Guess who owns the highest fWAR, bWAR, and WARP totals for position players on the St. Louis Cardinals over the past two seasons. If you didn’t read the headline of the article, you might think Matt Carpenter. Nope. It’s a guy who was traded for Jon Jay preceding the 2016 season — Jedd Gyorko. Don’t feel alone if that’s surprising to you. There is no doubt that Gyorko has been productive at the plate and in the field since coming over to the Cardinals. With that in mind, productive isn’t always synonymous with ‘most valuable redbird’. But, in this case, Gyorko matches the hype.
Last season, a good deal of Gyorko’s value came from his ability to play every infield position while being above-average at the plate. This year, it comes from extraordinary production on offense in tandem with how well he has settled into the hot corner. Through the first two months of the season, Gyorko carries a 146 wRC+ and .393 wOBA in 173 trips to the plate; both are top-20 out of all qualified National Leaguers. Clearly he is doing something right.
With his strong start in mind, there are some oddities about his season that stick out. For a guy who doesn’t have a year where he hit over .250, and owns a career .245 batting average, batting .321 is a big jump. You might say this points to what will surely be regression, as his .377 BABIP is nearly 100 points higher than his second-highest total. You might — BtBS co-managing editor Ryan Romano did at the beginning of May — but I won’t. Instead, I think the noticeable increases in batting average and BABIP point to something. Has Jedd Gyorko shed his power-only days and become a well-rounded hitter?
For much of his career, Gyorko was a guy who provided a little bit of power at the expense of contact. It makes sense that his power surge last season came on the back of a higher launch angle. That led to more fly balls, and an elevated pull rate. At its core, Gyorko did what most hitters did last season to gain power at the expense of contact. That should come as no surprise, however, as his type of hitter had been well-equipped for this all his life. A power-heavy fly ball guy during a…power-focused fly ball revolution.
This season, things are even better — but not for the same reason. His launch angle, fly ball rate, and pull rate are all lower than last season. In fact, those three stats now reside at their respective career levels. So Gyorko isn’t hitting the ball in the air more, and he isn’t generating power by overusing his pull field.
If that paragraph were all you knew about Jedd Gyorko this season, finding out that it coincides with a near 70-point increase in slugging from last season would appear odd. You don’t normally see a power guy improve after lowering three ways to generate power, but consider this. In 438 plate appearances last season, Gyorko recorded 40 extra base hits. 30 homers, nine doubles, and one triple. In 173 trips to the plate this season, he has recorded 20 extra base hits. 10 doubles, eight homers, and two triples.
That is right. Gyorko’s 12 non-homer extra-base hits are already more than the 10 he put together last season. Though they are just counting stats, they put the answer right in front of us. Gyorko has traded home run power for overall power. Whenever you see a doubles hitter start clearing the fence more often, people attribute it to the batter gaining power. Transitioning from a doubles hitter to a home run hitter is sometimes considered the next step in the progression of a batter. This case is interesting to me because we clearly see Gyorko going the other way. But it isn’t like he is a worse hitter for it, or that he has taken a step backward. Instead, Gyorko appears to have made a conscious effort to become a well-rounded hitter.
Gyorko is putting the bat on the ball more this season than at any point in his career, especially inside the strike zone. Combine that with his heightened propensity to swing at pitches in the zone, and we see that he has cut down on how often he whiffs at pitches in the strike zone:
Contact just for the sake of contact isn’t always great. Pitchers are coming into the strike zone against Gyorko more than last season, which means he is making more contact more often on these types of pitches. Sure, that can dilute power output, but this isn’t the case for the Cardinals third baseman. This is where the whole ‘well-rounded hitter’ thing comes in. Gyorko is taking the ball the other way better than he ever has.
Even from a quick glance at his spray chart, you can see that he has begun to drive balls the other way:
Gyorko is hitting the ball to right-center/right field more than he ever has in his career. This is why we’re seeing an even more improved Jedd Gyorko. He is a more complete hitter, and this version strikes me as a bit more sustainable. The high BABIP might be due to come down, but Gyorko has become more than just a one-dimensional hitter.
He has traded home run power for gap-to-gap power — the ability to drive the ball to all fields rather than just to his pull field. The increase in how much he has hit the ball the other way over the past two seasons is impressive. It is even more so when you consider the improved quality, and just how bad he has been over the course of his career at sending the ball to the opposite field:
It is weird for Gyorko to find another power supply one year after a big breakout. To me, it is even weirder that it happens to be an area most people lose power by hitting the ball to more often. With that being said, his diminishing soft-hit rate and rising line drive rate point to a conclusion that he is driving the ball to right field much better than he ever has. He is taking the ball to the right side this season (.939 SLG) even better than he was pulling the ball last season (.768 SLG).
The adjustment is impressive, and the difference it has made so far is nothing short of remarkable. There has been a production dip to his pull-field, but that is to be expected. What has taken the place of Gyorko’s reliance on launch angle, pull-rate, and flyball-rate for overall output is an improved plate discipline and a newfound ability to hit the ball the other way. Mike Matheny might have said it best at the beginning of May:
"Jedd's a great hitter."
"He's just continuing to put together solid at-bats for us no matter what the situation. To be able to drive the ball out of the ballpark, in this ballpark, the opposite way in the right-center gap, puts him in a rare class.”
He is the same, yet he is not the same. The pop is still there, that is for sure. The difference is that he has developed an ability to do more than just hit for power. Since coming to the Cardinals, he has flourished, and it appears he is hell-bent on getting better. This is a dangerous hitter who has really come into his own at the plate this season.
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Shawn Brody is a contributor for Beyond the Box Score, producer of In Play, Pod(cast), and pitcher recovering from Tommy John at Howard Payne University. He is a Senior double majoring in Business Management and Computer Information Systems. You can follow him on Twitter @ShawnBrody or email him at Shawnbrody9@gmail.com