The Astros are holding on for dear life in the AL Wild Card race, currently three games out with a week left in the season. Barring an incomprehensible finish that sees everything go their way, they will fall short.
Houston has had plenty of disappointing performances this year on which they can try to pin the blame. Carlos Gomez was so bad he was designated for assignment in August. Colby Rasmus came out of the gate with his bat on fire in April only to post a 49 wRC+ from May 1st on. For the first half of the season it looked as if Evan Gattis would join them on the list of Houston Astros disappointments, but he has turned his season around in a big way.
Gattis opened the year as the Astros’ primary DH, and he was not good. It wasn’t just the start of the year that saw him struggle, it was most of the first half. He was striking out a lot, but not more than normal. Before the All-Star break Gattis posted a 23.7 percent strikeout rate, a mark not much different from his career average of 22.5 percent. Striking out is a part of his game.
The problem for Gattis was ground balls. Oh those pesky ground balls.
Take a look at his batted ball profile from before and after the All-Star break.
|AVG Exit Velocity
|AVG Launch Angle
|Pre All-Star Break
|Post All-Star Break
That is entirely too many ground balls for a man who looks, swings, and runs like a lumberjack. His nickname (El Oso Blanco) is based on his bear-like appearance for crying out loud. Gattis is of no use to the Astros trying to leg out ground ball base hits. If he does not put the ball in the air, he will not be a successful hitter, period. Fortunately for both Gattis and the Astros, in the second half he’s chopped nearly 14 percentage points off his ground ball rate.
His second half exit velocity is up a tick, but hitting the ball hard was never the issue for Gattis. Launch angle has been the most important factor in his improvement. We can see from these launch angle graphics courtesy of Baseball Savant that as the number of ground balls decreased the number of hits increased.
The difference in production with this change in launch angle and batted ball type for Gattis has been enormous.
|Pre All-Star Break
|Post All-Star Break
A 70-point improvement in OBP, alongside 106 points in ISO and 97 points in wOBA is gigantic. Based on wRC+ Gattis was 15 percent below league average on offense before the All-Star break and has been 51 percent above average since! That’s an incredible turnaround, and all it took was for him to stop hitting the ball on the ground so often.
A grounds keeper has a very difficult job. Don't be a jerk and make their life harder by tearing up infield with ground balls.— Ryan Parker (@RA_Parker) February 11, 2016
One of the ways Gattis has accomplished this batted ball turnaround seems to be by simply being more selective at the plate. He was swinging at 48.9 percent of pitches before the All-Star break and has swung at just 42.5 percent since. As we can see with help from Brooks Baseball, he’s swinging at every pitch type less, but most significantly off-speed and breaking pitches.
Gattis has always crushed fastballs, and while he is even swinging at those less often, it seems that he is making an effort to take more off-speed and breaking pitches in order to get a fastball to hit.
So, ground balls were clearly the root of Gattis’ early season struggles, and a more discerning eye at the plate has helped him improve, but there is another wrinkle that cannot be overlooked. Much as we have observed with Rays’ OF Corey Dickerson, the offensive penalty that comes with being primarily a DH is significant. The typical penalty is around 14 points of wOBA.
The Astros used Gattis as their primary DH for the entire 2015 season and for the first month and a half of 2016. On May 19th against the White Sox, Gattis would find himself donning the tools of ignorance for the first time since 2014. He has proceeded to take the field as a catcher regularly, splitting time in a platoon role with the left-handed Jason Castro.
The decision appeared to be an effort by the Astros to make their lineup more versatile, clearing at-bats for others to DH while also attempting to keep Gattis more involved in the game. Manager AJ Hinch explained to the Houston Chronicle:
"To know Gattis is to know that there's a lot of anxious moments between the at-bats when he wants to be in there," Astros manager A.J. Hinch said. "He loves to compete, and there's no better position to be in on every pitch but catcher."
The move has paid dividends. It appears that keeping Gattis involved in more than just 3-4 at bats a game has proven rather important to his offense. You can see there is a stark contrast in his offensive splits based on what position he is playing.
Whoa. That’s quite a bit more than the assumed DH wOBA penalty of 14 points. Across the board there is a jarring difference in Gattis’ production when he is behind the plate. When you add to this that Gattis has earned a positive DRS of +1 and has been a positive pitch framer according to StatCorner, it appears that the Astros made the correct decision to put him back at catcher.
Early in the season it looked like Evan Gattis might have been finished as a productive hitter. A player who is limited to DH and doesn’t hit the ball in the air enough to maximize his power is simply not an appealing roster option for most teams. Thankfully for both Gattis and the Astros the early season struggles seem to be merely a blip on the radar. As it turns out, a move back behind the plate and an increase in launch angle was all that was needed to re-energize his career.
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Chris Anders is a contributor to Beyond the Box Score. You can follow him on Twitter at @MrChrisAnders.