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Giancarlo Stanton and the Very Human Agony of Seeing a God Felled

Getty Images
Getty Images

It turns out that the groin injury that The Mighty Giancarlo Stanton suffered on Saturday will most likely end his season. It’s the third-straight season that Stanton has failed to close out the year healthy, after taking a fastball to the face late in the 2014 season and breaking his hamate bone last June.

This injury not only ends Stanton’s campaign, but might end up as the de facto conclusion of Miami’s run for an NL wild-card spot, since it’s tough to lose your best hitter and just keep on rolling. Regardless, even if the Marlins sneak in without him, we’re likely looking at the seventh time in seven MLB seasons that Stanton will sit out the playoffs, and the sixth time that Stanton will fail to play 150 games.

It’s disappointing regardless of whether you’re a Marlins fan, because part of the appeal of top-level sports is watching exceptionally gifted people do exceptional things, and with every line drive off the Dinger Machine, Stanton proves that he’s capable of feats as a hitter that most other big leaguers can only dream of. And he does so while playing in relative anonymity for a team that doesn’t get much press, in a park that’s not very good for power hitters.

Even with all the missed time, Stanton is sitting on 206 career home runs, fourth most through age 26 for a player who debuted after the strike. His OPS+ of 142 is ninth best of that group, and his career WAR of 27.4 is 10th. He is by any definition one of the best players of his generation, who ought to have another decade or more in front of him, in which Hall of Fame benchmarks like 500 home runs and 60 WAR seem like conservative projections.

Yet it still feels somehow disappointing, because unlike the hundreds of inferior players he shares a field with when he’s not breaking bones or tearing muscles, Stanton makes it easy to imagine the best-case scenario.

In baseball, any predictive evaluation, whether it’s a scout’s notes or a data-based projection system, deals in probabilities. Whether stated explicitly or not, we look at a player and lay out best-case, worst-case, and median scenarios, and everything else in between, and assign the probability of each outcome happening. Stanton’s best-case scenario dwarfs his competitors — he came into the majors with the ability to hit 700 home runs or more, and contribute with his on-base ability and defense besides. And because Stanton looks the way he does, which is to say, like a comic book strongman, he looks like the best-case scenario come to life. He’d certainly be the best-case scenario for almost anyone else.

But nobody except Mike Trout gets to actually live out the best-case scenario. Everyone else deals with injuries and team-related drama outside their control. And the injuries are one thing, but as we’re seeing with Trout, when a great, exciting player consistently puts up elite regular-season numbers as his team consistently finishes out of the money, it starts to get frustrating. You could point out that Stanton signed a 13-year contract to stay in Miami, but (1) imagine turning down $325 million in guaranteed money before you criticize Stanton for taking the big payday, and (2) remember that no matter how much money he makes, it’s not Stanton’s job to assemble the roster. Blame for the Marlins’ 12-year playoff drought lies entirely with ownership and the front office.

It wasn’t Stanton’s idea to break his wrist or get hit in the face with a baseball or tweak his groin. It wasn’t his idea for owner Jeffrey Loria to burn down the front office, or roll out the third-lowest payroll in the game, or construct a team that might benefit from adding 41-year-old Alex Rodriguez in a league without the DH. But he can’t control everything, because he’s only human, even if he looks like something more. And by human standards, he’s still doing just fine.