Aaron Judge, our sweet pituitary powerboy, is the sports sensation of the year. There was a chance that he was going to start the season in the minor leagues, and he’s putting up Barry Bonds home run totals instead. When Judge destroys the moon with a home run, he will be legally obligated to move the tides himself for the rest of his life, but do not blame him, for he knows not what he does. We have never seen anything like this.
I mean, if you can think of another extremely large homer man who hits home runs 440 feet with alarming frequency, someone who towers over all of his peers, you’re welcome to chime in.
This is certainly the first time I’ve ever seen it. Unless ... wait ...
It sort of feels like we’ve forgotten about Giancarlo Stanton, everyone.
It’s both unfair and fair at the same time. It’s unfair because Stanton is still just two years older than Judge, still a youngster of sorts. He can still be a first-ballot Hall of Famer before he turns 32 or 33.
But it’s fair, in a way, because Stanton has been mostly unremarkable in a baseball sense over the last two seasons. He hit 27 homers last season, which is a fine total, except it tied him with Marcus Semien and Yasmani Grandal for 49th in baseball. And over the last calendar year, Stanton has hit .233/.309/.461 in 476 plate appearances, which is more like Pedro Feliz in his best seasons than the homer obelisk we grew used to.
Is this the Giancarlo Stanton we should get used to?
Before we answer that, take a step back and remember that Stanton isn’t just a dinger-besotted curiosity. He’s been one of the best players in the game. When he was 22, he hit .290/.361/.608 with 37 home runs. Only five players had hit more home runs before turning 23, including Mel Ott, Frank Robinson, Eddie Mathews, and Alex Rodriguez. Tony Conigliaro snuck in there, which was an uncomfortable association after Stanton’s beaning in 2014, and Mike Trout and Bryce Harper later joined the club. That was it, though. It was a list that included some of the best baseball talents in the history of the sport.
When someone is that good, that young, they don’t have to get better and better and better until they’re 30, but it’s not unreasonable to hope that they will. And if they don’t, well, that’s a pretty sweet baseline they’ve established. If you change the search to 21-year-olds with 50 career homers, you get ...
- Nine Hall of Famers (including Alex Rodriguez because, come on)
- One of the saddest injury-related what-ifs in baseball history
- Stanton, Trout, and Harper
- Andruw Jones
- Bob Horner
The Hall of Famers you expect. Conigliaro still breaks my heart, even though I know about him only through books. The two active players who aren’t the subject of this article are amazing, generational talents. A case certainly could be made for Jones in the Hall of Fame, and you’ll hear a lot of those cases stated over the next year.
And then there’s Bob Horner, who is the real collar-tugging comparison on the list. A first-overall pick who won the Rookie of the Year when he was 20, Horner was on a Hall of Fame pace. By the time he was Aaron Judge’s age, he had hit 158 homers, but shoulder, wrist, and leg injuries hampered him shortly after, and after a quick, collusion-inspired season in Japan, he retired when he was 30.
This is the fear with Stanton, of course, who has missed 25 games or more in four out of his last five seasons. So it goes for exceptionally large baseball players. When you’re 13 different smaller men stacked up in an oversized trench coat, that just means there are 13 times as many muscles to pull. The only thing that can bring him down is an uncooperative body. So far, the returns are less than inspiring.
Back to that original question, though, about if this is the Giancarlo Stanton we should get used to. The only logical answer right now is “I don’t know, but I will protect my fanboy hopes with a switchblade if needed.” Stanton is one of my favorite all-time players to watch, so if he descends into the murky waters of Horner — while making $30 million or more deep into his 30s — it would be unfathomably depressing.
The good news is that great players can have subpar seasons, too. Of the players from that earlier list, Al Kaline was merely OK in an injury-marred season when he was 25. Mathews’ 1958 season was the kind of low-average, high-dinger season Stanton had last year, but he shook it off and had some of the best seasons of his career. Orlando Cepeda and Ken Griffey, Jr. both had injuries and less-than-stellar seasons in their mid-20s, only to rebound shortly after.
That’s where we are now, then. We’re in the middle of the story, and there’s an ending that goes down the Bob Horner path, and there’s an ending that leads to Cooperstown. It’s still just May, after all, and a month from now, Stanton might be hitting .290 with 20 homers, laughing at concern-trolling like this. I’d say the likeliest scenario is him rebounding to the player he was. We have 3,000 plate appearances that suggest Stanton is one of the best power hitters of all time, and about 600 that suggest he’s not the same player. It’s always wise to pay attention to the bigger sample.
I hope that’s the case, because all of the attention that’s rightfully going to Aaron Judge is making me miss the Giancarlo Stanton who excited the world in the same way. It wasn’t that long ago. And it doesn’t have to go away. The further away Stanton gets from his pre-2016 success, though, I’ll fidget and worry just a little bit more. The new flavor of the month is thrilling as all heck, but I’m not ready to toss the flavor of the last few years aside after 13 months of disappointing-if-solid numbers. He deserves better.