Noah Syndergaard is a 6-foot-6 beast of a pitcher with a lion’s mane of hair flowing from underneath his cap. Giancarlo Stanton is a 6-foot-6 slugger with muscles on top of muscles. It is the ultimate power-versus-power matchup, the starting pitcher with the hardest fastball versus the hitter who hits the longest home runs. Syndergaard and Stanton face off on Sunday Night Baseball on ESPN (8 p.m. ET).
Their encounters so far have been brief and decisive. Syndergaard has started three times against the Marlins in his career, all in 2016, and he has owned the Marlins right fielder. Stanton is 0-for-8 with five strikeouts against him, all swinging -- twice on fastballs, twice on sliders, once on a curveball. Good luck against Syndergaard if you get to two strikes.
Still, there remains the possibility that Stanton will connect on the sweet spot of the barrel with one of Syndergaard’s 99 mph fastballs, launch the ball at a perfect angle for maximum distance -- between 25 and 30 degrees -- and crush the longest home run any of us have ever seen. (Although, to be scientifically rigorous here, the velocity of the pitch has little to do with the distance the ball is hit. Dr. Alan Nathan, physics professor emeritus at the University of Illinois, estimates exit velocity off the bat is 85 percent generated by the hitter and only 15 percent by the speed of the pitch.)
We know nobody else hits as many prodigious home runs as Stanton. According to the ESPN Home Run Tracker, the three longest home runs of his career -- hit 495, 494 and 490 feet -- are the three longest anyone has hit since his debut in 2010. He has hit 34 home runs of 450-plus feet; that’s 14 more than any other player has hit since 2009. (Nelson Cruz has 20.)
Maybe we’ll even get a 500-foot home run. The Tracker has distance estimates back to 2006, and the only 500-foot blast was by Adam Dunn, then with the Diamondbacks, with this 504-foot blast in September of 2008. It’s worth noting that MLB’s Statcast measured this Stanton blast from last August at Coors Field at 504 feet as well (ESPN had it at 495).
The weird thing about that home run is that Statcast lists the launch angle at just 18.3 degrees. Almost all the other longest home runs on its list have a launch angle in that optimal 25- to 30-degree window. The only other 460-foot-plus home run with a launch angle less than 20 degrees was by Carlos Gonzalez, also struck at Coors Field, so I don’t know if it’s a Coors Field thing with the calibration of the instruments there, or just a random oddity.
Anyway, Stanton didn’t have a great season in 2016. While home runs soared across baseball, he hit just .240/.326/.489, after leading the National League with a .555 slugging percentage in 2014 and slugging .606 in 2015 before his hamate bone was fractured in late June and he missed the rest of the season. He missed more time with a groin strain and other minor injuries in 2016, and after a hot start struggled through a slump in May and June.
Some have said Stanton hasn’t been the same since he was hit in the face in September of 2014. I don’t buy that. He was having a monster season in 2015 until the wrist injury. He was slugging over .600 in early May last year when he didn’t start a game on May 8 and would miss a couple of games later in the month with a sore torso. I wonder if he was playing through an injury.
Or maybe teams have figured out how to pitch him. As my colleague Mark Simon pointed out, the Mets have had a specific approach that they’ve been very successful using -- away, then up and in, then away again until he chases. Here’s an example from one plate appearance last year against Syndergaard:
Since getting beaned, Stanton is 3-for-31 against Syndergaard, Matt Harvey, Hansel Robles and Jeurys Familia, four pitchers who execute this plan very well. Overall, he did struggle on pitches up and in during 2016. Sarah Langs of ESPN Stats & Information reports that in 2014-15, Stanton hit .273 and slugged .507 on pitches on the inner half and upper half of the zone, but in 2016 he hit .120 and slugged .240. He ranked 187th of 192 batters to see at least 250 pitches in that area in slugging percentage.
That’s the old-school approach to pitching to big power hitters like Stanton (or Kris Bryant) -- tie them up inside and don’t let them extend their arms. As the season unfolds, we’ll learn more if 2016 was merely a blip or if Stanton has developed a giant hole in his game that will prevent him from having his first 40-homer season.