Carlos Gomez looks like a different man these days. Gone is the platoon label. Gone is the no-power speedster label. Gone is the defensive replacement label. At least right now, he seems like a new player.
And yet, this new incarnation as the powerful starting center fielder for the Brewers had its roots in the hitter’s history. The organic nature of this surge might make it sustainable, even when measured against the previous 1700+ plate appearances that weren’t nearly as enticing. Unfortunately, Milwaukee only controls their centerfielder for another year, and it took some time for the 26-year-old to morph into his current state. If the Brewers believe, perhaps they should look into locking up him long-term at a reduced price.
Scan his .253/.307/.464 line so far this year, and one number jumps out as an anomaly — that slugging percentage. His .211 isolated slugging percentage so far this year represents the biggest improvement over career pace in his statistical oeuvre — his career ISO is .127. He hadn’t shown a major-league average number in that category in the 1200+ plate appearances before last season. Now he’s a beast suddenly.
But this power surge has been a long time coming. Watch his ISOs consecutively: .072, .102, .108, .110, .177, .211. That might tell the gradual story of a player entering his physical prime and developing power slowly, if you ignore how large the jump from 2010 to 2011 was. Instead, watch his ground-ball-to-fly-ball ratios, consecutively: 1.18, 1.12, 1.28, 1.36, 1.01, 0.81. The general sense was that Gomez should take advantage of his blazing speed and hit the ball on the ground more, but once he shed that mantle, his power numbers took off. It’s not just age. It’s not just fly balls. It may be impossible to separate out the two influences on his power, but they are working in concert here.
The ‘other’ knock on Gomez was that his plate discipline left a lot to be desired. He didn’t walk any, and he struck out too much for a guy with no power.
Well, he’s still not walking at even a league-average rate. He probably never will. But after Monday night’s game, he’s gotten his strikeout rate under 20% for the first time since his debut season with the Mets. And yet his contact rates remain unchanged. He has a 12% swinging strike rate this year, his career average is 11.7%.
Once again, Gomez might have achieved this improvement by embracing who he was instead of trying to change. Players with his kind of walk rate (5.2% career) and speed have it drummed into them: get on base, take advantage of your wheels. Show patience. Be discerning. (Look for a pitch you can slap on the ground and burn your way to first.)
But seeing more pitches isn’t always the best idea. Josh Hamilton and Vladimir Guerrero have had low strikeout rates paired with high swinging strike rates before, and the trend among such players seems to be an aggressiveness. It makes sense from a game theory standpoint: If you aren’t excellent at discerning balls and strikes, waiting on pitches might just mean more strikes.
Here, now, are the centerfielder’s pitches per plate appearance numbers, consecutively: 3.37, 3.44, 3.55, 3.57, 3.48, 3.40. According to ESPN, the lowest number of pitches per plate appearance among qualified batters this season belongs to Erick Aybar (3.32). The most patient, Adam Dunn, has seen a full pitch more per PA so far (4.44). So Gomez hasn’t ever ranked as a patient hitter in this metric, either. But his two lowest strikeout rates have come in the seasons in which he was the most aggressive. And both of those years, that aggressiveness lead to swinging at more pitches inside the zone (83.3% and 73.9% in 2009 and 2012, 66.4% career).
There’s obviously some risk in signing Gomez to a long-term contract and expecting him to continue hitting for this kind of power. After all, the most power he showed in the minor leagues was his .142 ISO at Binghamton in Double-A, back when he was 20. If you’re the Brewers or a fantasy owner, you’ll want to make sure the price reflects that risk.
But there’s also evidence that this breakout has been a long time coming, and that there’s a chance Gomez could pair a better-than-league-average bat with his prodigious wheels and excellent defense. And that’s probably because, at some point, Carlos Gomez stopped trying to be someone he wasn’t, and instead started to focus on the skills he did have: aggressiveness, power, defense and speed. In that sense, Gomez has both changed and remained the same.