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What’s gotten into Ben Gamel?

Ben Gamel’s success is flowing from big improvements.

MLB: Seattle Mariners at Philadelphia Phillies John Geliebter-USA TODAY Sports

With the Mariners starting rotation on life support, the offense has been forced to carry this team until Felix, Paxton, and Iwakuma can heal up. Since April 26, the day Felix was placed on the disabled list, the Mariners offense has posted a 140 wRC+, the second best mark in all of baseball. Three Mariners show up in the top 20 individual offensive performances during that same period, Nelson Cruz (221 wRC+, 11th in MLB), Danny Valencia (213, 14th), and Ben Gamel (203, 18th). April 26 happens to be the same day Ben Gamel was called up from Triple-A and he’s been one of the best hitters in all of baseball since then. What the heck?

Gamel has only accumulated 62 plate appearances in the majors this season. The sample size is incredibly small but I think there are enough changes in his approach to make some initial observations. Let’s start with his batted ball profile.

A few weeks ago, while Taylor Motter was tearing up the American League, I examined the changes to his batted ball profile to explain some of his success. In short, Motter was hitting everything with authority, increasing his exit velocity and his launch angle while pulling more than 60% of his balls in play. Below is a table that compares the batted ball profiles of Motter and Gamel from this season.

Batted Ball Profile

Player LD% GB% FB% Pull% Center% Oppo% Soft% Med% Hard%
Player LD% GB% FB% Pull% Center% Oppo% Soft% Med% Hard%
Taylor Motter 25.4% 32.2% 42.4% 64.4% 27.1% 8.5% 13.6% 40.7% 45.8%
Ben Gamel 37.1% 28.6% 34.3% 41.7% 41.7% 16.7% 8.3% 50.0% 41.7%

There are some striking similarities between the two of them, and it’s not just their flowing locks. Like Motter, Gamel has avoided hitting to the opposite field this year and has instead focused on hitting up the middle and to the pull side. They’ve both avoided hitting the ball on the ground and Gamel has posted the third highest line drive rate among batters with a similar number of plate appearances.

If we take a look at Gamel’s Statcast data, we can see that his hard hit rate is no mirage. Below is a table comparing his average exit velocity, average launch angle, the average launch angle on his hard hit balls in play, and average exit velocity on different batted ball types from last year to this year.

Statcast Data—2016-2017

Year Avg Exit Velo Avg Launch Angle Avg Launch Angle <98 mph FB+LD Exit Velo GB Exit Velo
Year Avg Exit Velo Avg Launch Angle Avg Launch Angle <98 mph FB+LD Exit Velo GB Exit Velo
2016 85.8 3.7 0.8 96.2 77.5
2017 90.6 11.8 8.3 94.2 84.6

As you can see, Gamel has increased his average exit velocity and his launch angle. He’s elevating the ball with authority more often and most of his hard hit balls are coming on line drives rather than ground balls. But even when he puts the ball on the ground, he’s hitting it with more authority.

Gamel has always had a discerning eye at the plate. While that didn’t translate into high walk rates during his minor league career, his strikeout rate has always been above average and he’s been able to use his patience to work into hitters counts. In his brief time in the majors this season, Gamel’s plate discipline stats have grown even more extreme. He’s swinging at just 37.9% of the pitches he’s seen, one of the lowest rates in the majors, and putting him on the same level as Ben Zobrist, Jose Bautista, and Joe Mauer. When he does swing, he isn’t chasing pitches out of the zone—his O-Swing% is well above average—and he’s making contact with pitches in the zone 90% of the time. He’s working the count in his favor, he’s swinging at the right pitches, and making hard contact with them.

As a way to visualize both the improvements to his batted ball profile and his plate discipline, here’s a count network chart from Baseball Savant showing his average exit velocity by count:

Baseball Savant

When he’s ahead in the count, Gamel is demolishing pitches (except for that weird outlier at 2-0). As his sample size grows, it’ll be important to monitor both his batted ball profile and his plate discipline. There’s no way his line drive rate stays so high, but the added exit velocity and launch angle will help him continue to mash the ball.

As Marc W wrote about Motter on USS Mariner, all of these improvements seem to be the result of a change in intent. Last year, Gamel would work himself into hitter’s counts but he couldn’t capitalize on that advantage. I’m not sure if it’s a change in philosophy or simply a matter of greater confidence in his abilities. Whatever it is, Gamel has thrust himself into the spotlight early this season and has created an outfield logjam whenever Mitch Haniger returns. That’s a very good problem for the Mariners.

[UPDATE]: Marc W over on USS Mariner posted an article examining Ben Gamel’s batted ball profile changes at the exact same time as this article. He does a much better job of putting Gamel’s improvements in context with other launch angle improvers (Ryan Zimmerman, Yonder Alonso, etc.). Definitely worth a read.