Will Giancarlo Stanton ace his first chance at a second impression?
It may not be the very most vital question looming over these 2019 Yankees, who kick things off Thursday at Yankee Stadium by facing the awful-on-purpose Orioles (as opposed to last year’s awful-by-accident Baltimore group). It’s up there, though. Especially early, with so many important players starting the year on the injured list, peak Stanton — the guy at whom we got only a peek last year — can have a major impact on this team’s fortunes.
We’ll see that, the second-year Yankee intimated without quite promising, and we had best, for let’s face it: If an increased comfort level doesn’t result in improved production, the result will be a notably decreased comfort level for Stanton and his teammates.
“I have a little more idea of what to expect,” Stanton said Wednesday, as the team worked out at the Stadium. “The dynamic of our team, how our lineup comes together and how to feed off each other.”
“Getting [last] year underneath him, he’s ready to go out there and perform and show people why he won MVP in 2017,” Stanton’s fellow slugger Aaron Judge said. “Why he’s one of the best hitters in this game.”
When the reigning National League Most Valuable Player joined the reigning American League Rookie of the Year a season ago, cockeyed optimists envisioned record-setting power shows like Opening Day last year, when Stanton blasted two homers in Toronto.
More sober types envisioned the rocky sort of transition that the $325 million man Stanton experienced following a lifetime with the irrelevant Marlins, and his final slash line of .266/.343/.509, with 38 homers in 617 at-bats, ranked beneath his career averages yet not dramatically out of line with other relatively down years he has registered like 2013 and 2016.
His last lap, however, proved horrific. He punctuated a .222/.222/.222 AL Division Series showing by coming up with teammates on first and second and no outs in the bottom of the ninth inning in Game 4, with the Yankees’ season on the line … and he struck out meekly against a flailing Craig Kimbrel, generating a ballpark full of boos, and the Yankees wound up falling a run short.
“We didn’t get to where we wanted to be, so we all have that ultimate goal, that bad feeling in our stomach from how it ended,” Stanton said. “So that’s going to creep in all season and we’ll be ready for when the next time comes.”
The Yankees will be far better positioned for that next time if they can top the defending champion Red Sox in the AL East, and that becomes more likely with a better regular season from Stanton, who declared this team better than last year’s 100-win version. It’s natural that he’ll be more at ease this time around, no longer the new guy whose every first will be documented. Moreover, the Yankees will count on him to benefit from the exposure he received on the field.
“He does really well the more he sees somebody. More so than most guys,” contended Aaron Boone. “… Maybe just that much more familiarity with other pitchers that he’s going to be facing on a regular basis, hopefully, is something that benefits him.”
Stanton agreed: “It’s part of my DNA, I guess. You learn exactly how the pitcher releases the ball. You learn their tendencies. You learn them and their individual catcher’s tendencies and how they pitch you and the lineup you bring to them. The more and more you see that, the more and more they run out of ways to approach you.”
Confirming this notion, particularly comparing Stanton’s adaptation skills to others, is difficult, although a look at the pitchers he has faced most often displays that he generally hits them better with more looks. Not yet the O’s Opening Day starter Andrew Cashner, though, against whom he’s 2-for-22 with a pair of singles.
“It’s important to get on a good start for everyone’s benefit,” Stanton said. “But that doesn’t always happen. … You deal with it accordingly any way that it goes.”
“He took the practice test,” Judge said of his teammate. “Now here comes the real test.”
If minimizing 2018 to a “practice test” sounds unconventional, 2019 nonetheless feels real, no more growing pains allowed for the big guy. If a sophomore surge doesn’t happen? Stanton, now initiated to the Yankees’ universe, knows, all too well, what to expect.
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