Giancarlo Cruz-Michael Stanton has had a lot of success against just about every team in baseball over the past five years, but he hasn't dominated many other teams quite as much as he's dominated the Washington Nationals. In 65 games against the Nats, Stanton boasts a .317/.415/.696 career line with 22 homers (Most against any team), 21 doubles (Most against any team), and 53 RBI (Am I starting to sound like a broken record yet? Most against any team). His 1.110 OPS against the Nationals ranks third among teams that Stanton has more than 20 plate appearances against (Giants and [surprise] Rockies). Simply put, Stanton has crushed the Nationals over his career.
He's not off to a great start in 2015, but neither is the rest of his team. After Thursday's 1-for-5 showing against the Phillies, Stanton finds himself batting .241/.362/.517 with 4 doubles, 4 homers, and 14 RBI. Unsurprisingly, the doubles, home runs, and RBI all lead the Marlins. Apart from Stanton, only former Nat Michael Morse (2) has hit more than one home run. Nobody is within four RBI of Stanton on the Marlins squad. Dee Gordon is tied with Stanton for the team lead with four doubles.
This Marlins team is supposed to have some depth offensively in 2015, but it hasn't shown much in the early going. Marcell Ozuna, fresh off of a breakout 23 homer campaign in 2014, boasts a .059 ISO so far this season. Christian Yelich, the other player the Marlins signed to a long-term extension this offseason, has battled back problems and is batting .200/.265/.222 in the early-going with just one extra base hit. Jarrod Saltalamacchia, who has been a solid offensive catcher for the past four years, is batting just .069/.182/.207 and has started losing time to prospect J.T. Realmuto behind the plate. Even Michael Morse finds himself batting just .233/.313/.367 so far this season.
Only Martin Prado (.300/.328/.400), Stanton and Dee Gordon (.348/.361/.435 with 7 SB in 11 attempts) have been hitting the ball well for the Marlins so far in 2015. Although Morse, Ozuna, Saltalamacchia, and Yelich should all be fine contributors for Miami as the season wears on, Stanton is even more important to that lineup right now than he typically has been in the past. He's seeing almost nothing in terms of support around him in the lineup.
For this reason, the Nats should employ what I used to call the Pujols Principle (and many others used to call the Bonds Principle) when facing Stanton in their upcoming series. If Stanton comes up in a situation where he can hurt them and there's a base open, he should get the old four fingered salute. If Stanton comes up in a tie game late, they shouldn't intentionally walk him, but there's no way that he should see anything good to hit. Give him a chance to get himself out. If he lays off of everything, tip your cap and go get the next guy.
From a context neutral standpoint, walking Stanton will almost always lower the Nats WPA, so this theory is running contrary to what the sabermetricians tell us. To be fair, they're right. Stanton is a lifetime .270/.364/.539 hitter. What that tells us is that Stanton fails to reach base in 63.6% of his plate appearances, so there's more than a 50% chance that he won't reach base if the Nats do go after him every time he comes to the plate. Handing him a free base isn't always the right call.
Putting a runner on base always increases a team's run expectancy as well....
I moved everything around so that we could see the run expectancy of a situation before a Stanton walk as opposed to the run expectancy after a Stanton walk. Note that it jumps up about 0.35 runs in every situation with 0 outs, 0.26 runs with one out, and 0.11 runs with 2 outs.
Of course, run expectancy doesn't take into account who the hitters are. It doesn't take into account that one of the most prodigious sluggers in the game today is the one batting without a runner on first. It doesn't take into account that the hitter(s) behind him are weaker historically. It doesn't take into account that the hitter(s) behind him haven't been performing as well this season either.
What about the fans?
The fans can boo all they like. If Matt Williams chooses to pitch around Stanton to get to Morse/Ozuna in a crucial situation, it will be because he's trying to win a baseball game. It may be a flawed way to try to win a baseball game by actually lowering the Nats' win expectancy in a context neutral environment, but it may be the smarter move to force one of the Marlins' lesser hitters to beat him.
What about the pitchers?
Jordan Zimmermann, Stephen Strasburg, and Gio Gonzalez (the Nats' scheduled starters) are all fiery competitors. Everyone else on the staff is as well. I'm sure that none of them ever want to intentionally walk a hitter and would prefer to go after Stanton and let the chips fall where they may. It's not their call, though. If the manager calls for an intentional walk against Stanton, it's because he feels that he's giving himself a better chance by facing Michael Morse or Marcell Ozuna even with an extra runner on base.
Has Jim finally gone off the deep end?
If this suggestion seems a bit out of character for me, it's because it is. Many of you have seen me go on anti-bunting rants before. Quite a few of you have seen me go off on a decision to intentionally walk a hitter in the past, and I think that it's usually a pretty stupid call. Again, you're improving your opponent's run expectancy and lowering your own win expectancy.
There are a select few hitters in the major leagues (or MLB history) that I'd advocate doing this against. Two of them (Bonds and [once upon a time] Pujols) were mentioned above. At their peaks, Bonds and Pujols weren't just great hitters... They were generational hitters. Furthermore, while they had some good hitters around them, there weren't really any hitters in the lineup around them that were nearly as dangerous. I don't believe that Stanton is in a (peak) Bonds or Pujols class quite yet, but against the Nats, he has been. The Marlins have eight hitters in their lineup. Two or three of them are league-average hitters. A few more are good hitters. They have just one great hitter. Don't let that one great hitter be the guy that beats you.