: Sammy Sosa and Mark McGwire. Now, I see guys come out of the clubhouse to watch Giancarlo take [batting practice] like that.”
The other sign of Stanton’s power is that he is strong enough to lift a team onto his shoulders and carry it.
The Baseball Writers’ Association of America, which selects the league MVPs, tells its members there is no clear-cut definition of what “most valuable” means but offers the following top two considerations for voting: 1. Value of a player to his team. 2. Number of games played.
Stanton’s value to the Marlins is obvious but also measurable; his WAR (wins above replacement) number of 6.2 leads all NL hitters. It is that second guideline about games played that is particularly interesting in that Stanton’s biggest competition for the MVP award might be a pitcher, the Dodgers’ sublime Clayton Kershaw.
Pitchers have their own award, the Cy Young, and number of games is a criteria, which is probably why only one pitcher in the past 22 years (Justin Verlander in 2011) has been voted as his league’s MVP. Nobody in the NL has done it since Bob Gibson in 1968.
Kershaw should and will win the Cy Young but should not be the rare exception who also poaches the MVP. Kershaw has played in only 20 games, missing six weeks early in the season to a back injury. Stanton has played in every Marlins game this year, all 124, shedding a reputation for minor injuries and games missed.
Not missing a game is as big a point of pride for Stanton this season as the homers or other stats. Redmond has tried to get him a day off only to be rebuffed by Stanton.
“Several times,” said the manager, laughing. “He is on a mission.”
Stanton, 24, deserves to be the MVP front-runner on his own merit but also has caught some breaks. In addition to Kershaw missing all of April, a few other would-be contenders have fallen away.
Colorado shortstop Troy Tulowitzki, to some once a front-runner, is lost to season-ending hip surgery. (Not sure even a healthy Tulowitzki, though, could have overcome the fact the Rockies are the worst team in the NL. What was his value to his team? That it was merely terrible thanks to him instead of abjectly embarrassing?)
Pittsburgh center fielder Andrew McCutchen, the reigning MVP, just spent time on the disabled list with a fractured rib and is expected back Tuesday. But despite a .311 average, his power numbers pale in comparison to Stanton’s.
And Los Angeles right fielder Yasiel Puig is a slugger who has hit only two home runs since May and trails Stanton in RBI by almost 30.
This isn’t about the shortcomings of others, though.
Stanton’s own numbers are sufficient. Plenty.
He leads the NL in homers (in a pitcher’s park, remember), RBI, walks, intentional walks, slugging percentage, OPS, extra base hits and runs created, as well as in several arcane categories. He is second in on-base percentage. He is just outside the top 10 with his .295 average. His defensive “range factor” — yes, baseball does have a stat for everything! — is second among NL right fielders. Oh, and he’s 10 for 11 in stolen bases, too.
“We all have to keep reminding ourselves this guy is still 24 and that so many parts of his game are still improving, which is so scary,” Redmond said. “He’s continuing to get better and better and better.”
The season he is having, the Cooperstown-trajectory of his potential when healthy like this, should be enough to convince club owner Jeffrey Loria to redouble his determination to get Stanton’s name on a long-term contract before he can become a free agent after the 2016 season. Marlins fans want nothing more than to believe that might happen, and it should be the club’s absolute priority from here.
The presumption that Stanton might prefer to play on the West Coast nearer to his roots is nothing the Marlins should concede. They should aggressively continue to build around him, add talent and be prepared to spend what they must to keep him.
It will take more than mega-money. It will take the proof of a surrounding roster. And it will take the promise of commitment — something that has hardly been Loria’s strong suit. This season has been a mark of progress and promise in what I’d characterize as the continuing quiet courtship of Giancarlo Stanton.
“Last year was tough for him, and it wasn’t fair to him,” Redmond said. “We relied on him so much and didn’t have the guys around him to help him out. This year we do. It has definitely energized him and helped him to relax. He’s happier. He’s smiling. He wants to be a part of a winning team.”
Miami being good enough to hang in the playoff chase even without Jose Fernandez surely will weigh as a plus for the Marlins as their star slugger considers his future.
Stanton winning a league MVP award here — that wouldn’t hurt, either.