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The redemption of Carlos Gomez

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His time in Houston was a disaster, but Carlos Gomez was able to recapture the magic once he joined the Rangers. Is it sustainable?

MLB: Milwaukee Brewers at Texas Rangers Jim Cowsert-USA TODAY Sports

In 2012, after five years of above-replacement level work as a glove-first outfielder, Carlos Gomez started to make an impact with the bat. By adding power to his already exceptional defense and speed, he instantly became one of baseball’s most dynamic and complete players. The 103 wRC+ he would post in 2012, his first time above league average, would be followed by marks of 128 and 132 in the two subsequent seasons. His All-Star potential had been realized.

Gomez continued to hit in 2015, posting a respectable 104 wRC+ in 74 games with the Brewers before being traded to the Astros. That’s where it all began to fall apart. In 486 plate appearances across two partial seasons in Houston, he would post a slash line of .221/.277/.342 with a .270 wOBA and 68 wRC+.

It looked as if Gomez had quickly transitioned from an above-average regular in his prime to a fourth or fifth outfielder trying to stay productive enough to warrant a roster spot. It happens. Rarely does it happen so fast, but it happens. He would be a free agent at the end of the season and was not performing at anywhere near an acceptable level, so the Astros shockingly — but understandably — designated the now-former All-Star for assignment.

You know what came next; two days later he was signed by the Texas Rangers and proceeded to tear the cover off the ball for the remainder of the year. Let’s take a look at the splits of exactly how he performed in 2016 with the Rangers compared to the Astros.

Carlos Gomez’s notable 2016 splits

Team PA BB% K% ISO BABIP wOBA wRC+ fWAR bWAR
Team PA BB% K% ISO BABIP wOBA wRC+ fWAR bWAR
Astros 323 6.5% 31.0% .112 .300 .260 60 -0.4 -0.8
Rangers 130 10.0% 27.7% .259 .347 .384 139 1.2 0.9
Data via FanGraphs

Now, any partial season’s numbers is subject to the disclaimer of a small sample size, but still the differences in his production were striking. Gomez saw an improvement of 124 points of wOBA and went from 40 percent below league average to 39 percent above according to wRC+. His gains in both strikeout and walk rate were less staggering, but they were gains nonetheless.

It’d be fair to point out that a 47 point increase in BABIP might signal that he benefited from some extra good luck, but he wasn’t exactly getting unlucky with the Astros. Additionally, there were some important changes to his batted ball profile after the move across Texas that help to explain the BABIP surge.

Carlos Gomez’s 2016 batted ball splits

Team LD% GB% FB% Pull% Cent% Opp% Avg. Exit Velocity Avg. Launch Angle
Team LD% GB% FB% Pull% Cent% Opp% Avg. Exit Velocity Avg. Launch Angle
Astros 22.0% 48.4% 29.6% 47.0% 29.8% 23.2% 86.7 MPH 4.8°
Rangers 18.4% 34.2% 47.4% 38.8% 36.3% 25.0% 90.5 MPH 18.7°
Data via FanGraphs and Baseball Savant

Gomez was able to cut his ground balls significantly, elevating the ball more often and hitting it with more authority. It’s important to acknowledge that Statcast does occasionally miss balls put into play — mostly of the softly hit variety — and we know that it did not track 14 percent of Gomez’s batted balls in 2016. Luckily, we can take the Statcast info we do have and compare it to Baseball Info Solutions’ human-classified measures of contact authority to verify that Gomez did in fact start hitting the ball harder after joining the Rangers on August 25th.

Gomez played his first game for Texas on August 25th.
Data via FanGraphs

Hitting the ball harder and in the air has been the recipe for success for a lot of major leaguers recently. The ability of Gomez to make this important adjustment to his batted ball profile in the middle of a season was impressive, but the even more notable aspect of his progress with the Rangers was his improved plate discipline.

Carlos Gomez’s 2016 plate discipline splits

Team O-Swing% (pfx) Z-Swing% (pfx) Swing% (pfx) O-Contact% (pfx) Z-Contact% (pfx) Contact% (pfx) SwStr%
Team O-Swing% (pfx) Z-Swing% (pfx) Swing% (pfx) O-Contact% (pfx) Z-Contact% (pfx) Contact% (pfx) SwStr%
Astros 38.1% 72.0% 53.6% 49.8% 76.8% 66.4% 17.7%
Rangers 29.7% 69.4% 48.7% 61.8% 83.4% 76.6% 11.4%
Data via FanGraphs

Gomez saw an increase of 10.2 percentage points in his overall contact rate, which coincided with a 4.9 percentage point reduction in swing rate. Most encouraging was that his reduction in swing rate came almost entirely on pitches outside of the zone: Gomez’s in-zone swing rate fell by only 2.6 percentage points, while his out-of-zone swing rate dropped by more than 8 points.

