Giancarlo Stanton is the Marlins' not-so-secret weapon
Giancarlo Stanton: Miami's Power Surge
Since the stadium opened in 2012, Giancarlo Stanton has crushed 41 home runs at Marlins Park, including a grand slam so powerful it damaged the team's scoreboard. Two years ago, he smashed a 494-foot home run at Coors Field, the second-longest round-tripper since 2010. Despite his success at both ballparks, the Marlins rightfielder and mighty slugger doesn't count either one as his favorite place to go the distance. That honor belongs to Dodger Stadium.
"I remember going there when I was young and watching all the big-name hitters at the time with my dad. We'd sit in the outfield stands," recalls Stanton, who grew up in the L.A. area. "When I was 10, I saw guys like Ken Griffey Jr. and Mark McGwire play. Dodger Stadium is a special place for me because of those memories."
More than a decade after he sat in the stands snacking on Dodger dogs, Stanton is now hitting long balls to those same seats. (He's hit five home runs in 12 games at Dodger Stadium.) Those blasts into the seats symbolize a full circle for the 24-year-old, who through June 1 was leading the National League in home runs with 16 (tied for third in the majors). There are times, however, when he hits the ball out of the park, as he did during batting practice at Dodger Stadium in 2010 and countless times during spring training.
"When he gets a pitch he can hit, he makes hard contact. At any time, he can hit the ball out of the yard," Marlins hitting coach Frank Menechino says. "His strength is incredible. It's like watching a superhero with a bat."
The Name Game
Born Giancarlo Cruz-Michael Stanton, the Sunland, California, native was known as Mike to his father and friends. His mother called him Cruz, while others struggled to pronounce Giancarlo (jahn-CAR-lo). He played one sport for each of his three names. In addition to playing baseball, Stanton was a basketball guard and center throughout grade school. By the time he reached Notre Dame High School, he had added football to his sports résumé, playing wide receiver and cornerback.
"Growing up, I just knew I wanted to play a professional sport," says Stanton, who earned all-conference honors in basketball and was offered a football scholarship from UNLV. "I didn't know which of the three. But baseball gave me the most opportunities."
Although he batted around. 200 in his junior year at Notre Dame, Stanton was given those opportunities after he hit .393 with 12 homers in his senior year. He put on a show during BP at an annual baseball showcase in Long Beach. The 16-year-old had jaws dropping when he hit two balls onto a nearby golf course. Stanton, then known as Mike by his peers and by scouts, was starting to make a name for himself. The Marlins selected him in the second round of the 2007 draft.
In the minors, Stanton continued to put his Herculean swing on full display. In 2010, he smacked a home run over 500 feet as a clean-up hitter for the Double A Jacksonville Suns. "He probably hit one of the farthest balls I've ever seen — over the scoreboard. It took off like a rocket," said former Marlins pitcher Dan Meyer, who witnessed the shot. "It was pretty amazing for a 20-year-old kid. [That home run's] got to be in the 550 [feet] range."
A month later, Stanton was called up to the big leagues. He homered 22 times in 2010 (his first one in the majors was a grand slam against Tampa Bay). Then he crushed 34 dingers in 2011. Weeks before his first home run of the 2012 season, Stanton announced he wanted to be called Giancarlo. "I went by Mike because some people had difficulty pronouncing Giancarlo, especially when I was a kid. It would annoy me," Stanton says. "Giancarlo and Mike are both my names, I just prefer Giancarlo. I'll still answer if you call me Mike."
The switch spurred changes on the nameplate above his clubhouse locker and in the way he was announced during at bats. But his power? That didn't change at all. He finished the season first in slugging percentage in the National League (.608) and had 37 homers.
Stanton was slowed down by a hamstring injury in 2013, playing in only 116 games. This year, he looks poised to blow past the disappointing 24 home runs and 62 RBIs he finished with last season. "The speed of the ball jumping off his bat is incredible," Menechino says. "I've watched Albert Pujols and Miguel Cabrera. They are great, but I just don't see the ball come off their bats the way it comes off of Giancarlo's. He's only 24 and getting better. He can be among the elite hitters of our game."
According to ESPN's Home Run Tracker, Stanton's home runs have a true distance (how far they would travel if they didn't hit the seats) of 432.3 feet, the highest in the majors. In April, Stanton sent a fastball from San Diego Padres southpaw Eric Stults 484 feet, the longest home run hit this season.
Stanton's power is in large part due to his size and strength. At 6′6″, 240 pounds, Stanton has an imposing shape, developed in his early days as a basketball and football player, that helps with bat speed. "He's got long arms with a short swing," says Menechino. "And he creates a lot of leverage. He's got that downward force on his swing and stays through with the ball. It carries and goes pretty far."
Stanton's home runs have also led to busted windshields during spring training in Jupiter, Florida. "There are a lot of cars parked around the ballpark. [When I hit one out of the stadium], I can hear glass shattering sometimes," Stanton says. "No one has sent me a bill. That's for the Marlins [to handle]!"
As long Stanton continues to go long, the Marlins won't mind paying a few repair bills. Miami has missed the playoffs in each of the past 10 seasons and has had six different managers since Stanton was called up in 2010. The team got off to a surprisingly fast start this year, but with the loss of ace Jose Fernandez to elbow surgery, Miami has placed its hopes of ending its postseason drought squarely on Stanton's bat.
"When you've got a guy who can change the game with one swing, everyone looks up to that guy," Menechino says. "We know we have a chance to win when he's at the plate."
Photos: ROB TRINGALI/SPORTSCHROME/GETTY IMAGES, RONALD C. MODRA/SPORTS IMAGERY/GETTY IMAGES, ROB FOLDY/GETTY IMAGES