If Evan Gattis' 2015 is at all memorable for anything, it's his triples -- 11 of them, which is a curious output for a lumbering 260-pound designated hitter and near a record for a player who didn't steal a single base. But there is another curiosity in Gattis' stat line, a quieter accomplishment and a less appealing one.
Per FanGraphs's version of wins above replacement, Gattis was 2015's only everyday position player who was exactly replacement level.
A statement like that offers far more on a symbolic level than it does literally. A player with an fWAR of -0.1 or 0.1 was not, in any meaningful way, more or less "replacement level" than Gattis and his fWAR of 0.0 -- WAR metrics have relatively large error bars. But this is the time of year when we cling to baseball's symbols perhaps the most–we revere the reporting of pitchers and catchers as a universal start to spring and let blurry cell phone pictures of gym short-clad players stand in for baseball writ large–so let's now examine the symbolically replacement-level Evan Gattis.
At a glance, it seems evident that 2015 was the weakest showing of Gattis' three-year major league career. Apart from his 27 home runs, everything else was down: his slash-line of .246/.285/.463 was his poorest yet, while his traditionally bad walk rate got even worse. And that decrease in offense came with the elimination of his defense. After a two-year period that saw him transition from aging outfield prospect to potentially promising catcher to mediocre left fielder, Gattis left defense behind in 2015 to be the Astros' everyday DH. Even when considered on its own, Gattis' offense in 2015 was somewhat disheartening compared to years past, but it was certainly less appealing coming from a DH than it would have been from a catcher. It was, essentially, the sort of vaguely competent–if frequently underwhelming–performance that we call replacement-level.
But to view Gattis' 2015 as disappointing across the board would be to overlook some telling characteristics of his second half. Dating back to his days in the minors, Gattis has had a penchant for swinging at just about everything, and he's often had the low walk rate and abundance of strikeouts to prove it. It's reflected not only in his swing rates, but in his swing itself–somethingt feels almost violently desperate about the intensity with which Gattis chases balls. In the later months of 2015, however, Gattis looked a bit different in this regard. He swung less, chased fewer pitches, and made contact more frequently, as Jeff Sullivan noted at FanGraphs in September. Here are his swing rates from the first half of 2015:
This is the zone profile of a man who does not discriminate, an equal opportunity batter of sorts. This is also the zone profile of a man who walked in just 3.5% of his plate appearances and struck out in 22.4% of them. There's nothing particularly different here from Gattis' previous years of performance; though he saw slightly better outcomes in 2013 and 2014, the zone profiles themselves look largely similar.
But this was not the case in the second half of 2015. At some point after the All-Star break, Gattis began to change his approach. The change isn't dramatic, but it's certainly noticeable:
There wasn't much in the way of change for pitches that were high or inside. But when it came to pitches that were low or outside, Gattis was markedly more patient in the second half. This was enough for a significant change in the percentage of pitches he chased; his O-Swing% dropped from 44.2% to 30.7%, the biggest second-half improvement for any player in 2015, as Owen Watson noted at Fox Sports in January.
Gattis' second-half numbers improved in nearly every category. He brought his walk rate to 6.8%, nearly doubling it (though, to be fair, doubling your walk rate is not as great a challenge when your walk rate is 3.5% to begin with). He dropped his strikeout rate to a far more respectable 16.3%, while his slash line went from .241/.268/.444 to .252/.307/.488. None of these numbers are particularly remarkable on their own, but the improvement–and, especially, the plate discipline behind it–is encouraging.
By definition, the concept of the replacement-level player is generic. There are so many of him, so many variations on the same theme, so many theoretical answers for any roster spot. In Gattis' year as MLB's lone everyday replacement-level player, he may not have been good, but he certainly wasn't generic.
No projection system expects anything more than the most modest of improvements for Gattis in 2016, and it likely doesn't help that sports hernia surgery will sideline him for Spring Training and possibly the start of the season. But if Gattis' improved plate discipline is the foundation of something new, perhaps he'll be something to watch.
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Emma Baccellieri is a contributor to Beyond the Box Score. You can follow her on Twitter at @emmabaccellieri.