AS A KID GROWING UP IN SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA'S SAN FERNANDO VALLEY, Mike Stanton and his father, Mike Sr., would sneak onto the baseball field at a neighborhood church for batting practice. As Dad grooved fastballs, Stanton simply aimed for the stars; the field had no fence. "I just tried to hit it as far as I could," he says of the limitless setting.
Those crude BP sessions jibe perfectly with Stanton's career path, because these days there isn't a ballpark that can hold him. Last season, at age 21, the Marlins rightfielder hit 34 homers, most of which were the kind of
"He has a chance to be one of the best power hitters the game has ever seen," former Marlins minor league and major league hitting instructor John Mallee says.
Scary thing is, Stanton is just starting to figure things out. Though he was athletically gifted when the Marlins took him in the second round of the 2007 draft out of Notre Dame High School -- Stanton had an offer to play wide receiver at USC -- he was incredibly raw. He first realized this when he was invited to appear at the Area Code Games, a national showcase for scouts, prior to his senior year. He watched in awe as fellow prospects like Royals third baseman Mike Moustakas strutted like big leaguers. "They were on another level," Stanton says. "They all knew what they were doing. I had all the tools. I just didn't know how to use them yet."
He obviously still hadn't harnessed his ability a year later when the Marlins sent him to play rookie ball. Stanton hit just .161 in his abbreviated season and fanned in one out of every three plate appearances. "We needed to make his swing more compact," says Mallee. With Stanton's immense frame -- he's 6'5", 235 pounds -- a short swing was no easy feat, so Mallee instructed him to start it with his hands closer to his right hip so his bat wouldn't need to travel as far to get through the zone.
His Incredible Hulkish strength would take care of the rest. And it did. Stanton hit .293 with 39 homers for Class-A Greensboro in 2008. Whiffs are still part of his game (166 in 2011) and may always be a by-product of his power, but Stanton doesn't want to simply accept them. He continues to
"I don't have a stance that I like 100 percent," he says. The one constant, however, is keeping his hands low. So far, all the fidgeting hasn't hurt the results, while his calmness has helped immensely. He takes pride in his growing equanimity at the plate. When asked to recall his favorite big league at-bat, Stanton goes back to Sept. 6, 2010, in Philadelphia, with Roy Oswalt on the mound for the Phillies. On a 3-2 pitch in the top of the second inning, Stanton barely nicked an inside changeup and started walking back to the dugout thinking he had struck out. But home plate umpire Ted Barrett had noticed it was a foul tip and called Stanton back to the box. In the past, Stanton says the near-strikeout would have distracted him, but he was able to regain his poise. And when Oswalt tried to fool him again with the change, Stanton was ready. He launched the offering 435 feet into the second deck at Citizens Bank Park.
"You don't see him collapse," says Mets catcher Josh Thole. "He's not dragging his bat to home plate. He's the same at all times. He's obviously going to have holes to exploit in different places. But after that first or second at-bat, he recognizes them and makes the adjustments."
And unlike his days as an unrefined teenager, he no longer needs to swing for the stars -- even if he makes the ball travel that far anyway.