Hidden in the midst of the Cubs domination of the NL Central, the 2016 St. Louis Cardinals have been a very good team led by a few unlikely sources. Brandon Moss has rediscovered his power stroke after an injury-riddled 2015, and the team leader in home runs is Jedd Gyorko.
Jedd Gyorko? Jedd Gyorko.
Gyorko was an excellent player when he first arrived in the bigs, worth 2.4 wins in 2013 per FanGraphs' metric. In spite of a rough 2014 in which Gyorko missed time due to various injuries, the Padres faith never wavered, and they extended Gyorko, with a six-year deal prior to the 2015 season.
Unfortunately, Gyorko never returned to form in San Diego. After his sub-replacement level 2014, he was solidly below average in 2015, and the Padres sent him to St. Louis in an interesting and sensical change-of-scenery type of deal for John Jay prior to 2016. Jay has been fine for the Padres, but Gyorko's power surge has made the trade a clear win for the Cardinals (at least to date). How has Gyorko done it?
First pitch domination
As Craig Edwards of FanGraphs has already noted, Gyorko has been a much more effective first pitch hitter this season. His swing rate on those pitches is way up from earlier in his career, he's putting slightly more balls in play, and a bunch more of those are leaving the yard.
|Ball in play %
Gyorko's success attacking these early pitches doesn't seem to be reliant on the kind of pitches he's seen. As the season has marched on and Gyorko's first pitch success has become well known, pitchers have thrown Gyorko fewer fastballs, yet he's continued to mash early count dingers.
Like most hitters, Gyorko does is at his best when he's pulling the ball. He's particularly extreme though. Even in his worst years, his numbers to left field have been good, and even in his best years, his numbers to the opposite field have been subpar.
He's been excellent the other way this year too, and we'll get to that later, but he's been his best pulling the ball by far, and more importantly, he's been doing it far more frequently. At 46%, he's hitting the ball to left 5% more often than his career high before 2016, and given his performance when he pulls the ball, that's given him a real boost. Sixteen of his 26 bombs have gone that direction, and the increased pull rate has turned outs into valuable contact.
Finding success against the changeup
As you might expect, Gyorko's results have been better against most pitch types. Historically, he's done most of his damage against fastballs, and this year he's been better than ever, with his mark of 8.4 runs above average the best of his career. Where he's most dramatically improved is against the changeup, however. His 6.8 RAA mark is more than eight runs higher than his 2015 output.
How's he doing it? Basically, he's making a lot more contact.
His swing rate on changeups is down, but so are his whiffs, leading to a much higher percentage of these pitches being put into play. The quality of that contact has also been much better, at least in terms of results, and his 2016 ISO against changups is .257, up from .151 the rest of his career.
Can he sustain?
If his pull adjustments are for real and he can keep attacking first pitches with serious power, Gyorko will probably be well off in the future. He's clearly got the tools to hit the ball out of the yard with enough frequency to be a well above average player.
But while his BABIP to his pull side is low, he's also had good luck going to the opposite field in 2016. His .320 BABIP is nearly .100 points higher than any total he's put up before, and while he's hitting the ball harder, it's likely that's an unsustainable number. He's never been a high BABIP guy, and the opposite field has never been a strong point for him, so it seems unlikely he'll stay above average to the opposite field.
Still, even with a slight dropoff likely to come, Gyorko has reestablished himself as a solid asset. The Cardinals have found a hidden gem. Again.
Tim Eckert-Fong is a contributor to Beyond the Box Score.