PHILADELPHIA – About a month ago, Mike Stanton tried to hit himself in the face. He missed.
His visage was actually about 450 feet away, digitally inserted on the huge scoreboard in left-center field at Montgomery Riverwalk Stadium, where Stanton was playing for the Florida Marlins' Double-A affiliate, Jacksonville. An unthinkable target for most, the jumbo screen was well within the radius of Stanton's bat. At 6-foot-5, 235 pounds, looking more tight end than right fielder, when Stanton barrels a ball it's not a matter of if it goes out as much as how far it travels.
"It went over," Stanton said. "I thought it hit me in the face, to be honest – my face on the scoreboard. I looked away because I thought it hit that. But I didn't see it fall down. It went over."
While no official measurement came out of Montgomery on May 6, witnesses say the ball traveled at least 500 feet. The base of the 60-foot-tall scoreboard is nearly 400 feet from home plate, so to have cleared it took a gargantuan sort of power limited to a handful of major league players.
The Marlins welcomed Stanton to that club, as well as their own, when they called him up Tuesday. His debut coincided with Stephen Strasburg's,(notes) so it was perhaps the quietest 3-for-5 showing ever from a 20-year-old. Of course, with Strasburg and Jason Heyward(notes) and Buster Posey(notes) and Mike Leake(notes) and Jaime Garcia(notes) and Starlin Castro(notes) and many, many more infusing the National League with a power-shifting amount of talent this season, 3 for 5 causes little more than a blip on the radar. To get there, Stanton will tap his inner Ryan Howard(notes) or Adam Dunn(notes) or, sure, Heyward, whose home run on the third pitch he saw in the big leagues went 476 feet and remains the longest in baseball this season.
The narratives for each of the other phenoms are, at this point, well-established. Strasburg is the once-in-a-lifetime talent, Heyward the prototypical ballplayer and person, Posey the best hitting catcher since Joe Mauer(notes), Leake the skipped-the-minors anomaly, Garcia the Dave Duncan archetype, Castro the Cubs' savior. Well, let it be said, then, that even though, as Stanton put it, "I don't want to be thought of just as the guy that hits the ball far," that's going to be him – the greatest right-handed moonshot hitter since Mark McGwire.
His story contains other threads, of course. Stanton's given name, actually, isn't Mike. He is Giancarlo Cruz-Michael Stanton, son of Puerto Rican and Italian parents, native of California, demigod in plenty beyond baseball. Stanton could've played football at USC and basketball elsewhere, and only when the Marlins signed him for $475,000 after drafting him in the second round three years ago did he commit fully to baseball.
He hit 39 home runs in his first full minor league season at 18, and when Boston asked for him in a potential Manny Ramirez(notes) deal, the Marlins ended the conversation. Stanton hit 28 more last season, 21 in 52 games this year, and by the time he was promoted, he had hit a home run every 13.4 at-bats in the minor leagues.
"I couldn't wait to see what this kid was made of," Marlins infielder Jorge Cantu(notes) said. "Yes, he was having a great season in the minors, but that's another level. This is the real thing here. There's nothing above this. And from what I saw, whew. He's going to be here a long time."
Stanton needed to outfit himself accordingly, and when he showed up without a proper suit for road trips, Brett Hayes(notes) offered some guidance. Both graduated from Notre Dame High in Sherman Oaks, Calif., and while Hayes is a rookie, too, he's got five years on Stanton.
Hayes took Stanton to the Men's Wearhouse in downtown Philadelphia. The manager took one look at Stanton and said: "What sport?" Stanton told him he needed a tailored suit in two days. The manager laughed. They looked throughout the store and found three possible fits: a navy, a black and a tuxedo. He went with the navy, then went to the stadium.
And while Stanton's shortage of real-world savvy is typical of a 20-year-old, what he does at a baseball field goes well beyond – particularly considering that coming into this season, the biggest rap on him was a propensity to strike out. Some scouts worried that it would overwhelm his power and render him punchless.
"First major league at-bat he was spitting on sliders like he's had 150 at-bats up here," Hayes said. "He's got every raw ability in the world and composure on top of it."
Stanton's newfound plate discipline took a concentrated effort. He created a game in which he sets a pitching machine to throw breaking balls outside of the strike zone. Stanton studies each pitch – its spin, its trajectory, its break – and rarely takes the bat off his shoulder. Only when the machine spits a down-the-middle cookie does Stanton take a hack. By conditioning himself to lay off poor pitches, Stanton believes the activity will translate into more walks and fewer strikeouts in games.
"That's what I'm trying to learn every day," he said. "I'm just trying to figure out ways to do it."
Of the NL's phenoms, Stanton's learning curve is among the highest because he's so hit-and-miss. It matters not that, as Cantu said, "kids today are a different breed, just coming in hot, starting off as superstars."
But they're still kids, prone to slumps, confidence tenuous, pieces of clay still yet to be run through the kiln. For every 3-for-5 night, Stanton will have a couple 0 for 4s, as he did Thursday.
Had he gotten those out of his system in April, perhaps Stanton would stand alongside Heyward and Leake and Garcia in the race for NL Rookie of the Year. Instead, he's here with Strasburg, arbitration casualties who get four months to make their impressions.
Strasburg's is set: He is everything he was supposed to be and more, 14 strikeouts over seven innings ample proof. The single Stanton hit to right field Tuesday – "Hardest-hit ball I've ever seen opposite way," Hayes said – was a peek into the bat, though baseball fans have gotten greedy. They want their kids younger, bigger, stronger, more polished – there to ogle and marvel at and admire.
They want a signature moment: for Mike Stanton to hit himself in the face. Soon enough, he won't miss.