Mike Stanton’s creative power has no limits

After another in an indoor batting cage. He asked the coach tossing pitches to move over slightly – in the direction of the door.

“He wanted the light in his eyes,” said John Mallee, the Florida Marlins’ batting coach and co-architect of Stanton’s potent stroke.

Giancarlo Cruz-Michael Stanton, his name crammed with nods to his mixed Irish, Puerto Rican and African American heritage, seeks the path of greatest resistance as a point of pride. He is suspicious of glamour and happiest working up a sweat. He’s the longshoreman carrying the most cargo, the roofer laying the most tiles, the carpenter pounding the most nails. He invents hitting drills for himself to ratchet up the degree of difficulty.

Call it creative power.

Only Mel Ott and Bob Horner hit homers at a faster rate at age 20 than Florida’s Mike Stanton.  “I don’t believe in the generic same thing,” he said. “Every batter is different. I don’t prepare the same way everyone else does. I tailor my workouts to my swing, to address my weaknesses.”

The 6-feet-5, 240-pound Stanton might be the strongest man in baseball. Barely 21 years old, his prodigious home runs are already legendary. Just this spring, he hit one in practice that carried over the batter’s eye in center field, an estimated 500 feet. Before being promoted from Double-A to the Marlins last summer, he hit a home run in Montgomery, Ala., that traveled close to 550 feet, according toDan Meyer(notes), a Marlins pitcher at the time who was on a rehab assignment and witnessed the shot. “It was quite miraculous,” he said.

More important was Stanton’s production once he reached the big leagues. Blissfully seated in the back row of a hyped rookie class headed by Stephen Strasburg(notes), Jason Heyward(notes) andBuster Posey(notes), Stanton hit 22 home runs and 21 doubles in only 100 games. The only batters in baseball history to hit homers at a faster rate at age 20 were Mel Ott in 1929 and Bob Horner in 1978.

He’s slated to bat cleanup, although a pulled quadriceps muscle has sidelined him long enough this spring that the Marlins might begin the season with him batting fifth or sixth until he stockpiles enough at-bats to regain his timing. Stanton, the right fielder, is hitting and throwing every day, but still can’t run at full speed. For now, he’s enjoying the extra time in the batting cage, working with Mallee, who graduated from the minors to the Marlins along with Stanton.

“He knows my swing just as well as I do,” Stanton said. “The only aspect he doesn’t know is what’s in my head. He helps with what he sees because I can’t see myself.”

Stanton makes odd requests, and Mallee goes along. In soft-toss drills, most batters want the ball lobbed in front of the plate, where solid contact is easiest. Stanton wants the ball tossed at his back leg, forcing him to take his hands on a direct path to the ball. Any deviation in his swing will result in poor contact. A drill he and Mallee call “protect the hip” keeps him from hooking an inside pitch foul. When hitting off a tee, Stanton often places the ball two or three inches off the plate and at the knees, the toughest location to drive the ball.

“The hardest thing with guys his size is to shorten their swings and eliminate holes,” Mallee said. “We’ve been able to make his swing more compact, more direct to the ball, without sacrificing power.”

Stanton’s stance has been overhauled since he signed as a raw, relatively unknown second-round pick in 2007 at age 17 out of the San Fernando Valley in Southern California. He lowers his rear when he sets up in the batter’s box to shorten his body. And his hands are lower, enabling him to take them on a straight line to the pitch.

Such adjustments for most batters would result in less clout. It’s not a concern with Stanton because he’s so strong. The idea is for him to cut down on his strikeouts (he had 123 in 359 at-bats last season), increase his walks and continue to blast balls into orbit.

Part of Stanton’s allure is that nobody knows quite how good he can become. He was an old-fashioned three-sport star at Notre Dame High, and he considered himself a tight end first, a power forward second and a right fielder as an afterthought. Stanton never played on a youth travel team. Heyward, the Atlanta Braves 21-year-old right fielder against whom Stanton will be compared for many years, logged several hundred at-bats every year from age 8 through high school, never missing a tournament or a showcase. Stanton’s at-bats were restricted to the 60 or so he had each high school season.

“I always joined the baseball team late because we’d go into the playoffs in basketball,” he said. “It’s tough to come in that way and play at your highest ability.”

Scouts thought Mike Stanton would play football until one fateful tryout.
Scouts wrote him off as an intriguing player with raw power who they’d someday be watching on TV in the NFL. Stanton accepted a football scholarship offer from USC, and he planned to also play baseball on an oh-by-the-way basis. But a strong showing with a wood bat at the Area Code Games piqued the interest of several major league teams.

“The Area Code put me on the map,” Stanton said. “If I didn’t do that, I honestly might not have been drafted.”

He bit at the Marlins’ $475,000 offer because, as it turned out, he wasn’t too keen on college, anyway.

“I was hoping for baseball the whole time,” he said. “I was only 17, and my thought process was that if I wasn’t good enough I’d probably know within three years and I’d still be young enough to go back and play football.”

That won’t be necessary. Stanton’s rookie season was a mix of struggles and triumphs, extended droughts and majestic home runs, but never did it appear he didn’t belong. He had three hits in his debut, was batting .368 after a week and hit a grand slam a few days later for his first home run.

Then came a deep slump. He struck out in 11 consecutive games, multiple times in eight of them. His batting average had dipped to .207 by the time the Marlins headed across country for a series against the Los Angeles Dodgers in early July. For Stanton, the trip meant home-cooked meals and hugs from his parents. He homered twice at Dodger Stadium, regularly displayed power the rest of the way and ended the season on an 11-game hitting streak.

Improvement could continue as he irons out his bizarre splits of 2010. The right-handed Stanton batted only .218 against left-handed pitchers compared to .271 against righties, and he batted .182 at home while hitting .318 on the road. He chalks up the difficulties against lefties to his limited experience – he hasn’t faced nearly as many left-handers as somebody who played baseball year-around since childhood. As for his struggles at Sun Life Stadium, he just shrugs.

“Maybe it’s the orange seats, or maybe it’s because it’s a football field,” Stanton joked. “Who knows?”

Mallee wouldn’t be surprised if Stanton develops a hitting drill with hashmarks and an orange backdrop. Anything to create a new challenge. Anything to create that light in his eyes.