It has been a crazy, crazy last 4 years.
Up to this point in his still-just-27-year-old life, Evan Gattis has managed to resurrect a baseball career that he literally had walked away from. He was encouraged to start that back up again, which got him noticed – and drafted – in 2010′s 23rd round by Atlanta. At that point, he was so far “under the radar” that a scout told the Braves’ executives that it really didn’t matter what in which round they took him… nobody else had a clue.
But then they saw him hitting. And hitting. And hitting.
- In 2010, he was in rookie ball. Hit .288 in 60 games with 4 homers.
- 2011: Rome. Twenty-two homers in 88 games, hitting .322 and OPS’ing almost 1.000
- 2012: a minor setback… a wrist injury limited him to 74 games. Still 18 homers up into AA ball.
Then came the Venezuelan Winter League. .303 average and 16 homers over 53 games (195 AB, just 30 K’s). Now he was on everyone’s radar.
But more importantly, he had a nickname.
Evan calls himself “Bulldog Being” (that’s his twitter handle). But everyone else calls him the White Bear (“El Oso Blanco”). He developed a cult following. People crafted videos of him with accompanying songs extolling legendary feats. Multiple such videos, in fact. The MLB Fan Cave put him in front of a green screen to reveal that he was a secret agent (memo to Freddie Freeman: dress shields). People show up at ballgames with his ‘costume’ on. By sheer force of will, it seemed, he broke into the active roster last Spring… and stayed there.
Then again, he has actually performed feats of legendary proportion:
- First major league homer: off Roy Halladay, in his second big league AB.
- Holds the curious distinction of having hit the last homer in a stadium… Fort Mill Stadium, the former home of the Charlotte Knights AAA club. This happened on September 2nd, during Gattis’ quickie rehab stint.
- Lead the NL (tied with Jonny Gomes overall) in pinch-hit homers in 2013 (4). But Gomes had over twice the AB.
- Nearly had 3 homers off of Cole Hamels on a Sunday afternoon in Philadelphia (Sept. 8th) when nobody else could even touch him (two hits – both homers – no one else had any). Hamels himself couldn’t figure out what to throw that he couldn’t hit that day.
- Oh, and the first of those two home runs was the longest shot of any in the majors in 2013… 487 feet against the wind!
- And… he passed up perennial prospect Christian Bethancourt to become the starting catcher of the Atlanta Braves for 2014. AH, that… so…
Time to Get Serious
No more. He’s been told that he’s the primary catcher for 2014. Sure, with 2+ catchers on the roster (Laird, Ryan Doumit… sort of), there are backup options, but it’s clear that the training wheels have been removed. It’s time to produce.
Let’s see what that might look like.
It’s way too easy just to check the basic stat line: a relatively pedestrian .243 batting average, 21% K rate, .291 OBP, 0.9 WAR
I went through the game logs for the 106 games in which Evan appeared in 2013, hoping to see a pattern. In 63, he had a WRC+ (Wighted Runs Created) score above zero – a positive offensive contribution. In 43 games, then that value was zero or less. The weird part was the wide variations we saw during the year: .250 in April, .317 in a red-hot May, .083 in June (only 10 games), .263 in July, .139 in August, then back to average: .255 in September. In terms of a pattern, it actually appeared that he played better with more playing time:
- April, May, September: 21/22/25 games. .270 batting average over 237 ABs.
- June, July August: 10/14/13 games. Batted .188 (117 AB).
Brooks Baseball has an interesting look at Evan’s tendencies:
- Against fastballs: league average “eye”, but an above average swing-and-miss rate (20%). His whiff rate is average vs. other types of pitches.
- His “approach” is aggressive across the board – exceptionally so vs. fastballs and off-speed pitches.
- That approach certainly accounts for his 5.5% walk rate (4 of 21 walks being intentional)
- His spray chart is remarkable: if you remove his homers, there’s really no spot on the field that’s safe from a Gattis’ batted ball. His extreme power is generally felt from left-to-center field, and ground balls tend to be hit between third and shortstop. Overall, lots of fly balls, lots of line drives.
He hit .235 with the bases empty, .250 otherwise, and .245 with runners in scoring position. Remarkably consistent. Detractors could suggest that catching may have adversely influenced his hitting as he only hit .211, while .500 as DH (2 games) and .600 as pinch hitter (13 plate appearances, 10 AB). I will suggest “small ample size in first major league season” on that point.
But for all the hype, the homers, and everything around him, Gattis OPS’d just .771 on the year. Brian McCann went .796… not counting Brian’s total shutdown in the playoffs. .771 isn’t horrible (12th among catchers with 300+ innings… that counting Joe Mauer at #1 with .880 in his part-time catching role). But it felt like he did more… somehow.
Should we Expect better in 2014?
A little bit. In everything I’m seeing about Evan, repetition and playing time seems to be important… and that will happen in 2014. His sheer strength means that he can literally flick a ball over the wall off a mis-hit. This does translate into a few more expected hits via grounders that will be shot through the space between third and short… but may also mean that some line drives hang up to be caught by outfielders.
I would hope for some more walks in 2014: partly because pitchers will likely try to trick him or avoid his bat by throwing out of the zone entirely. The extent that he will have success in 2014 may very well depend on this factor: location recognition. Certainly advance scouts can read as well as I, and they know he’s a highly aggressive hitter.
Then again, so is Freddie Freeman… and that approach clearly works for him.
