There is no shortage of love or words for Franklin Gutierrez here on Lookout Landing. Last year we devoted an entire off day to covering the Mariners phoenix of an outfielder, and I think we could have easily done an entire week. In a season worth forgetting, Gutierrez's renewal was perhaps the happy takeaway from 2015, and the iconic image of his walk off home run against Toronto has already reached near mythical status.
For a player that tests the English language's capacity for superlative Guti not only has figured out a way to overcome his body's manifold betrayals but, somehow, has become an upper echelon power hitter in the process. Playing around with Baseball Savant's spray chart I noticed the symmetrical beauty of Guterrez's 2015 home runs:
The classifcations of a home run to Left/Center/Right field are somewhat gray on the margins, but it's not hard to squint at that chart and see 5 home runs a piece to each third of the field. Compared to 2009, perhaps the only time prior to last year that Franklin was something approaching full health, and we see a vastly different profile:
The chart above is still an effective, dangerous hitter. In 2009 after all Franklin Gutierrez slugged .472. However the spray chart reveals a vastly different approach and intent. In 2009 Gutierrez was a classic mistake hitter, looking to punish hanging sliders and middle in fastballs by turning and driving them to left field. Something kind of like:
Contrast that with the kind of hitter that is comfortable allowing the ball to travel, and like a coiled spring unleashing hell the opposite way. Just like:
Now a few highlights and spray charts do not a trend make, and tragically everything with Franklin Gutierrez outside of pain and suffering has a small sample size. However, when we look at the whole of Gutierrez's home runs, we begin to see that, even while he was injured and unable to play, a different hitter was emerging:
(Gigantic h/t to Eric Blankenship for his help pulling and collating this data)
The data, drawn from Hit Tracker, is the average home run every year of Franklin Gutierrez's career. Of particular interest is that highlighted column, which is the horizontal angle of the average Gutierrez home run. Put simply, it tells us how much Gutierrez pulled his home runs.
What the data tells us, which backs up what I have observed over the years, is that Franklin Gutierrez has gradually learned to hit to all fields, and to do so with power. To illustrate I've crudely plotted these data points below:
After a pull-happy 2008 with Cleveland you can see a slow, steady matriculation towards centerfield, all the way up to last year, where Gutierrez's average home run was hit almost exactly to dead center field.
Now, is this a good change? Despite "hitting to all fields" being a cliche of baseball hitting fundamentals there are certainly pull hitters who have thrived throughout the game's history. Jose Bautista in 2010 famously crowded the plate and whacked 54 home runs, 53 of which were pulled left of center field. But Franklin Gutierrez is not Jose Bautista, and Safeco Field is not the Rogers Centre. For a right-handed hitter to hit for power in Safeco Field he must either have Nelson Cruz's elite ability to hit a baseball so far as to render stadium dimension and air marine-ness moot, or he must develop the ability to drive the ball to all fields.
When I asked a Mariner front office executive about whether this change came about intentionally he confirmed, saying that the change in approach has come about as Gutierrez "grows more comfortable into who he is." Who he is is in fact an almost entirely different player than his 2007-2011 first act. This is partly age, partly years of injuries, and partly, well:
Franklin Gutierrez 2011 to 2016. Wonder where that power came from. pic.twitter.com/syoUFUr7JS— Lookout Landing (@LookoutLanding) March 20, 2016
Trying to forecast anything for Guti in 2016 feels like an impossible notion. The man has played roughly 3/4 of a season since 2012. Between 2011-2014 he hit 15 home runs, then slugged .620 last year. All sample sizes are going to be small, and his health is a constant question. But, when we consider the power he showed last year, and the four home runs he has hit this spring (all four up the middle or the other way), we can feel comfortable with some basic truth:
Death to Flying Things is dead, killed by time, misdiagnosis, misfortune, and Ankylosing Spondylitis. Rather than mourn that fact Franklin Gutierrez spent years of study, practice, and hard work creating a new identity for himself. He has become Death to Pitched Things, and it's as impressive a trick turned by any Mariner the past decade.