Thursday, May 14, 2015

What in the world is wrong with Evan Gattis?

You’ve all met Evan Gattis, yes? He is the centerpiece of the deal that sent Mike Foltynewicz, Rio Ruiz, and Andrew Thurman to the Braves. This Evan Gattis – a folk hero to many – is a hitter for the Astros, a man without a position. If he is the Designated Hitter, Chris Carter has to play at first base. If Gattis is the first baseman, then Chris Carter is the DH. He is also a catcher and a left fielder on a team with better options for both. But never mind the defense, Gattis is seemingly custom-tailored for Minute Maid Park, where a dead pull hitter can ruin a BABIP with a pop shot to the Crawford Boxes.

Slight hiccup, though: he’s not hitting. Or fielding. After over 20% of the season, his WAR is settled in at
-0.6, tied for the “lead” with the other guy who was supposed to be knocking the cover off the ball, Chris Carter. There are only five qualified players in MLB with a lower WAR.

The question for today is: Why is Evan Gattis not hitting? Is the AL West *so* much more difficult than the NL East that it would cause a 224-point OPS drop? Is Gattis just unlucky, suffering from the 2nd-lowest BABIP in baseball (.188 – tied with…Luis Valbuena) when the AL average is .291? Is Gattis drunk – hitting balls thrown at forehead level when he’s swinging over the top of pipe shots down the middle of the plate. There are many questions. There are possible answers. Perhaps life just doesn’t make sense.

Gattis is swinging more, hitting less

Using FanGraphs and Baseball-Reference, we can see that Gattis is simply not making contact as much. He’s chasing pitches outside the zone at a higher rate – 39.9% O-Swing in 2014 to 45.1% O-Swing in 2015. This means that Gattis is swinging at almost half of the pitches thrown to him outside the zone. And his contact on pitches outside the strike zone is down slightly – 61.3% in 2014 to 59.1% in 2015.

Gattis is swinging at more pitches inside the zone, too – 69.2% in 2014 to 74.8% in 2015. His contact rate at pitches thrown inside the zone has stayed almost the same, though decreasing slightly – 81.6% to 81%.

Overall, he’s just swinging at more pitches – 57% of all pitches he sees. And, of course, he’s making less contact – 70.6%, down from 73.2% in 2014. He’s swinging and missing at a 16.2% clip, 6th-highest in all of baseball (yet lower than Chris Carter's 16.8% swinging-strike rate). As a result, there’s really no reason to throw him a pitch in the strike zone. Only 40% of the pitches he sees would be a strike if he just let it go. At this point in the season, why would you purposely throw Gattis a pitch he can hit?

And it doesn’t really matter what the pitch is, Gattis is a below-average hitter. FanGraphs has Gattis at a value of -4.4 on four-seam fastballs, -0.7 on split-finger fastballs, -0.9 on sliders, -1.6 on cutters, -0.6 on changeups. The only above-average pitch that Gattis is hitting is the curve, which is +4.0 runs above average. This is clearly bizarro world because in 2014, Gattis posted positive values on all pitch types except curveballs.

When he hits the ball, it doesn’t do anything

Aside from that six-game stretch from April 28-May 3 when Gattis hit five home runs, he’s not making good contact. It’s not as though Gattis is legging out doubles because he’s hitting the ball to the gaps, he’s just not hitting the ball as hard. Gattis has 21 hits: six home runs, five doubles, and ten singles. That’s it. So let’s break this down further by first looking at what the ball is doing *if* it leaves Gattis’ bat.

In 2014 Gattis hit 58.8% of the balls he put in play to the outfield for a 1.672 OPS and a .496 BABIP. This leaves 41.2% of the balls he put in play to the infield, where he posted a .106 OPS and an .053 BABIP. Naturally, balls hit in the infield are going to have a starkly lower BABIP. So far this season, Gattis is hitting 50% of balls to the outfield and 50% of balls to the infield. Other numbers back this up, like the 1.26 groundball rate in 2015, up from 0.87 in 2014. Since half of the balls he’s hitting are pretty much right at infielders, his offensive numbers are obviously going to suffer, and explain the ridiculously low BABIP.

On the off-chance that Gattis does put the ball in play, he’s not hitting it as hard as he did in 2015. FanGraphs says that Gattis hit the ball hard in 38.7% of his 2014 plate appearances; that number has dropped to 34.9% in 2015. He’s making more soft- to medium contact, which makes it easier to get him out.

Gattis also had a 1.363 OPS in 2014 on balls that he pulled, which he did 48.2% of the time. He’s pulling the ball 36% of the time for a 1.182 OPS. So pitchers are getting him to go up the middle or to the opposite side in 64% of the instances where he hits the ball in play, as opposed to 51.2% in 2014. Compounding that issue, Gattis had a .693 OPS in balls hit to the opposite field in 2014, and a .250 OPS in 2015.

The issue could be the adjustments that pitchers are making to Gattis. Gattis has an .827 OPS the first time he faces a starting pitcher in a game in 2015, then a .464 OPS the second time he faces that pitcher in that game, and finally he’s 2x21 for a .279 OPS the 3rd time that he faces the starting pitcher in a game.

Conclusions? Anyone? 

Here’s what this tells me (and it may tell you something completely different): Gattis is swinging more and making less contact. Maybe he’s pressing in order to try to work his way out of this slump - in 2014 he averaged 3.55 pitches per plate appearance, and down slightly to 3.21 pitches per plate appearance in 2015. Gattis is swinging at bullcrap pitches because there’s no reason to throw him anything worthwhile. He’s also going up the middle and opposite field at a markedly higher clip than he did last year. This tells me his timing is off, because St. Arnold’s should be installing a plexiglass screen up out of concern for their employees’ safety from Evan Gattis line drive homers to left, and the reason they haven’t done so is because Gattis is typically late on pitches. Is this just a timing issue, or does it go back to the wrist injury he had in Spring Training? 

I do not think the Astros will pull the plug on him any time soon, because he’s still making league-minimum and is under team control until 2019. Jon Singleton won’t be taking Gattis’ spot on the roster. Chris Carter, though…that’s another story for another time.