Did Somebody Screw Up Carlos Gomez’s Scouting Report?

I’ve always been fascinated with how teams and players react to advance scouting reports. I love to read up on how players incorporate the reports into their game plan and how managers use the information to inform their decisions. But it’s an aspect of baseball that is difficult to access for an outsider. Generally speaking, we don’t know what scouts are saying about any player. We can look at the data and do a little amateur scouting in order to make a guess, but we don’t know.

What I wondered was if by looking at the data, we could find some examples where it appeared that a scouting report was dead wrong. Since sample size issues make it a necessity, I had to look for players that every team scouted incorrectly. One of the things contained in an advance scouting report is how aggressively an opposing hitter should be attacked, so the first place I went looking was plate discipline data to see if any hitters were pitched more or less aggressively than the data suggests was wise. To my surprise, I found somebody immediately – Carlos Gomez.

Last season, Gomez saw first pitch strikes nearly 69 percent of the time, which was the highest rate among qualified batters. League average was a 60 percent first pitch strike rate. This isn’t a new trend for Gomez – over his career he has seen first pitch strikes a full two-thirds of the time. Interestingly, the hitter with the second highest frequency of first pitch strikes last season was Starling Marte. Readers familiar with Gomez and Marte will know that they have a similar profile at the plate and share many physical tools.

There are two obvious reasons why all pitchers would attack a specific hitter more frequently than average. Hitters like Juan Pierre or Placido Polanco are notoriously difficult to strike out, yet they have very little power. It’s easiest for pitchers to attack those hitters and let the BABIP gods decide the outcome. The other scenario is with hitters who simply never swing at first pitches, like vintage Bobby Abreu. A slightly less obvious third reason is that pitchers may want to get ahead on leadoff hitters or with the bases empty in general.

Yet those three scenarios don’t explain why Gomez is seeing a lot of first pitch strikes. He has more than his share of strikeouts and has exhibited good power since 2011 – more than enough time for scouting reports to adjust to his power breakout. For his career, Gomez has swung at the first pitch over 40 percent of the time, which is rather aggressive. The aggression is more apparent if we limit ourselves to 2013, when he swung 54.1 percent of the time in empty counts. The league average rate for first pitch swings is just 27 percent (h/t Jeff Zimmerman).  The Brewers didn’t use Gomez as a leadoff hitter either, he generally batted between third and sixth in the order last season.

With Marte, the story is slightly different since he actually was a leadoff hitter. Still, his power and strikeout rates were similar to Gomez’s. He swung at first pitches about 22 percent of the time, which was certainly more reserved than Gomez but also wasn’t unusually patient. For example, Abreu offered at just 8.8 percent of first pitches since 2007 (I used BrooksBaseball.net to gather this data and it only goes back to 2007).

Gomez also destroyed first pitches last season with a .402 batting average and .738 slugging percentage (.336 ISO). He was only very slightly worse than that in 2011 and 2012. Usually I would shrug away this sort of data due to sample size, confounding variables, and other statistical noise, but with Gomez I’m inclined to take the data at face value. He seems to really like first pitches. And given his recent increase in first pitch swings, I suspect he’s consciously aware that pitchers are attacking the zone early.

Which brings me to the obvious question – why is this being allowed to happen?

In trying to answer that question, I decided to do some research. I drafted a list of all outfielder seasons that qualified for the batting title since 2007. I included walk rate, strikeout rate, ISO, speed score, and first pitch strike rate. I then filtered for seasons with a walk rate less than eight percent, strikeout rate above 20 percent, and ISO above .160. I then manually removed players with a speed score below 5, which gave me this 14 player list sorted by first pitch strike rate:

Season Name Team BB% K% ISO Spd F-Strike%
2013 Carlos Gomez Brewers 6.30% 24.70% 0.222 8.1 68.60%
2013 Starling Marte Pirates 4.40% 24.40% 0.161 8.7 68.40%
2012 B.J. Upton Rays 7.10% 26.70% 0.208 6.2 65.40%
2011 Peter Bourjos Angels 5.80% 22.50% 0.167 7.4 62.90%
2007 Chris Young Diamondbacks 6.90% 22.60% 0.23 6.3 61.90%
2008 Matt Kemp Dodgers 7.00% 23.30% 0.168 6.6 61.50%
2007 Alfonso Soriano Cubs 5.00% 21.10% 0.261 6.2 61.40%
2010 Carlos Gonzalez Rockies 6.30% 21.20% 0.262 7.2 59.10%
2012 Michael Saunders Mariners 7.80% 23.90% 0.185 6.2 58.40%
2010 Matt Kemp Dodgers 7.90% 25.40% 0.201 5.5 58.40%
2009 Matt Kemp Dodgers 7.80% 20.80% 0.193 7 57.10%
2008 Cody Ross Marlins 6.50% 22.90% 0.228 5.2 56.70%
2013 Will Venable Padres 5.60% 22.90% 0.216 7.3 56.10%
2007 Curtis Granderson Tigers 7.70% 20.90% 0.25 8.5 55.50%

