Wednesday, August 10, 2016

Thoughts on Carlos Gomez

And so the Carlos Gomez Era has ended in the city where his Major League career took off. Gomez, who was designated for assignment prior to this evening's game at Minnesota, will head back to Houston before embarking on the next chapter of his career.

When the Astros traded Brett Phillips, Josh Hader, Domingo Santana, and Adrian Houser for Gomez and Mike Fiers on July 30, 2015 it signified a shift in how the Astros did business. July 2015 marked the first time in, what seven years, that the Astros actually added players in the hopes of a playoff push. The arrivals of Scott Kazmir, Mike Fiers, and Carlos Gomez saw an organizational pivot from "sell" to "let's see if we can make this happen in October." It was...weird.

At the time of the trade, I wrote that:
In my heart I knew that losing (Brett Phillips) was likely in any trade of substance, but it doesn't make it any easier. It's strange being in this position: a fan of the team that looks at trade impact now instead of on the "let's reevaluate in five years" side. 

Let's also remember that, when the Astros traded for Gomez, he was a career .260/.315/.420 hitter with a career 98 wRC+. He was a league-average offensive outfielder with some pop to go along with pretty good defense and 211 career stolen bases. And that worked for the 2015 Astros, at least in theory. Jake Marisnick was *struggling* when the Astros made the trade.

At the time of the trade, Astros center-fielders were hitting .226/.285/.370. Marisnick was hitting .238/.275/.374 (78 wRC+) and had posted a 0.5 fWAR. Gomez, at the time of the trade was hitting .262/.328/.423 (107 wRC+) with a 1.7 fWAR. And let's not forget that he was just two years removed from a 7.4 fWAR season, where he hit .284/.338/.506 with 24 home runs and 40 stolen bases. He led the NL in WAR and won a Gold Glove. Even in 2014 he had a 5.7 fWAR season with 23 homers and 34 stolen bases. Yeah, he had retreated from that Top-10 MVP finish in 2013, but by the wRC+ metric 2014 was better than 2013.

The first half of 2015 was another step back, but the Astros apparently had faith that he wouldn't crater like he did. In his first 22 games as an Astro - even with eight hits in his first five games - he was hitting .181/.218/.241. Then something happened on August 25: Gomez turned into what the Astros hoped he would be. For 16 games Gomez was unreal, starting with a 4RBI game at Yankee Stadium. That began a stretch where he hit .306/.362/.565 - one of the few bright spots on a team that was actively trying to (and ultimately succeeded in) pissing away the division to the Rangers. Then he strained a muscle in his side and went on the DL. He would return in a limited role at the end of the season and, even though he wasn't 100%, he hit a homer in the Wild Card game at Yankee Stadium.

2016 has been a nightmare. Gomez represented the worst of what has happened to this team. Just a complete offensive collapse. Sound familiar? And let me tell you: the stats are even worse than you think.

He grew more tentative in 2016. His 53.7% Swing% is the lowest he's posted since 2011. Gomez completely lost the ability to hit the ball. I don't mean that in a trite "he's unlucky...BABIP!" way. Like, he could not actually make contact. Consider that he hovered in the high 50%s/low 60%s in making contact outside the strike zone for his career. In 2015 Gomez had a 64.5% O-Contact% rate. In 2016 that plummeted to a career-worst 49.4%. He was completely missing half of the pitches thrown outside the strike zone. In 2015 he was making contact on 84.5% of pitches in the strike zone. 2016? A career-worst 77.6%. Overall Contact% dropped from 76.7% in 2015 to 66.9% in 2016. In 2015 he had a 12.8% Swinging Strike rate. In 2016 that jumped to 17.7%

What happened? We could get into how he performed against different types of pitches (feel free to go to his page on Brooks Baseball if you want to delve that deep), but that seems a fruitless endeavour at this point. Best to leave that to a blogger/reporter for the team that claims Gomez in the hopes that they'll catch 2013 Gomez instead of 2016 Gomez. Wide-angle, unverifiable psychological take? I think Gomez so desperately wanted to achieve something with the Astros that it rendered him ineffective. Like everyone else on the Astros, he started out poorly but just couldn't recover. He couldn't make it click. Having watched an overwhelming majority of his games, he was overmatched. It was funny to joke about how he looked like one of those dizzy bat race participants, falling down on the reg. But I truly believe he was trying to fix his entire season with one swing of the bat.

So where do the Astros go from here? I think the move today makes two statements:

1. The Astros - as a front office - haven't given up on this season. Because that was the narrative, what, eight days ago, when the Astros didn't make any significant moves at the Deadline, right? It would have been so easy to just pay Gomez the remaining $3m of his salary and just hope it happened for Gomez all the while not really expecting that to happen. This is what I thought would happen.

It's ironic that Marisnick's "resurgence" (according to Luhnow) is what helped the Astros make this decision, since it was Marisnick's struggles in 2015 that led to the Astros bringing Gomez in in the first place. Marisnick will get another chance to see if regular everyday playing time will fix his offense. Marisnick is already a good defender. Hell, he's probably better than Gomez defensively, such is Gomez's fall. But with the Astros four games back of the Wild Card and 48 left to play (as of this very moment on August 10, 2016) and in a complete tailspin, Luhnow & Co decided not to just see how it played out. Is it addition by subtraction? We'll see in the next seven weeks.

2. It's a warning shot to the remaining guys on the roster. By all accounts Gomez was a very popular guy. Enthusiasm for days. However, especially on a team that now has nine rookies, it tells the other players that you will have to produce, or you will lose your job, no matter how much money you are still owed.

Sometimes moves don't work out. Part of the allure of trading for Carlos Gomez was that he wasn't all that far removed from a couple of great seasons and that he was under contract for 2016. I don't think anyone in the organization, and certainly not Carlos Gomez himself, thought he would play as poorly as he had this year. You can expect some regression for a balls-out 30-year old center fielder...but there's a difference between a regression and a depression, because Gomez's offense was basically a season-long October 1929.

I don't find any pleasure in Carlos Gomez's release. He was as polarizing in Houston as he was in Minnesota and Milwaukee but, personally, I liked his enthusiasm. But what some saw as character, others saw as showboating. He was either a delight or he was the epitome of what was wrong with baseball. Gomez caught the brunt of a lot of fan anger regarding 2016. He was routinely booed by Houston fans (while Rasmus by and large gets a pass) and let's not forget Gomez getting minstrel show'd by Brian T. Smith. I was marginally excited when the Astros brought him in, and I wish things had worked out for him. I hope things turn around for him (with anyone but the Rangers, because you know he'd hit .900 if he landed with the Rangers) because a happy Carlos Gomez is one of my favorite things in baseball.