Minnesota Twins v Atlanta Braves

Evan Gattis is more than just a baseball player. Right now, he is a terrific story of redemption and perseverance masquerading as a baseball player, an enormous man nicknamed El Oso Blanco – the White Bear – during a winter league stint in Venezuela.

The hulking frame, the cool nickname, everything down to the lack of batting gloves and wristbands, Evan Gattis is a hacky screenwriters dream, even more-so now that he is playing baseball at an uncommonly high level.

If Evan Gattis continues playing baseball as he’s played for the first two plus months of his big league career, he’ll no longer be a story first and a baseball player second. But for now, he is the subject of feature-length profiles everywhere he goes. His rich backstory is prime for the profiling (here are two such profiles, by Erika Gilbert of the National Post and Emma Span for Sports On Earth) but his numbers are beginning to eclipse the story of the troubled/wandering soul who made his way back to baseball after years away from the game.

The numbers are really something. Gattis’ 13 home runs lead all catchers, even though Gattis’ 166 plate appearances don’t qualify him for the batting title. He leads the Braves in Wins Above Replacement and wOBA, and he’s one of only eight players with a slugging percentage above .600 this year. His isolated power is best in the National League, behind only Chris Davis of the Baltimore Orioles for the league lead.

All this from a guy with just 200 plate appearances above A ball coming into this year.

A power hitter of such renown that the Braves will do whatever it takes to get him in the lineup, using him as their DH in American League ballparks and experimenting with an Oso in the outfield.

Talking to Evan, it becomes clear he is not a softball player getting by on brute strength. We talked about looking for positives, making adjustments, and doing homework. It’s the Evan Gattis edition of My Approach.

Getting Blanked – A few of your teammates are watching teammates with the hitting coach right now, what kind of video work to you like to do between games?

Evan Gattis – I like to watch whoever I’m facing, I’ll get the video guy to load up all the hits he’s given up. I don’t want to see pitchers do good. So I like to watch what they try to do to people and watch them give up hits.

GB – Do you look for pitch choices.

EG – Whatever I can find. Pitch percentages, how often they use certain stuff to help me paint a better picture of what he’s trying do. Really, just trying to understand the other guy.

GB – How does that translate when you’re at the plate? Does it help eliminate pitch options depending on the situation?

EG – I don’t use to guess more or anything. If you have a guy who really likes to pound people in and then throw sliders away — a sinker/slider guy — I’ll hunt the sinker and I should be able to see the slider. In BP and in flips (underhand tosses from close proximity at an extreme angle, generally performed by the hitting coach), I try to cover the down and in areas where he’s going to try and go with the sinker to get ground balls. I keep it in the back of mind when I doing everything else, just to help know the guy I’m facing.

The day after I spoke with Gattis in Toronto, he hit a tremendous home run off Blue Jays starter Ramon Ortiz. When I asked him about how he approached this at bat, this is what he said:

“I know he throws like 45% sliders, so after the first at bat I tried to take that away from him. I slid up in the box, kind of dared him to throw it to me. He busted me inside with a fastball for a ball, then tried again for a strike. He tried to go away with that slider and then we got’em.

The first time Gattis faced Ortiz, in the third inning of the Jays/Braves game on May 28th, Ortiz threw three sliders out of four pitches – he doubled up to start the at bat with two sliders away (Gattis was way ahead of the second offering, fouling it off on the pull side), then came back inside with a sinker off the plate. Finally, Ortiz got the Braves big catcher to roll over for a double play ground out with a (very bad) slider up in the zone.

The next time up, Gattis made the adjustment he mentioned. It is a little bit hard to tell from the angle of these screen shots, but if you look closely at his front (left) foot, you can see he moved up in the batters box.

gattis moves 2

Gattis misremembered the pitch sequence in his second at bat against Ortiz, though the rookie got the main detail right – #gattitude “got’em”. Ortiz tried the slider for a first pitch strike and Gattis fouled it off the end of the bat, weirdly, towards first base. Ortiz tried again with a slider but missed badly up and away. Ortiz then repeated his pattern from the previous at bat, throwing his sinking fastball inside, only to miss and place Evan Gattis in the driver’s seat 2-1. The Blue Jays longman came with the sinker again but caught too much plate, sending that poor baseball on a long, loud journey.

Ramon Ortiz isn’t exactly a premium arm so Gattis knows he can slide up in the box without getting beat by an otherwise hittable fastball. The White Bear’s lightning quick bat gets around the 40-year old Ortiz’s middling fastball and his prep work pays off in a big spot for the Braves.

GB – Is there such at thing as too much information?

EG – All the information helps, it’s just what you do with it. I wouldn’t blame information for doing poorly, I just think the more information you can get the better.

GB – So you never guess?

EG – I try to hit off the fastball. Anything else, just try to react.

GB – In addition to advanced scouting, do you use video to assess swing problems or other issues at the plate? Do you look at tape if it isn’t feeling quite right?

EG – Every once in a while I’ll look at it and I can usually tell where I went wrong. I try to look at my good swings rather than bad swings. Rather than look for something wrong I like to look for what I did right.

GB – Is there a certain swing or position you try to revert back to if things don’t feel as they should?

EG – Not really. I mean, it’s always something different. It’s a process, nothing is ever set in stone. Sometimes it’s getting your foot down sometimes it’s staying inside the ball and not trying to pull so much or whatever it is. There are all these things that always happen and you look back over your last few games to see what you’ve done well or what you’ve done bad. It’s always something different

When it comes to big league hitters, there is staying inside the balls and then there is staying inside the ball. For some, staying inside means going with pitches the other way, taking a base hit to the opposite field as the opportunity presents itself and making sure to physically strike the “inside” half of the baseball with the bat. For El Oso Blanco, staying inside the baseball is different, because not everyone earns the nickname “The White Bear.”

This grand slam, which Gattis hit off (since demoted) Minnesota Twins starter Vance Worley, takes “staying inside the ball” well beyond its logical conclusion.

Seriously, watch the reaction of BJ Upton, Gattis’ teammate, as he struggles to comprehend the display of strength he just witnessed with his very own eyes. I think his body language speaks for us all when it suggest a thought process of “DID NOBODY ELSE SEE – HOW DID HE – I JUST DON’T – C’MON MAN”

GB – So it does mostly come back to feel…

EG – If it isn’t something mental. If it is not being aggressive enough – if you’re letting pitches go by and then getting struck out on good pitches, you’re probably out because you took a pitch off earlier in the at bat.

Who do you think has the best approach in baseball?

EGMiguel Cabrera. On our team, Chris Johnson does a really good job. He’s a really good hitter, he’s good a really good swing and knows himself really well. He takes his knocks.

The return of the champ! Miguel Cabrera is back where he belongs – the heart of every big league hitter around.

MY APPROACH WITH Jose Bautista, Pablo Sandoval, Dustin Pedroia, Tyler Flowers, and Tim Lincecum.