What I had hoped to find was a systemic bias against speedy outfielders with surprising power. Since Gomez and Marte were similar players and saw a lot of empty count strikes, perhaps this happened with other comparable players. Unfortunately, B.J. Upton‘s 2012 season was the only other example on my list and he’s only seen a slightly above average rate of first pitch strikes over his career.

I then repeated the exercise with all hitters, which added Ian Desmond to the list. His 2012 and 2013 seasons featured well above average first pitch strike rates, and his overall profile at the plate is quite similar to Gomez and Marte. I also tried removing the walk rate filter, but that didn’t add any hitters.

So in the end, I found three batters with a similar body type and offensive profile who have seen strikes on 0-0 well above normal rates. Like Gomez, Marte and Desmond are both very good against first pitches (1.209 and .892 OPS respectively). And Desmond shared Gomez’s aggression, he swung at the first pitch over 50 percent of the time last season.

In the end, I could not find enough evidence to definitively state that there is a specific bias against this type of player. It’s an interesting coincidence that three of the players who see the most first pitch strikes are all a little over six feet tall, weigh about 200 pounds, play a challenging defensive position, and show a lot more power and whiff rate than other players of their body type. Other players on the list of those with the most first pitch strikes include Alexei Ramirez, Alcides Escobar, and Gerardo Parra. They have similar body types but lack power. Perhaps scouts are wrongly including Gomez, Marte, and Desmond into this bucket.

Short of a stunning revelation about scouting bias, I am comfortable in recommending that major league pitchers be just a little bit less aggressive against Gomez in empty counts. He’s taking pitchers to the cleaners with a very aggressive approach of his own, which might be something that can be exploited. Pitchers may want to extend that same caution to Marte and Desmond.

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Brad is a former collegiate player who writes for FanGraphs, MLB Trade Rumors, The Hardball Times, RotoWorld, and The Fake Baseball. He's also the lead MLB editor for RotoBaller. Follow him on Twitter @BaseballATeam or email him here.

26 Responses to “Did Somebody Screw Up Carlos Gomez’s Scouting Report?”

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  1. tz says:

    Could this be due to either:

    – Gomez’s height (6’3″, so larger strike zone)
    – Something about the Cards, Reds, and Cubs’ emphasis on 1st pitch strikes?

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    • Brad Johnson says:

      It could have something to do with the division, but I would expect more players to show up on the above average list then…

      6’3” is pretty average for a MLB player, and I have serious doubts that Gomez is actually that tall.

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  2. Mike Green says:

    Gomez generally hits off-speed stuff better than fastballs, but the difference isn’t the same as it was years ago. You can understand the first pitch fastball strike temptation. Marte hits fastballs better than off-speed stuff, so you’d think that pitchers would want to reverse the pattern somewhat more.

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  3. Baltar says:

    Interesting article. Good research.

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  4. Justin says:

    I would be interested to see how pitchers attacked Gomez in July and August. In 186 combined PA, Gomez hit .256 and .197 respectively.

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    • Rallyk says:

      Don’t forget Gomez was injured by a hbp at the end of June by Pat Maholm. Gomez felt the injury derailed his season. That’s what led to the confrontation later in September.

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  5. Bill says:

    I think Gomez is easily 6’3″. I’ve seen him listed 6’4″ in some places and looks every bit of it.

    I do wonder if this problem is due to advance scouts seeing Gomez swing at some really bad pitches and think that if they can just get ahead in the count that they can throw junk for the rest of the at-bat and get him out. It’s also interesting because he’s put up very good numbers with 0-1 counts so I think you’re right that this could just be terrible scouting.

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    • Steven says:

      I was about to say this.

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    • Craig says:

      Agree with this, especially the comment about his height. People seem to have the idea that Gomez is a small speedster, but then you look at him and find out he is fairly big guy. You notice it when he stands next to Braun as Gomez is both noticibly taller and bigger than him and I found that quite shocking. It’s like everyone pictures Gomez to be a similar stature to Nyjer Morgan when in reality he’s more like Bryce Harper in build.

