In the preseason, the Cardinals had something of a logjam at second base — both Kolten Wong and Jedd Gyorko were capable of playing the position. My BtBS colleague Audrey Stark argued the former should start at the keystone, as his glove outweighed the latter’s bat. Through the first two weeks of the season, St. Louis operated a three-way platoon, in which Gyorko and Wong switched off at second base, and Gyorko and Jhonny Peralta alternated at third base. While Wong got the lion’s share of the playing time, it was clear the team valued Gyorko’s bat as well.
Now a little more than a month into the season, we can see why the Cardinals thought so highly of him. With Peralta on the DL, Gyorko has become the primary starter at the hot corner, and man, has he earned it. Over 23 games and 85 plate appearances, he’s hitting an astounding .346/.400/.679. If he qualified for the batting title, his 181 wRC+ would rank sixth in the National League, behind Ryan Zimmerman, Freddie Freeman, Bryce Harper, Eric Thames, and Michael Conforto is. That’s some formidable company to keep.
Of course, with any start this scorching, we have to bring up the s-word: sustainability. While Gyorko’s had some hot streaks before, he’s never come anywhere close to this. Presumably, he won’t run a wRC+ above 180 the whole year — only 16 hitters have done that this millennium, and four of them were Barry Bonds — but just how far will he fall?
Let’s start with the bad stuff: the areas where he’s been lucky. Gyorko’s put up a .333 ISO to this point, along with a .404 BABIP. Those two numbers have given him a 261 wRC+ on contact, the eighth-highest among hitters with 50 balls in play. The issue is that, well, he hasn’t hit the ball all that hard. In that sample, which contains 215 hitters, Gyorko’s 34.5 percent hard-hit rate places 87th. His career hard contact rate is 34.0 percent, so this is nothing new for him.
By Statcast, the story doesn’t change much. Gyorko has hit the ball at an average of 89.8 mph this year; that puts him 48th among the 217 hitters with at least 50 balls tracked by Statcast. His average launch angle of 13.1 degrees puts him in the middle of the pack, too. Gyorko isn’t making weak contact, obviously, but he’s not squaring the ball up enough to deserve a BABIP and ISO like this.
We can narrow this down a bit more. Gyorko’s actually struggling on ground balls: His grounder wRC+ of -7 is below his career mark of 11. (And no, he’s not unlucky here — he’s made hard contact on one of the 22 worm burners he’s hit.) On balls in the air, Gyorko has a 425 wRC+, which ranks sixth in the majors, and a 52.8 percent hard contact rate, which ranks 32nd in the majors. When his fly balls and line drives start to head toward defenders, he’ll see his results drop off.
Now, if that seemed like a gloomy section, don’t despair. First of all, Gyorko — as noted — is still hitting the ball pretty hard. He should maintain an above-average BABIP and ISO going forward. And second of all, he’s excelled in another area that bodes well for him: plate discipline.
To this point, Gyorko has had some trouble with walks and strikeouts. He’s earned a free pass in 7.1 percent of his plate appearances, and gone down on strikes in 23.5 percent; each of those is worse than the MLB average. Beneath the surface, though, he’s become a much better judge of pitches, which should help him turn those numbers around.
This year, Gyorko has swung at 21.4 percent of pitches outside the strike zone. That’s the 13th-lowest among the 206 hitters with at least 80 plate appearances. And he’s not just keeping the bat on his shoulder — in fact, he’s swung at 71.4 percent of pitches inside the strike zone, which is the 24th-highest in that sample. Plus, he’s made contact on a respectable 78.4 percent of his swings.
What does this mean in more practical terms? Gyorko’s strike rate (57.9 percent) is below the major-league average (62.8 percent). His called strike rate (12.9 percent) is below the major-league average (16.8). And his swinging-strike rate (10.3 percent) is below the major-league average (11.1 percent). He has all the ingredients for a high walk rate and a low strikeout rate; as he accrues more plate appearances, those should regress in the right direction.
It should be obvious, to all but the most diehard Cardinals fans, that Gyorko won’t hit .346 forever. With his unexceptional batted-ball profile, he’s not the sort of hitter who can post an ISO above .300 (to say nothing of a BABIP above .400). However, he appears to be the sort of hitter who can walk a lot and avoid strikeouts. St. Louis already has one infielder who fits that profile, and it might have found itself another.