Ben Gamel and One More Adjustment

marc w · June 22, 2017 at 3:30 pm · Filed Under Mariners 

Ben Gamel extended his hitting streak to 13 last night in the M’s incredible comeback win, and Gamel’s hot streak has propelled the M’s back to .500. By park adjusted runs created (an all-in-one batting stat), Gamel ranks 21st in MLB thus far, somewhere north of 40% better than average. Focusing just on batting (and not position and defense), he’s been better than Jose Altuve, Carlos Correa, Nelson Cruz, Eric Thames and Corey Seager. To say this came out of nowhere is something of an understatement: his combination of essentially zero power and above average strikeouts seemed like the worst possible combination, and his approach didn’t seem conducive to productivity. He was a corner OF who hit a ton of ground balls and looked like he’d K from 20-26% of the time. The Ben Gamel we’ve seen this year has some surface similarities – he’s still a bit underpowered for a corner OF, and his K% is right at 25% – but is now spraying line drives everywhere.

His increase in average launch angle is a big part of the reason he’s been one of the most productive hitters in the game, and it’s driven a line drive rate that’s 3rd best in the game. Those things alone are not going to keep his BABIP sitting at a cool .471: nothing will. But that’s not really under Gamel’s control right now; regression may come, but Gamel’s approach can keep the mean his BABIP regresses towards a bit north of the league average. But I’m not here to talk about BABIP. If he wants to avoid Taylor Motter’s fate as a guy who has an incredible hot streak and then falls back to the pack (and, in Motter’s case, behind it), there’s one more adjustment he needs to make.

Right now, Ben Gamel’s been one of game’s best hitters on fastballs. Pitch type linear weights (run values) aren’t ideal, but they can give you an idea of what pitches a batter’s hitting well and what types they’re struggling with. At the moment, Gamel’s racked up 16.7 runs above average on fastballs this year, ranking 6th in the league. That puts him slightly ahead of Miguel Sano, Aaron Judge and Justin Smoak (?), and just behind Joey Votto, Paul Goldschmidt and Bryce Harper. Remember, this is a counting stat, and Gamel’s had fewer PAs than any of those guys. He’s feasting on fastballs of all types, and while he’s not hitting a ton of extra base hits (though he’s hitting some), he’s not missing them, and he’s not swinging at balls. That’s a great combination.

Statcast’s view of the situation is similar. Focusing only on balls in play, Gamel’s wOBA on fastballs ranks 7th out of *417* hitters who’ve hit at least 25 fastballs. Isn’t this just confirming what we already knew, though? His BABIP’s at .471, so looking at Statcast wOBA is basically just sciencing up that BABIP. By *expected* wOBA, Gamel doesn’t look quite so extraordinary, and even drops out of the top decile. But a .418 xwOBA on fastballs ranks ahead of Mike Trout and Nelson Cruz, two guys who’ve done some damage on fastballs in recent years. Unlike Motter, there’s no one certain zone where Gamel does his damage, and that’s because he’s using the whole field. Motter sells out to pull inside fastballs, but Gamel goes with the pitch and hits line drives up the middle or wherever he can.

However, pitchers have been known to get a little tricky and throw things *other* than fastballs. When they’ve done so, Gamel’s…Gamel doesn’t like it when they do that. His xwOBA on something other than a fastball ranks 440th out of 506 batters. Instead of beating out Mike Trout or Nellie Cruz, he ranks just ahead of Robbie Ray, Matt Harvey and Ty Blach. Those are pitchers. If we go with actual, not estimated, production and let his good luck work for him, he pulls ahead of the pitchers, but still has a wOBA safely under .200. If we go back to pitch type run values, we see his production on sliders is like the inverse of his fastball production: he ranks 6th *worst* in baseball on sliders, and the same asterisk still applies: he ranks 6th worst in a counting stat despite racking up far fewer plate appearances than many players who began the year in the majors.

Have pitchers noticed? Eh, not really…not yet, anyway. He’s seen about 58% fastballs, which ranks him in the top quarter or so of all batters who’ve had 200 plate appearances. Many of the other guys who kill FBs see far, far less. Miguel Sano is last at just over 40%, and the new and improved Yonder Alonso’s near by. Alonso’s an interesting case, as he’s seen his FB% drop nearly 10 percentage points this year, after demonstrating that he was now capable of crushing them. Pitchers can drop their FB usage to average and that’d still make quite a dent in Gamel’s production…unless he makes an adjustment. Alonso – and Gamel himself – made an adjustment that allowed them to do much more damage on fastballs. Now, Gamel needs to do something similar on bendy stuff.

It’s not impossible, and it’s not unprecedented. Aaron Judge was lost on curveballs last year, and now has one of the highest wOBAs on non-fastballs in the league. Freddie Freeman’s much better now against sliders. It happens. But it’s a bit tougher considering Gamel isn’t a power hitter. Freeman/Judge hit fly balls over the fence, and Gamel’s problem on bendy stuff has been that he hits fly balls *short* of the fence. He can’t raise his launch angle on these pitches – it’s already far higher than it is against fastballs, and indeed, that’s precisely the problem. Gamel hits a lot of fly balls to left and center on breaking balls, and he simply doesn’t hit them hard enough to do damage. Nearly all of these balls in play looks like an easy out, which is why his xwOBA is so bad. He doesn’t need a .400 wOBA on breaking balls; he just needs to fight them to a draw.

And that’s why he should look to another guy who’s already set his scouting report on fire this year, ex-Mariner Chris Taylor. Taylor’s the only other guy on a list of the best hitters in the league by wOBA/wRC+ or what have you who kind of sort of looks like Gamel. Taylor’s ISO’s a little higher at .214 (and yes, I laugh ruefully every time I write Taylor’s stats), but they have similar K rates without the insane ISOs of Judge, Sano, Freeman, etc. The guys with similar ISOs (Buster Posey, Daniel Murphy, Justin Turner), generally strike out a lot less. Anyway, Taylor’s wOBA on bendy stuff is a perfectly decent .325, and while he hasn’t been as good on fastballs, he’s not *that* far behind Gamel. More importantly, Taylor’s xwOBA on fastballs hasn’t really changed; it was .350+ in 2015+16, and it’s .350+ now. The difference is that he raised his xwOBA on non-fastballs by nearly 100 points. That’s come with a few more Ks, and now Chris Taylor’s a high-K, decently powered CF and baseball is strange and beautiful, so it’s possible further adjustments may see Gamel’s K rate rise. But that’s not a hard and fast rule; indeed, improving his (already good) plate discipline – like Taylor did – may help him lay off low breaking balls. But at the very least, I’m glad to see that hitters can make these adjustments and make them quickly.

None of this is to pour cold water on Ben Gamel’s incredible run, or to say he’s just been lucky. A line drive rate near 30% is amazing, and he’s clearly stinging the ball. I just hope the M’s are working on setting the foundation for him to improve. His BABIP will regress, we know that. Now let’s see if he can make another big set of adjustments and become an above-average hitter for years to come.


4 Responses to “Ben Gamel and One More Adjustment”

  1. williebfan on June 22nd, 2017 3:52 pm

    Good post. Just goes to show that no one really knows much of anything but that it’s good to talk about it.

  2. Sowulo on June 22nd, 2017 7:51 pm

    And just as I am reading this, Gamel starts off with a gapper that one-hops the wall to drive in the first two runs of the game.

  3. marc w on June 22nd, 2017 10:52 pm

    Off of a fastball, right, Sowulo?

  4. Sowulo on June 23rd, 2017 2:11 am

    Yup. Amazing that other clubs don’t try to bury him with breaking balls until he proves he can hit those too.

Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.