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  6. Paul Clarke says:

    From Brooks Baseball it looks like Gomez’s Zone% on first pitch is 45.1% for 2013 – any idea how that compares to league average?

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  7. reillocity says:

    It looks like the “standards” for MLB batters (including the occasional NL pitcher) in 2013 were:

    PA ends on 1st Pitch: .336 AVG, .341 OBP, .540 SLG, 0.882 OPS
    PA ends Thereafter__: .243 AVG, .315 OBP, .378 SLG, 0.692 OPS

    So Desmond would actually be classified as fairly average with a 0.892 OPS on the first pitch (his .387 OBP on the 1st offering was quite good, though). All in all it would be semi-interesting to look at individual hitters under the microscope in terms of how frequently they saw only one pitch and what the relative benefit was to their slash line versus when they saw more pitches.

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  8. Robert J. Baumann says:

    What are his splits between swinging/looking strikes on 0-0 counts? Is part of the reason he has such a high FStrike% because he swings more than average in 0-0 counts? Considering that is O-Swing% in all counts is above league average by a significant margin, we would guess that would be the case in 0-0 counts, too.

    Doing a little digging at Brooks Baseball and at Texas Leaguers, I found these tidbits:

    On all counts, is 2013 O-Swing% was 37.8% (league average 31.0%), and on 0-0 counts it was slightly lower at 34.3%.

    I did find that, on 0-0 counts, his Strikes Swinging (fouls + whiffs) and Strikes Looking raw totals are evenly split, 164 and 165 respectively for 2013.

    Not at all sure how that would compare to the league, or whether it explains it, but Gomez does have a habit of turning balls into strikes at a rate higher than the average average player…

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    • Steve says:

      Right… the obvious answer seems to just be he swings at a lot of first pitches, whether they be in the zone or not. The ones he doesn’t hit are 1st pitch strikes.

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      • David Bruno says:

        Does FStrike% include batted balls (all batted balls count as strikes in the score book). If he’s swinging at a lot of first pitches, all swinging strikes, foul balls, AND balls in play will count at first pitch strikes.

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    • Brad Johnson says:

      Gomez’s high swing rate does contribute to his high first pitch strike rate, but as you mentioned he didn’t swing at a preposterous amount of pitches out of the zone. I probably should have mentioned this as a limitation.

      I also didn’t think it affected what should go into the scouting report. Joey Votto sees the fewest first pitch strikes despite a league average swing rate in 0-0 counts. Gomez isn’t Votto, but it is possible to ratchet down the number of pitches in the zone. Pitchers should be throwing borderline fastballs early and often against him.

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  9. dls says:

    Would be curious to see this applied to Domonic Brown’s run of early season excellence last season. I know its gonna be a SSS problem, but I was amazed at how long pitchers seemed willing to challenge him, when it was clearly time to start feeding him off-speed/outside pitches.

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  10. AK7007 says:

    This is awesome. We hear all the time that there’s no substitute for scouting, and that stats can’t tell you everything. But this really illustrates that scouting needs to be backed up by numbers as well, or mistakes can be made for specific players. What would be nice is to look at the numbers binned after each time he was scouted as the season went on, because this is done retrospectively, after Gomez succeeded in beating his scouting report. We don’t have that info, but it would be really interesting to see how teams evaluate their scouts. Odds are they do something like this article.

    Thanks for the interesting look at how teams are thinking!

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  11. icbeast says:

    Maybe it’s because he’s good for one “swing out of his shoes” first pitch fastball swing per game. Maybe he does it on purpose to keep the first pitch strikes flowing.

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    • Eric F says:

      I wondered this as well, maybe something similar to what Greg Maddux would do where he would purposely throw hittable pitches in low-leverage at bats just to see how the hitter reacted so he could build his own scouting report for the future. Amazing to think how some guys can do things like this.

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  12. Given pitcher success being ahead in the count versus behind, it isnt really sirprising that pitchers try to get ahead of any hitter.

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  13. Dr. Doom says:

    Sssssshhhhh! Opposing pitchers, this is all new-fangled numbers and lies! You just keep throwing those first-pitch strikes to Gomez. It’s working GREAT.

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  14. JMo37 says:

    Great Article

    2013 GoGO
    BB% 6.3
    K% 24.7
    BABIP .344

    He was not going to take a walk and was very good when he hit the ball in play. The only strategy I see in throwing a first pitch strike was to try and get him out on contact 65% or strike him out 75&

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  15. JimmyD says:

    Interesting how Soriano is the only one on the list who hasn’t played CF.

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