Ed. note: I am happy to welcome Connor Donovan on board, mostly so he will stop scooping me on Fanposts, although it’s always fun to have a second member of the Mike Marjama fanclub on board. Connor has been reading the site since he was negative years old, and it’s exciting to have his prolific Fanposts up on the front page for all to see with nice art and everything. Welcome Connor!
“Ben Gamel struggled in the second half.” How many iterations of that statement have we heard over the last couple of months? Fresh off the heels of a scorching first half that saw seemingly every ground ball find a hole en route to a 127 wRC+, Gamel fell off in a big way after the All-Star break. His walk rate plummeted to under 5%, he didn’t square up the ball as frequently, and most concerning of all, he pounded the ball into the ground 10% more often than in the first half. This time around, the BABIP gods turned their backs on Gamel, those ground balls found gloves, and he limped to a second-half wRC+ of just 68. On the surface, it is easy to conclude that the league simply adjusted to him, and he will have to adjust back in 2018.
Not so fast! Taking a deeper look into Ben’s second-half monthly splits paints a different picture - namely that he did tweak his approach, even if his results didn’t always show it.
So there were a couple of mediocre months sandwiched around a terrible, horrible, no good very bad August, but right away some things jump out here. For one, for as punchless and hopeless as he looked then, Gamel ran the best strikeout numbers of his season by a huge margin in August, making his still-below-average walk rate look much more palatable. He also tore the cover off of the ball in September, posting his best power mark of the year. Unfortunately, this came at the cost of all the plate discipline gains he made in August, as his walk and strikeout rates both took massive steps back.
What a huge adjustment period! Over the course of two months, Gamel went from having a similar profile to 2011 Chone Figgins (yiiiiikes) to looking more comparable to our very own Ryon Healy. Such a drastic change in a short period of time usually means only one thing.
Ben Gamel is going through an identity crisis.
Okay, probably not, but the wild batted ball and plate discipline swings really point to the fact that Gamel was indeed adjusting to the league.
All season, opposing teams pitched Gamel down and away, and that didn’t change much in August.
While this proved a reliable way to get whiffs out of him throughout the year...
...something changed in August.
Now we see where that improved K-rate comes from! Gamel cut his swinging strike rate almost completely across the board, something which seems great at first glance. Unfortunately, August was full of moments of contact such as this:
Oof. That first pop-up in Yankee Stadium was on a middle-middle fastball - a pitch Gamel would normally hammer. What gives? In all three .gifs, it seems like he is generating very little or no power from his lower half - he isn’t using all of that momentum he builds up pre-swing. He also looks like he’s casting his hands out on outside pitches, as evidenced by the pop-up to Simmons and the weak ground ball to second. In all, while he was making more contact than ever, his swing was largely sapped of power all month, and at-bats like these show he wasn’t just getting unlucky.
That changed in a big way in September, though. The final month saw Gamel smoking baseballs all over the field, such as this pretty double hit the other way:
Or this home run off of a low splitter:
Or this moonshot off of Corey Kluber:
That is a totally different Ben Gamel than the one we saw in August. He has always been able to hit a fastball well, but I was particularly impressed by the homer off of Nolasco. The down and in breaking ball was kryptonite to him all season, and seeing him stay on a good one and rock it out was a big breath of fresh air. The ball explodes off of his bat in all of these .gifs, and he did an excellent job of keeping his hands in on both of those high fastballs. Well done!
Of course, though, it didn’t come without a price:
Gamel saw his whiff rate on hard pitches jump by five percentage points in September to 9.84%, his highest of the season. Combined with a steady climb in missing offspeed pitches, the strikeouts regressed back towards his season total of 22.2%, and the walks hit a season-low 3.1%. But hey, he at least showed some DINGERZ, right?
Ben Gamel has all the tools to be a consistent two-win player. The power is sneaky but very much present, he is a fine corner outfielder, and his baserunning all last season was solid aside from a few bad reads at second base (although one could say this about almost everybody on the team). It’s just a matter of making the right amount of adjustment for him, and he has shown the ability to tweak his swing and approach as the year goes on. He’ll probably never get that first-half BABIP luck back, but if he can conquer the low breaking ball and keep hitting fastballs, he won’t need it to be successful.