The $325 million question this offseason was whether Miami Marlins outfielder Giancarlo Stanton could come back from the harrowing facial injury that ended his 2014 season and re-establish himself as one of baseball's most powerful hitters. He's done so in a big way.
Through 70 games, Stanton leads the majors with 25 home runs and 64 RBIs and ranks in the top 10 in the sport with 3.4 wins above replacement. He's on pace to easily surpass his career bests in each of those stats.
But Tuesday night's matchup, against the St. Louis Cardinals, and their impressive 23-year-old starter Carlos Martinez, is an interesting one, because it pits the Marlins slugger against the one type of pitcher who has been able to hold him down with the proper game plan -- the right-handed power pitcher.
Martinez enters this start with a 2.80 ERA, a pitch combination including a fastball that averages 94.6 mpg (10th best among starting pitchers) and an assortment of effective off-speed pitches. He also has a willingness to do something that could cause Stanton trouble, which we'll get to in a moment.
So much power
What makes Stanton so good is that he crushes the heck out of pitches left over the plate. He has 23 home runs against pitches thrown within the strike zone. No one else has more than 20.
As the Marlins play-by-play broadcaster Rich Waltz said upon watching Stanton mash a home run against New York Mets starter Jonathon Niese a couple of weeks ago, "We marvel every time he overpowers the ball. That is fun to watch. Don't ever get tired of that."
Stanton has three of the five longest home runs in the majors this season and five of the top 10. He's crushed left-handed pitchers for eight home runs and an .827 slugging percentage in 52 at-bats.
Stanton has 17 home runs and the second-best home run rate of any right-handed hitter against right-handed pitching this season (trailing only Albert Pujols).
One thing that's held true in watching Stanton this season: When he faces a right-handed pitcher who can come inside with his fastball and throws a nasty breaking ball, Stanton doesn't fare anywhere near as well.
And if you point out that those three pitchers have made a lot of hitters look bad this season, you're right. But they're not the only ones to work this strategy effectively. Others to execute a similar strategy against Stanton include Rubby De La Rosa (who entered the week with a 4.96 ERA) and 42-year-old LaTroy Hawkins (who has a 6.55 ERA in his first 11 innings).
"He's more on his heels," said one veteran baseball watcher, pointing out the technical aspect that could be driving that sort of result. "He used to be more on his toes."
Stanton's numbers are amazing in many ways. But just like any hitter, he has holes. They've gotten a little bigger in a couple of areas.
Take a look at the numbers in the chart below. They show Stanton's production to be down against right-handed pitchers who throw the game's hardest heat, pitches that attack him up-and-in and breaking balls on the outer edge and off the outside corner.
Regarding the latter, one scout noted that Stanton has always struggled against breaking balls away. But he's now at an extreme level. He's swung at 61 from righties this season and missed 45 (a 74 percent rate, up from 61 percent from 2010 to 2014).
The man on the mound
Martinez was regarded as one of the game's top prospects in 2014 and he's broken through in 2015. Martinez has an 0.89 ERA with 42 strikeouts in 40 1/3 innings in his past six starts. He's allowed two runs or fewer in each.
In those six starts, right-handers are hitting .186 and recording what tracking services consider a "hard-hit ball" only six percent of the time, well below the major league average of 14 percent for a right-handed hitter against right-handed pitching. Martinez has faced 170 right-handed batters this season. Only two have homered.
One thing driving Martinez's success: He's not afraid to throw an inside fastball.
In fact, this season, the three right-handed starting pitchers who throw their fastballs to the inner-third of the plate (or off the inside corner) most often are Nick Martinez (no relation to Carlos), Felix Hernandez and -- you guessed it -- Carlos Martinez.
Martinez's second most-used pitch against a right-handed hitter is a slider, the pitch he uses to put away hitters with two strikes. He's struck out 27 right-handed hitters with it, the sixth-highest total in the majors (the five ahead of him are Chris Archer, Tyson Ross, Jason Hammel, Max Scherzer and Michael Pineda).
The one thing to keep in mind: Martinez throws his slider to the outside edge less often than almost any pitcher in baseball. And Stanton's numbers indicate he can hit a hanging slider. He hit one 484 feet in Colorado a couple weeks ago.
The stage is set for a game of intrigue between this hitter and this pitcher on Tuesday night.
The first thing to watch will be whether Martinez is willing to come inside.
"It takes courage on a pitcher's and catcher's end to attack [Stanton] there with conviction because everyone knows how special of a talent he is [and no one wants to hit him]," said a longtime major league scout.
The second will be Martinez's ability to avoid making a mistake. If he makes one, there's a good chance he could end up watching Stanton's ball go off into orbit.
As Baseball Tonight analyst Doug Glanville said: "When you throw the ball into zones where he's hot, it's bye-bye baseball. The ball leaves earth."