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Choate was standing in leftfield during BP one day last season when Stanton launched a shot that improbably landed in the middle of the top deck of one of the most cavernous parks in the majors, the Mets' Citi Field. "The people in the stands gave him a standing ovation," says Choate. "It was the longest ball I've ever seen hit. By far."
Here is the player to bring back the magic and the thrill of the home run. Here is perhaps the first great slugger of the poststeroid era.
Given his age and skill set, he is certainly one of the most valuable players in the game. With run scoring at its lowest ebb since the early 1990s, teams are placing a greater premium on power and are more willing to swallow poor defense in order to add punch to the lineup. The Angels' decision to move first baseman Mark Trumbo to third and later to the outfield, just to keep his bat in the lineup, has paid big dividends—he leads the team in home runs (17) and slugging (.612). The Mariners, who were at the front of a defensive revolution in baseball a few years go, traded a future ace, Michael Pineda, for a young talented hitter, Jesus Montero, despite his reputation as a poor defensive catcher. The smartest front offices in the game are investing in power: G.M. Billy Beane and the A's signed Cuban slugger Yoenis Cespedes (.480 slugging this season) over the winter to a four-year, $36 million deal.
"People have said that homegrown power arms is the most important commodity in the game, but that middle-of-the-order, 30-home-run guy is becoming almost as valuable, given how few of them there are now," says an American League G.M. "You can't find these guys on the free agent market anymore. He's the guy you build around."
The legend of Bigfoot began before his senior year of high school, in the summer of 2006, at the annual Area Code Games in Long Beach, Calif., where high school talent is trotted out like poodles at the Westminster dog show. Stanton was a three-sport athlete who excelled in basketball (he earned all-conference honors) and football (he was offered a scholarship by UNLV) at Notre Dame High in Sherman Oaks, Calif. His baseball skills, however, lagged (he hit around .200 and batted near the bottom of the lineup in his junior year), so much so that a scout organizing the Games didn't think he was good enough even to be among the 200 invitees before a Stanton family friend convinced him to give the kid a chance.
He took a total of 15 batting practice swings that day, and six of the balls he hit left Long Beach State's Blair Field. Two ended up on a golf course beyond an access road. "The thing about Blair is that it's got to be the worst place to hit in college baseball. It's huge—the ocean breeze knocks the ball down," says Marlins scout Tim McDonnell, one of the talent evaluators there that day. "What he did was silly."
Stanton was the talk of the event. Without the showcase Stanton says he wouldn't have been drafted in the first 10 or 15 rounds. "It pissed me off a little bit," Stanton says. "I was like, Where have you guys been? Is it really just going to take one batting practice for you to turn a nobody into a somebody?"
The truth was that scouts didn't know what to make of Stanton, who, at 6'5", 245 pounds, has the build of a freakishly athletic tight end—he didn't look like a baseball player. And because of how much time he spent away from baseball, many wondered how committed he was to the game. McDonnell wasn't convinced until he and the team's scouting director, Stan Meek, visited Stanton during his senior season. "We wanted to see him take BP, but there was a track meet that day, and the track was beyond leftfield," says McDonnell. "So in batting practice he had to hit everything to right field, and he did a good job of that. But he didn't always know where he was hitting it, and he got early on a few and hit them into the stands of the track meet, and people scattered. We were like, number 1, he has a feel for hitting the ball the other way. And number 2, just by mistake, this guy just hit one 420. What's not to like?"
Scouts rate players' tools on a 20-to-80 scale. Stanton is the only player McDonnell has ever given an 80 power score. "He's an athlete, a complete package of strength," says McDonnell, a former coach at Long Beach State. "I coached Troy Tulowitzki and Evan Longoria in college, and they might be better pure hitters than Mike, but Mikey's power was better than either of those guys. Honestly, I'd be shocked if I ever see another guy with that kind of raw power."
Stanton is able to produce his power "because of his tremendous bat speed," says McDonnell. "But a lot of it is also how he generates such tremendous leverage with his lower body. That comes from the football and basketball."