Evan Gattis should be hitting roughly 4th/5th in the lineup behind Jason Heyward, Chris Johnson, Justin Upton and Freedie Freeman – with some jostling of the order based on the ‘handedness’ of the starting pitch du jour… because that’s what Fredi Gonzalez does. He will be in position to drive in runs… assuming that Freeman leaves him with any. It is notable, though, that despite limited duty, Gattis was fourth on the club in RBI with 65… and only 6 away from overtaking Justin Upton and Chris Johnson for 2nd place.
All of that taken into consideration, here is my offensive projection for Evan Gattis:
- .265 batting average
- 34 home runs
- 98 RBI
- .315 on-base percentage
- .810 OPS
- 125 games catching; 140 appearances overall
In other words, a modest improvement in most categories over 2013, and yet enough to keep the legend alive.
In 2013, the Braves pretty well lamented the fact that they are a National League club. Absent the Designated Hitter rule, they tried everything possible to get Evan into the lineup: pinch hitting (10, officially, with 6 RBI), catching (349 innings), left field (342 innings), and even first base (33 innings). Those experiments with positions other than catcher are essentially over.
His Arm and Durability
We do know that he has an arm to be reckoned with. Brandon Phillips found out the hard way, as did two others in 2013. Base runners have thus far as well: one-third have been caught stealing in 24 attempts. That’s still via limited duty as a major league season consists of 1458 innings (9 innings x 162 games) and he’s still only had about half a season’s worth of major league play to this point. Nonetheless, with just one throwing error in 2013, I will suggest that his arm is not going to be a limiting factor for him defensively.
I don’t know that any can doubt Gattis’ durability – this 6’4″/230 brute should be good for 120 +/- games behind home plate if necessary. Then again, an Atlanta summer is brutal as times, and even a Texas native could wear down in that heat/humidity. But there is help on the bench for him, so I do anticipate that Gerald Laird should see at least one game per week – possibly being the personal catcher/’caddy’ for somebody in the rotation – throughout the year.
This is the part where fans should find of clench their jaws and pray that the Braves can muddle through – hoping as well that Evan continues to be as trainable and teachable as he was in 2013 (and there have been no indications to the contrary – all reports suggest that he’s a willing sponge for coaching). That said, this is still on-the-job training for someone with such limited overall experience.
fangraphs was fairly harsh – giving a -6.8 defensive WAR rating. They pegged him 39th overall among catchers (66 of them) with at least 200 innings in 2013. That’s in the same ballpark as Chris Ianetta, Dioner Navarro, Hank Conger, and even Gerald Laird. Another offense-first guy, Willin Rosario, was ranked 46th over 900 innings.
Projecting 2013 stats out to 126 games (conveniently tripling his games as catcher in 2013, Gattis might have had 6 total errors (3 fielding, 3 throwing) with 6 passed balls and 51 wild pitches yielded. Obviously, the Wild Pitches are ‘wild’ due to his pitcher, but they are notable as they speak to his ability to block pitches in the dirt. Let’s compare:
- Brian McCann – 2011 (last full, healthy season). 128 games, 1083 innings. 7 passed balls, 44 Wild pitches surrendered (his career high on both). In most other seasons, he yielded 32-36 Wild Pitches and around 7 passed balls. He also stops base stealers at close to a 31% pace.
- Yadier Molina – a ‘premium’ defensive catcher. In the past 5 years, 130-140 games each season: averages around 6 passed balls and usually 30-33 wild pitches (high of 36, low 22 ).
- A.J. Pierzynski – veteran catcher. Regularly sees 120-130 games at the position: averages about 7 passed balls and 40-42 wild pitches (low 32, high 54).
- John Buck – another veteran. Typically 105-110 games per year: 6 passed balls and 20-30 wild pitches (varying widely from 15 to 51).
These are actually fairly comforting comparisons. It is hard to gauge these into actual predictions since pitchers vary widely (Julio Teheran had 13 hit batters in 2013, 4th in baseball; Mike Minor hit only 1 batter, tied for 2nd fewest in baseball). Overall, I do expect that Evan will improve over time with consistent play as catcher. Thus anything in the neighborhood of those pro-rated numbers from 2013 should be acceptable… and I think it reasonable to expect them as well.
Game calling as a catcher is important. Very important, given a team that thrives on pitching and defense. But even as there are questions about how Evan calls a game (Tim Hudson referred to this in a very nicely put “interesting” adjective at one point last year). Mark Bowman, in a review piece last month, said this:
As the season progressed, many of the pitchers complimented his game-calling skills.
Again, this is part of a theme: Evan Gattis is teachable. In terms of game calling, as he continues to get used to the style of the pitchers he’s supporting, he should – and I think will – get better at knowing their tendencies and how pitch calling will factor into that. Ultimately, if there is a problem here, there are two solutions:
- The pitcher is ultimately responsible for what he throws. He can shake off a pitch or ask for a consult on the mound.
- The bench can assist him with calls as well.
Conclusion: this too, should continue to improve as the season progresses.
So overall: I am guessing that Gattis’ defense will be still a bit below average, but better than ‘tolerable’ – enough so that we will probably forget about the issue on most days. That should come as something of a relief to most fans.
There are a handful of players that I am really anxious to see perform for Atlanta in 2014. Some for interesting reasons (Uggla, B.J. Upton), and some because I’m hoping for a total blowup (Jason Heyward). I see Evan Gattis on offense in the same way I do Andrelton Simmons on defense: “what will he do next?” is the thinking.