Milwaukee Brewers v Los Angeles Dodgers

Many years ago, probably when Carlos Beltran was having one of his great seasons with the Mets, I remember reading a piece about how the Mets had a couple of toolsy outfielders New York in their system who would eventually take over and be awesome: Fernando Martinez and Carlos Gomez. Fast-forward a few years – Martinez is battling for playing time against the likes of Brandon Barnes and J.D. Martinez after being selected off of waiver by Astros in January of 2012.

Meanwhile, Gomez went to the Twins as part of the Mets’ trade for Johan Santana prior to the 2008 season and, after a couple of hacktastic seasons, was traded again to the Brewers after the 2009 season. Gomez posted a couple okay-ish seasons in Milwaukee, though he ended up in a platoon with Nyjer Morgan, of all people. In 2012, Gomez started to put something together, at least in terms of power. That was apparently good enough for the Brewers to give him a three-year extension for $24 million, which bought out his remaining arbitration years this spring, as Drew discussed at the time.

Gomez is off to an even hotter start this season, smacking the ball around for both average and power (.386/.431/.675, .470 wOBA) in his first 123 plate appearances of the season despite retaining his hacktastic ways. There does seem to have been a change for Gomez that lead to his power spike, at least mentally, as Buster Olney reports in an ESPN Insider post. There is no reason to doubt Gomez’ subjective impressions of what led to the change.

Olney’s paragraphs on Gomez basically focus on how, prior to 2011, he had mainly been trying to slap the ball, get it on the ground and let his speed do the rest. It seems that is what his former teams wanted him to do. However, in winter ball, he was trying to drive the ball into the air and was more comfortable doing that. When he came back from injury in 2011, he told the Brewers’ manager, Ron Roenicke, that he wanted to try something else, Roenicke agreed, and Gomez’ 2012 and (so far) 2013 have shown that it was a good choice.

Gomez had never even had a .300 wOBA over a full season prior to 2012, when it shot up to .320. That was mostly because of a power spike: his ISO was never higher than .110 prior to 2011, when it crept up to .177. Last year Gomez’ ISO went up to .202 and he hit double-digit homers for the first time in his career (19), and that was not just a matter of greatly increased playing time, as his home runs on contacted balls went up, too. This season, Gomez is hitting for even more power (.289) with a greater homer per contact rate, with the added bonus of a sky-high BABIP so far (.447 after spending the two previous seasons below .300). That average on balls in play obviously won’t last, but it is a good sign.

So what has Gomez changed? It depends on what you mean. In the literal sense, he is hitting for more power, obviously. But let’s look at his subjective reports. From Gomez’ perspective as reported by Olney, three things have changed. He has two drills is practices. One focuses on pulling the ball in batting practice rather than going opposite field, as most hitters do. The other involves just watching pitches without swinging to identify them. In games, he focuses on hitting the ball straight away center. How is this translating to a “changed approach” in reality?

Beginning with the drill for pulling the ball, is Gomez pulling the ball more? Looking at his pull/middle/opposite field splits since his first full-time stint in 2008, the answer seems to be “not really.” at least not in balls in play. He did have a low pull percentage in 2010 at 36 percent, but in 2008 and 2009 it was 43 and 42 percent, in 2011 it was 46 percent, in 2012 it was 44 percent. It looks more like a bit of a problem in 2010 that got fixed or was a small-sample blip (just 258 PA in an injury-shortened season).

As for the second drill, is Gomez seeing the ball better? Objectively, it really does not seem to be, at least not as manifested in his performance in those aspects of hitting we associate with “seeing the ball.” His walk rate is as miserable as ever, right under five percent as of this writing, and it was worse in 2012. His walk rate had actually been higher the previous three seasons. He is striking out a bit less so far this year at just under 19 percent, but that is not good for a hacker, and in 2012 post “approach improvement,” he was striking out almost 22 percent of the time. In terms of raw plate discipline, he is not more patient than he used to be, actually swinging more often in 2012 and 2013 than he did in the previous two seasons, including at more balls outside of the zone. His contact rate is about the same, too.

As for trying to hit the ball to straight center, he actually hit ball in play to center most frequently back in 2010, at about 40 percent. That down to 27 percent in 2011, and although it has come back up in 2012 and 2013, it is not at the rate of his 2010, pre-adjustment.

Does this mean that Gomez is fooling himself, and that this is simple improvement (due to aging into his prime [Gomez turned 27 in December] or some other factor) having nothing to do with the drills and practices? I have no idea, but I would say “no.” Yes, objectively, the immediate outcomes we might expect from those drills and his hitting approach have not occurred. But what helps a player on a personal, subjective level may not manifest itself, at least immediately, in the way one might expect.

I do not claim to know exactly how each of these changes, either individually or collectively, have helped Gomez improve, or even if they have. But let me make some suggestions with in order to highlight how the subjective or personal impact Gomez’s change might work for him, but in the way we expect. For example, the “pull drill” does not seem to have resulted in many more pulled balls in play. Note that the percentages I referred to only involves those balls that Gomez actually put into play. There may have been many swings in which Gomez was trying to pull the ball but did not succeed into getting them into play.

The drill may simply have the effect of getting Gomez to jump on balls more quickly and harder. Pulling the ball is good, like most hitters, Gomez is much better when he pulls the ball. But although actually pulling balls into play more frequently has not happened, not really, but the effect of the drill may have been to simply get Gomez to smack the ball harder. There is obvious evidence this is happening. Gomez is hitting for extra bases more frequently, as exhibited in his higher isolated power. Moreover, there is physical evidence. According to ESPN Home Run Tracker, prior to 2012, Gomez’ home runs averaged about 100 miles per hour off of the bat. Starting in 2012, the first full year after the change, they have averaged about 105 miles per hour off of the bat. That is pretty direct evidence that at least some of Gomez’ hits are being hit harder.

I am not saying there is a direct connection between that particular drill and the home run power, simply that it is plausible, and that while the stated, immediate goal of the drill may not connect with general “hit location”, it may have another beneficial outcome in practice. One can imagine the same sort of thing happening with the other two exercises mentioned. Gomez’ pitch recognition exercise may not have directly improved his judgment of balls and strikes, but it may be enabling him to identify those pitches he can smoke a bit earlier. One can imagine even less direct connections — the “hitting to center field” thing may just be a way of focusing on hitting the ball hard in general, or may be a way of getting him from “focusing” on hitting to a particular field at all.

Carlos Gomez has some pretty obvious flaws. He is overly aggressive. He is a hacker who does not have good contact skills, and he can’t take a walk to save his life. The pop-ups are down so far this year, but he did not turn himself into Joey Votto overnight, so they will return. No one is a true-talent .447 BABIP hitter, least of all a fly ball guy like Gomez. Gomez is going to regress, probably to something like a league-average hitter. That is pretty good for a guy who almost never walks and whiffs a lot, especially when combined with good center field defense and base running.

What is particularly interesting for me, and something I hope to write about in more general terms in the future, is the disconnect between what relatively objective evidence tells us and Gomez subjective, first-person perspective on what he is trying to do. Although the connection is not missing, it is also not clearly immediate. This (apparent) disconnect is related to, although not identical to, the “inside” or “scouting” perspective on what happens in baseball and the objective analysts’ perspective. However Gomez has improved himself, it seems to be working. These days, pretty much everyone understands that both perspectives are necessary, even if we do not understand how they related. Working out that relation in more details is an exciting frontier for baseball analysis.