Evan Gattis is a delight. The Astros DH/backup catcher embodies the Grizzly Adams spirit to which so many ballplayers aspire, and which so few actually attain. While he may not have transformed into the next great power-hitting catcher that some believed he could be in his early years, he still has plenty of sock in his bat at the age of 30.
In fact, he may have more thump than ever before. Gattis knocked 32 balls over the fence last season, a career high. He posted a .257 isolated power percentage, also a career best. His 119 wRC+ and .290 True Average signaled his second-best offensive season, just behind his 2014 campaign. Gattis’s bat came alive last year.
Even more remarkably, almost all of that production was generated after the All-Star Break. His 85-153 wRC+ splits from the first half to the second could suggest a real change in approach, specifically with power. His walks still hovered around league average, but his isolated power jumped from .211 to .306, a huge increase.
What was going on with Gattis? Did he in fact re-tool his swing to get more barrel to the ball, or was this just a small-sample fluke that will ultimately regress next year?
It could very well be real. Per FanGraphs, Gattis’s soft contact rate plummeted from 20.0 percent to just under 15 percent from the first half to the second. While that didn’t correspond with a large jump in average exit velocity (89.6 mph to 90.4 mph), it does suggest that Gattis was at least making less poor contact in the late summer and early autumn.
Where the swing might come into play is his batted ball types. Grounders fell nearly 13 percentage points between halves (47.1 percent in the first, 34.4 percent in the second), while fly balls jumped accordingly. Statcast confirms this: Gattis’s average launch angle jumped from 10.8 degrees in the first half to 13.1 degrees in the second. The sizable decrease in his pop-ups (from 5.3 percent to 3.9 percent), in tandem with the softly-hit and ground ball percentage drops, also suggests that Statcast wasn’t missing too many of his batted balls.
Gattis was finding more optimal launch angles to hit the ball. He was getting more loft, and keeping the barrel through the zone. Indeed, he smacked 21 barreled balls in the second half, according to Statcast. A Barrel is a batted ball which results in at least a .500 expected batting average and a 1.000 expected slugging percentage. Gattis only connected for 11 such balls in the first half.
The question is, can Gattis sustain this? Hitters make midseason and offseason tweaks to their swing that often don’t carry over. It is certainly tempting to think that Gattis, who always hit for good power, may have turned a small corner. He’s also entering his age-30 season on a body that has seen its fair share of work behind the plate. I wouldn’t count my chickens just yet, but any time Gattis does something like this in 2017, tip your cap.