On April 3, 2013, Evan Gattis played in his first MLB game. He hit a homerun. On April 5, he played in his second MLB game. He went 3 for 4. The baseball world took notice, and over the first half of that first season he posted a .246/.310/.563 line, good for a .368 wOBA and a 136 wRC+. Braves fans were jubilant, and rightfully so. We knew it was unlikely that McCann would be returning for 2014, and being able to match his level of production was going to be difficult. Now, it was looking like we had a guy who not only could match McCann at the plate, but could do it at a fraction of the cost. Gattis’ popularity exploded, and El Oso Blanco was born.
But then, something changed. Pitchers got the scouting report on Gattis, learning that he was willing to chase bad pitches, specifically ones that were thrown down and away. These pitchers adjusted, and for the second half of the 2013 season he hit .241/.272/.406 with only 7 homeruns and a dwindling 3.6% walk rate. His wRC+ had dropped to 84, despite his BABIP going from .235 in the first half to .271 in the second half. Our beloved new catcher had a glaring hole in his game, which caused many people- myself included- to doubt how well he’d do in 2014. Were we going to see more of first half Gattis, punishing every pitch he could get a barrel on? Or the second half Gattis, swinging and missing at nearly every trash pitch thrown his way?
This brings us to now, when Evan Gattis is currently enjoying a .296/.350/.582 batting line, good for a .399 wOBA. Before the start of the season, ZiPS projected him post a .333 wOBA. As of June 18, that projection has been increased to .352 for the rest of the season. What happened? How did a guy whose overall offensive package was being so widely questioned become one of the 3 best hitters on the Braves? Simple: pitchers adjusted, so Gattis adjusted back.
This year, Fangraphs finally added heat maps to their player pages. This tab has now become one of my favorite places to dig into the more granular changes in a guy’s process or production at the plate. Let’s take a look at what it seems to say about our main man, Gattis.
First, we’ll take a look at his Pitch% by zone in 2013 and 2014. This will give us an idea of where guys are throwing to him. Note that red corresponds to a high concentration of pitches being thrown to that zone, while blue corresponds to a low concentration.
Starting this season, guys are focusing a lot more on that down and away corner. This reinforces our previous statement that as guys figured Gattis out, they adjusted their approach. But if this year pitchers have changed their approach in order to exploit his weakness, how is he performing so well? To determine that, we’ll take a look at how Gattis’ own approach has changed.
The following heat maps are of Gattis’ Swing% by zone, first in 2013 and then in 2014. Again, red represents a high concentration of swings, while blue represents a low concentration.
Gattis picked up on the adjustments made for him, and adjusted his own approach in response. Overall, his Swing% on pitches outside of the zone went from 45% to 40%. Getting more specific, his swing rate in that down and away zone went from 66% to 59%. He’s also greatly reduced his swing rate on pitches up and away, and increased his swing rate on pitches down and in. The guy we were beginning to think was going to be a completely undisciplined hacker, has begun being more selective, and it’s paying dividends. As a final visual, because I love heat maps, let’s take a look at his production by zone for 2013 and 2014.
To look at production, we are using Runs Above Average by zone. Runs Above Average is just a simple way of measuring overall offensive value with one number. As done previously, 2013 will be shown first, followed by 2014. In these heat maps, red represents positive value, and blue represents negative value.
Those clumps of blue representing negative value in the down and away zone are now red. By being more selective in this zone, he’s been able to turn what was once a weakness into a strength. He’s no longer up there hacking at anything thrown down there, he’s waiting on one in that area he can drive and capitalizing on it. Remember from above how he was also swinging much more on pitches down and in? Here we see that area has always been a major strength for him. By swinging more on pitches in that area, he’s able to continue to generate more positive value at the plate.
One of the most important skills a major league hitter needs is the ability to adapt, and in just one year Gattis has shown the ability to do just that. He has altered his approach to maximize his strengths while minimizing his weaknesses, and it’s been paying dividends. He knew he was struggling down and away, so he started laying off those pitches. He knows he destroys down and in, so he’s been capitalizing on pitches placed there. Of course, pitchers will continue to adapt their approach to him, but at least we see he has the ability to adjust back. It’s still mid-June, but he’s already accumulated 20% more WAR than ZiPS-preseason projected him to produce over the entire season and is hitting better than any catcher not named Jonathan Lucroy. Let us all sit back, grab a beer, and continue to enjoy a season full of these:
[mlbvideo id=”33679793?topic_id=6479266″ width=”400″ height=”224″ /]