The difference in approach between Gomez’s time with the two teams is clearly visible in his swing percentage heat map. He started to lay off pitches that were too high or too low in the zone, and concentrated his efforts toward the middle.

Heatmaps via FanGraphs

Literally every aspect of Gomez’s offense improved after leaving the Astros. Unfortunately for him, the sample was simply too small to be able to convince another team to give him a substantial contract in what proved to be a poorly timed entrance into free agency. He wound up agreeing to a one-year deal for $11.5 million to return to the Rangers, in an attempt to use 2017 to hopefully prove that his improvements were for real.

So are they?

Gomez has raved about his time working with the Rangers’ hitting coaches. During the “Effectively Wild” Rangers team preview, Levi Weaver from WFAA in Dallas told hosts Ben Lindbergh and Jeff Sullivan exactly how Gomez described his changes (around the 15:00 mark), and it was pretty startling.

He got deadly serious and was like looking us in the eye as if this was a mortal concern that we understand what he was saying. He was like, “I have never learned the things that I have learned from Justin Mashore,” the assistant hitting coach. He goes “I feel like for the first time in my life I’m seeing the ball hit the bat, and I used to just close my eyes and swing.”

And we were like, wait, when you were an All-Star you were just closing your eyes and swinging? And he was like “Yeah, I would just swing and try to hit the ball.”

He goes, “The things that I’m doing now like keeping my weight a little bit further back, watching the ball a little further, and now I can see the ball hit the bat. I never... I feel like a new player, this is brand new to me.”

As Weaver then goes on to point out: real, tangible changes in approach are the main reason to believe that the 2016 Rangers version of Gomez can be sustainable moving forward. Although the Texas coaching staff did not completely overhaul his swing, there were some small but noticeable differences.

(Note: This is the point where it’s I feel compelled to point out that I am not an expert of swing mechanics. All I’m trying to do here is point out some observable changes as a reason to believe that there might be something beyond luck underlying Gomez’s recovery.)

Cherry picking a couple of random at-bats from 2016 doesn’t make this a scientific approach, but it should at least allow us to observe some basics tenets of how his swing evolved. In an effort to observe similar swings, both pitch locations in the following gifs were middle-in.

Flip that bat Carlos, you’ve earned it.

Keeping Gomez more balanced has been the Rangers’ goal. If you focus only on his back leg in these two instances you can see a difference; it’s subtle, but it’s there. In the at-bat from his days on the Astros you can see his back knee move a little bit as he’s executing the front leg kick. Now compare that to the at bat with the Rangers. His leg kick is still there — perhaps even a little more exaggerated — but there’s less movement of the back leg during the swing.

Carlos Gomez leg kick comparison

Consequently, it appears that Gomez’s body is less upright while he waits for the pitch. He’s more compact but more balanced. As Gerry Fraley of SportsDay wrote late last September, keeping his back side more balanced has been the focus of the Rangers’ efforts with Gomez.

They made mechanical changes in Gomez’s swing that give him a firmer back side and allow him to use his hands. That allows Gomez to be on time for more pitches.

In the past, he was late on many pitches and tried to catch up with big swings that usually ended with flailing misses and the batting helmet flying off his head.

The above gifs show a ball in the same basic location in the strike zone. But you can see that in the second, Gomez seems to have a better bat path and more balanced front foot.

Carlos Gomez ball strike comparison

Again, this is cherry picking two at-bats in a long season, but there were some noticeable differences that would seem to indicate his statistical improvements can be sustainable. Gomez himself appears to have tremendous confidence in his new approach, as detailed by Richard Justice for MLB.com.

"I think I found something I'd been looking for many years," Gomez said. "In the past, even when I had good seasons, I never felt I was consistent. I'd go 4-for-4, and there'd be maybe one at-bat where I know what I'm doing. I just had God-given ability. Now I know where I have to be to hit the ball consistently every time."

That someone can be as good as Gomez was from 2012 through 2014 while being in the dark on some of the basic tenets of hitting, relying solely on natural ability, is incredible. Even more remarkable is that Gomez made it this far without a coach stepping in to correct his problems. Perhaps no one wanted to mess with what had been working, which would be understandable.

Still, it’s regrettable that it might have taken this long for Carlos Gomez to realize his full potential. Now that he’s found the key, it’ll be up to him to maintain his new swing and approach. If he can, the Rangers will have gotten a free-agent steal, and Gomez will have made the most of his second chance.

. . .

Chris Anders is a featured writer at Beyond the Box Score. You can follow him on Twitter at @mrchrisanders.