If you had been told during the preseason that a lad named Evan Gattis would outearn his teammate Brian McCann and tie for third in home runs among catchers, you would have laughed out loud. Who the heck is Evan Gattis? I’m a Braves fan and even I had limited knowledge of Gattis’ existence (though I admit I’m not much of a prospect follower). Gattis finished 14th among catchers in fantasy value this year, despite recording just 354 at-bats. It might even be an understatement to claim that Gattis rose from obscurity.
Evan Gattis was a revelation for the Braves. So much so that the Braves even had an El Oso Blanco night in mid-September, offering a ticket package that included a t-shirt and foam bear claw(!). It’s not often that a rookie enters Major League Baseball with a nickname already attached, but that’s exactly what Gattis brought with him, as he was called El Oso Blanco (The White Bear) last offseason while playing in the Venezuelan Winter League.
Gattis’ journey has been well-documented, boosted by his Twitter avatar that features his janitorial ID card. After quitting baseball back in 2006, he worked as a janitor, cook, ski lift operator and a housekeeper at a hostel. In 2010, he joined the baseball team at the University of Texas of the Permian Basin and was drafted by the Braves in the 23rd round later that year. He then went on to pretty much tear up the minor leagues, showing gargantuan power and a pretty good strikeout rate.
When he made the Braves roster out of spring training this year, no one could have imagined he would perform as he did. He posted a .237 ISO, easily ranking best among all catchers with at least 300 plate appearances. Due to a low batting average and walk rate, his wOBA was a less impressive .329, but that was still well above average for a catcher. Injuries and ineffectiveness that hampered B.J. Upton, along with an injury to Jason Heyward, pushed Gattis to left field for 48 games, even though he was positively terrible out there. But the Braves wanted to do anything possible to get his bat into the lineup.
As with most players, there are some real red flags when looking toward 2014, but they come with some positive signs as well. Brian McCann is a free agent and there is no guarantee that the Braves resign him, but they still could. If that were the case, Gattis would once again be a back-up, and given his horrid defense in left field, it would likely take an injury to McCann to ensure Gattis receives nearly 400 plate appearances again.
Next, Gattis’ plate approach is rather poor. With a 21/81 BB/K ratio, he was impatient and struck out too often given his walk rate. His minor league strikeout rates were much better, providing some optimism, but his 12% SwStk% was well above the league average. He’ll have to cut down on his swings and misses to have any chance of improving his strikeout rate. Aside from an inability to make consistent contact, Gattis apparently enjoys going fishing. By that, I mean that he loves to swing at pitches outside the strike zone. His 42.1% O-Swing% would have ranked seventh highest in baseball if he qualified. That is going to lead to pitchers rarely throwing him a strike, hurting his chances of taking a walk and limiting his ability to drive the ball and hit for power.
Line drive rates in small samples aren’t particularly meaningful, but while I’m questioning Gattis’ plate approach, it’s worth noting that his 14.5% LD% and 44.6% FB% are additional pieces of evidence that his approach doesn’t appear to be one that leads to long term success. Of course, we have to remember that this is a 27-year-old who recently got back into baseball after many years off. So just like any older player in the minors, we need to heavily adjust his minor league numbers when projecting his future MLB potential. It’s possible that this is who Gattis is and although he has power, that’s really all he brings to the plate.
I did promise some good news and that comes from two areas. First, the power is for real. His batted ball distance ranked 43rd in baseball at 293 feet, which is very good and matches up with a 17% HR/FB ratio. Furthermore, his BABIP was just .255. His xBABIP was actually just .264, but as mentioned above, his batted ball mix was rather poor. This may certainly be his true talent level with a repeat on the way, but it also seemingly can’t get much worse. Hence, there’s a lot more upside here than downside. That means that he’s not a lock to be a batting average killer.
There are many question marks surrounding Evan Gattis heading into next season. Given his journey to the bigs and with his playing time up in the air and issues concerning his approach at the plate, he’s a difficult man to project at the moment. His possible outcomes are likely all over the map, meaning that he could turn into a top five catcher or be a complete bust. Nothing would surprise me.
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