Wednesday, April 1, 2009

TPC Prospect Smackdown: Michael Stanton vs Cody Johnson (vs Michael Stanton)

Young hitters with elite level power don't come around often, which explains the intrigue in guys like Michael Stanton and Cody Johnson. Both hitters can absolutely crush the ball, and both hitters have been known to accumulate a substantial amount of strikeouts. In 468 at-bats at A ball last year, Johnson hit 26 home runs and struck out a whopping 177 times. Stanton also had 468 at-bats at A ball in 2008, clearing the fences 39 times while striking out 153 times. So, the question begging to be asked is which slugger is better, and which one has the brightest future ahead of them?

To make things simple, let's just throw up each hitters stats from A ball last year.

Without too much analysis, I think it's obvious that Stanton is already quite a bit better than Johnson. Sure, they both hit the ball really hard, but Johnson's strikeout to walk ratio is really bad (1 being really good, 2 being average, 3 bad, and anything over 4 is really bad), and just by looking at the numbers it seems that he just swings the bat as hard as he can and hopes to make contact. Stanton, on the other hand at least displayed reasonable plate discipline, and put up much more substantial power numbers (his IsoP was the highest for any 18 year old at A ball that I can find on record). Toss in the age difference, and I think the comparison isn't even close.

If we end the smackdown right now, Stanton walks away with a sound victory. But if we dig a bit deeper, it gets even better. Here are each players monthly stats for 2008.

Johnson had a pretty good August, but other than that, his strikeout to walk ratio was generally very bad, and his power and average weren't all that impressive either. Stanton started the year looking a bit lost, but by June he had found his stride and really started to crush the ball. By July, his plate discipline had dramatically improved, and over his last 200 plate appearances he posted a strikeout to walk ratio of 1.56, and an IsoP of .365.

Normally, I don't like to consider a player's month-by-month performance line, as hot streaks and luck can significantly effect stats, but in Stanton's case, the improvement from April to August was so dramatic and followed such a smooth linear pattern, that I couldn't disregard the month to month changes. After a bit of research, I was very interested to find this excerpt from an article on

"Before the All-Star break, (Stanton) hit .281 with 15 home runs and 47 RBIs. An aggressive hitter, he struck out 86 times in 249 at-bats.

After the break, his numbers improved to .306 with 24 home runs and 50 RBIs in 219 at-bats. With a better command of the strike zone, his strikeouts reduced. He fanned just 67 times and drew 42 walks in the second half.

'He wants to be good on defense -- he just wants everything,' (Marlins' vice president of player development and scouting Jim) Fleming said. 'When we identify something for him, he works at it. One of the things we identified in the second half was, let's see if he can cut down on his strikeouts.'

He did."

I've heard of a lot of teams asking a lot of sluggers to work on their plate discipline, but I can't think of an instance where such dramatic improvement was achieved as quickly as what Micheal Stanton did in 2008. To give you an idea of just how drastic the change was (especially for an 18 year old), here are some A ball stats posted by various power hitters from the last decade or so matched up against the pre-All-Star Stanton and the post-All-Star Stanton, as well as Cody Johnson.

Depending on which Mike Stanton is the real Mike Stanton, we could be looking at either the next Russell Branyan/Wily Mo Pena, or the next Alex Rodriguez/Andruw Jones with substantially greater power.  But which one is it?  We'll probably learn a lot about Michael Stanton over the next 6 months, particularly how real his development at the plate was from July to August last year.  

If I had to make a guess, I would probably take the optimistic route with Stanton, and say that he's probably going to post a K/BB ratio of 2.5 or better in the coming year, maybe even under 2.0.  Unlike Alex Rodriguez and Ken Griffey Jr., Stanton was drafted as a very raw hitter.  In high school he played football, basketball, and baseball, and in his own words, he never had the chance to focus on just one sport.  

"It was always, I'd have basketball practice and baseball hitting at night.  Or during baseball season, I'd have to go to the gym and shoot, to keep up with all three sports.  I was pretty interested in seeing how it would be like to stick to one sport all the way through, and not have to deal with but one."

With three sports taking up his time in high school, it's easy to see why Stanton didn't get much attention heading into the 2007 draft.  Scouts saw very little of him, and pretty soon Pete Carroll at USC began recruiting Stanton as a wide receiver.  As Jim Fleming said in an article by Peter Gammons, "A lot of people didn't see a lot of him... He didn't do a lot of showcases."  If you know anything about high school football and the recruiting process, you know how time consuming it can be, and you know that anyone good enough for division I football probably doesn't have a lot of time to spend at baseball camps working on his swing mechanics.  

Whereas Cody Johnson spent three summers slowly posting slightly improved stats between rookie ball and A ball, Michael Stanton went from ground zero to the top in a matter of months.  Essentially, Stanton started minor league baseball as a novice.  He wasn't the son of a major league star, and he hadn't spent years refining his skills on the diamond, and to see a player like Stanton go from where he was in April to where he ended up in August speaks volumes about how good he could be.  In one summer he acheived more than a lot of hitters do over the course of  5 or 6 years.  Call it a learning curve, a developmental curve, or a whatever curve, but Michael Stanton's curve seems to climb higher and faster than just about any hitter I've come across.  Had he focused solely on baseball at the high school level, it's possible that he could have entered the '07 draft as polished and as talented as a young Alex Rodriguez.

Of course, I'm extrapolating some of these assumptions from vague comments and rudimentary data, but they all seem to point in the same direction.  Michael Stanton isn't your typical high strikeout minor league power hitter.  And while there's absolutely no reason in the world for anyone to believe my non-professional opinion, consider this final comment from Jim Presley, the Marlins hitting coach.

"I saw Ken Griffey Jr. play when he was 19, and (Stanton) is right there with him... Griffey was better defensively and had a better idea of how to hit .300.  (Stanton) has to learn the finer things, but he has skills.  He is a tremendously skilled player at 19.  He is going to be some kind of player.  This kid is an unbelieveable talent to be 19."

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