The baseball had to be fake.
Earlier this week in Washington, Giancarlo Stanton pounced on a pitch from Nationals starter A.J. Cole, sending it way beyond the wall in left-center for his 38th home run, a career high. After the game, sitting in the top shelf of Stanton's locker was a scuffed-up ball that had the vitals written on it (date, opponent, pitcher) and was torn in two different places, such that there were gaping holes where the white leather meets the red seams. On the one hand, it seemed like an obvious clubhouse prank -- after all, the ball resembled something straight out of "The Natural." On the other hand, the way Stanton's been punishing pitches lately, it's entirely believable that he tore the cover off the ball.
If the first half of the 2017 season belonged to Aaron Judge, the second half belongs to Stanton. A 6-foot-6, 245-pound specimen who's so jacked that even his muscles have muscles, Stanton was Judge long before Judge was Judge: a supersized position player who looks as if he was genetically engineered in a petri dish for the sole purpose of being a tight end, but somehow got lost on his way to the gridiron. Instead of catching passes, Stanton catches pitches with the barrel of his bat, and obliterates them.
It's something he's had a penchant for doing ever since he burst onto the scene in 2010, when as a 20-year old rookie he hit 22 home runs in just over half a season. His promise was so immense that following the 2014 season -- when Stanton led the National League in homers and finished second in the MVP balloting -- the Miami Marlins signed the former second-round draft pick to a 13-year, $325 million contract, setting a record for the largest deal in pro sports history. But injuries have prevented him from fulfilling that promise.
On September 11, 2014, Stanton took an 88 mph fastball square in the face and missed the final three weeks. The following year, he broke a bone in his left hand and missed the final three months. Last season, a groin injury cost him almost a month. This year, for the first time in forever, the mammoth Marlin has managed to stay healthy. By minimizing the damage to himself, he's maximizing the damage to opposing pitchers.
"He's been on the field all year," says manager Don Mattingly, offering the simplest of explanations as to why Stanton, at age 27, is finally putting up the kind of monster numbers that everyone expected.
Through Aug. 11, the Miami outfielder was leading the majors with 40 bombs. He was on pace for 58 jacks, a number that hasn't been reached since Ryan Howard hit 58 over a decade ago. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, Stanton is the first player with 19 home runs in a 31-game span since Braves catcher Javy López did so in 2003. Stanton's dominant display, coupled with the recent struggles of a certain Yankees rookie, has served as a not-so-subtle reminder that when it comes to supersized sluggers, newer isn't necessarily better.
"People like new toys," says Marlins second baseman Dee Gordon. "Judge is the new toy for them. But G is one of the best, and they're trying to say he's not one of the best no more because a new kid's come up."
According to Stanton, not being the new kid is precisely what's helped him find his mojo.
"Just being a better baseball player," says the eight-year vet, explaining what he thinks has been the difference for him this season. "Not being an athlete and getting away with performance. Just understanding baseball and understanding the grind of it. When I don't feel my best for a couple days, how to get through that with some singles or get on a couple times. Walk. Do something to not get in that slump. That's been the key this year."
That's not the only adjustment that's benefited him.
On May 23, Mattingly moved Stanton -- who was primarily a middle-of-the-order thumper over his first seven seasons -- to the second spot in the lineup, where he'd previously made just one start in his entire career. Hitting behind the speedy Gordon, Stanton's been seeing more fastballs than ever before, as opposing pitchers are throwing him heaters 53 percent of the time, up from 49 percent before the switch. That 4 percent difference might not seem significant, but when you spread it over the 1,200 pitches that Stanton's seen since late May, it is -- especially when you consider his 8.3 percent home run rate against fastballs (second best in the NL).
"He getting a lot of heaters, and it's paying off for him," says Gordon, who was on base for two of the three homers that Stanton hit during the Nationals series, all of which came on fastballs.
Overall, Stanton has 29 bombs in 67 games since moving to the 2-hole, and his OPS has spiked by more than 200 points, from .859 to 1.074. Not surprisingly, opponents are proceeding with caution.
Prior to moving up in the order, 47.1 percent of the pitches that Stanton saw were in the strike zone, which ranked in the middle of the major league pack. Since the switch, he's seeing just 41.8 percent strikes, the lowest rate among all National League hitters. He's taking what pitchers are giving him, too, as evidenced by the fact that his walk rate has jumped from 10 percent to 13 percent. Although Mattingly didn't discuss selectivity with Stanton before plugging him into the second spot, the Marlins skipper -- a lifetime .307 hitter during his playing days -- did have a conversation with his slugger back in spring training about staying within himself.
"We did talk about covering areas of the plate that he handles well, and making sure he knew exactly what he handled well."
And part of knowing what you do well is knowing what you don't do well.
After his gruesome beaning in 2014, Stanton understandably backed off the plate and had a tendency to pull off the ball, especially against right-handers. As a result, he had trouble getting to the outside pitch. According to ESPN Stats & Info, in 2015, Stanton's slugging percentage on outer-half offerings from righties was .358, a career worst and 63 points lower than in any of his previous five seasons. Although that number improved to .409 in 2016, he still had a ways to go. No stranger to tinkering with his approach, Stanton started using a pronounced closed stance this season, perhaps in an effort to exorcise his demons and make righties pay for pitching him away.
Apparently, it's working. This year, Stanton's slugging percentage on outer-half pitches is all the way up to .542, which puts him just outside the top 10 among National League hitters. In other words, Stanton's turned one of his biggest weaknesses into a strength. As frightening as that thought is for opposing pitchers, it's even scarier for baseballs. Just ask the one that sat in his locker in DC.
OK, so maybe Stanton didn't really tear the cover off the ball in two places. Maybe that alleged 38 home run ball wasn't authentic. Then again, maybe it was.
"Could be," says Stanton when asked if the memento is legit.
Standing in front of his locker, he flashes a wry smile, then walks off toward the showers.
"You never know."