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Ben Gamel, Good or Not-So-Good?

Full disclosure: I wrote this article just so I could look up pictures of his hair.

MLB: Seattle Mariners at Colorado Rockies
Thank goodness this hair wasn’t wasted on the Yankees and their short-hair policy.
Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

Going into this season, most thought the Mariners’ outfield was pretty set: Jarrod Dyson in left field, Leonys Martin in center, and Mitch Haniger in right field. Meanwhile, Guillermo Heredia likely had the fourth outfielder spot sewn up, while one Benjamin Gamel would be excellent depth down in Tacoma.

But then...

Gamel kept impressing everyone in the spring...

And after ineffectiveness from Martin and a Haniger injury, along with a solid performance in AAA, Gamel was up for good.

Expectations weren’t set very high - after all, we’re talking about a player who couldn’t crack the Opening Day roster - so it’s not that much of a surprise that he’s exceeded them. Yet if you’d predicted that the shaggy-haired outfielder would hit the cover off the ball like he’s done so far in 2017, even Gamel’s own parents would have laughed.

Did anybody expect a .346/.411/.467 slash line? How about a 142 wRC+, which (before Sunday’s game) sandwiched Gamel between Nelson Cruz and Kris Bryant on the league leaderboard? Or the flashy right field defense?

In only 208 plate appearances, Gamel has been worth 1.7 fWAR, or roughly the same as Nori Aoki and Franklin Gutierrez combined for in 750 plate appearances a year ago. His ascent is as shocking as it has been rapid; in a 74 plate appearance-long cup of coffee in 2016, Gamel hit a buck-eighty-eight while striking out 28 percent of the time.

All of this begs the question: Is Ben Gamel, y’know...actually good? There’s one statistic that I’ve conveniently left out of this article so far, and that’s his batting average on balls in play. As a refresher for those of you who aren’t well-versed in advanced statistics, this is exactly what it sounds like. What is Gamel’s batting average on all balls he puts in play?

League average is roughly .300, and though certain players can have much higher or lower rates depending on their batted-ball profiles and speed (if you hit the ball hard, it’s harder to make good defensive plays, and if you’re fast, you can beat out routine grounders), a significant deviation from that indicates a good amount of luck.

Gamel’s BABIP, on the other hand, is a whopping .462. That ranks first in MLB by a wide margin - second-best is Aaron Judge at .431, followed by Miguel Sano at .412. Only one other player has a BABIP above .400.

In fact, of all players with at least 200 plate appearances in a season between 2001 and 2017, it’s still Ben Gamel who’s head-and-shoulders above the rest of the pack. Tyler Naquin threw up a .411 BABIP last year in 365 plate appearances, the highest BABIP of anybody between 2001-2016, and he hasn’t exactly lit the world on fire this year in his 18 big league plate appearances.

So luck is pretty clearly a huge component in Gamel’s success. Though Gamel has run high BABIPs in the minor leagues before, with rates at .364 and .370 in 2015 and 2016, respectively, this is too far off the pace to ignore. He’s going to come back down to Earth sooner or later, however.

That’s the downside, and probably most of you knew this was coming. But if you know me, you also know I’m a perennial optimist, so would I really leave you hanging here?

80-grade flow game.

Let’s start with Gamel’s BABIP. I know I just broke down why his BABIP is going to regress, but there is reason to believe he could maintain a higher BABIP than league average. It’s been evident for quite some time that he’s hitting the ball harder than in years past - something that, intuitively, makes more balls drop in for hits.

Even now, after his red-hot start has cooled down a little bit, he’s still punishing the ball. His exit velocity remains at 88.1 MPH, which is just above the league average, and he’s consistently hitting line drives - which, again, are harder to field than fly balls or grounders.

In fact, his line drive rate has skyrocketed compared to an admittedly-small sample size in 2016, and he’s doing it at a rate that few others in the bigs can match. In fact, only one player in the AL or NL (minimum 200 PA) has a better line-drive rate: Triple Crown winner Miguel Cabrera. Right behind Gamel is Daniel Murphy, who’s been tearing the cover off the ball since 2016 rolled around.

Check out Gamel’s stats compared to 2016, and to league averages:

Ben Gamel, 2016 vs. 2017

Year GB% LD% FB% IFFB% HR/FB Pull% Cent% Oppo%
Year GB% LD% FB% IFFB% HR/FB Pull% Cent% Oppo%
2016 43.8% 21.9% 34.4% 9.1% 9.1% 37.1% 31.4% 31.4%
2017 33.6% 29.1% 37.3% 8.0% 4.0% 33.3% 37.0% 29.6%
Lg Avg 44.4% 20.1% 35.5% 9.6% 13.7% 39.9% 34.6% 25.4%

You can see the sharp spike in line-drive rate, and that it’s all come at the expense of his ground-ball rate - he’s still hitting a bunch of fly balls, and he’s actually hitting slightly fewer infield fly balls, which are obviously the worst kind of contact.

Two other things strike me about these numbers, and they both concern where Gamel is hitting the ball. He’s learned to hit the ball back up the middle, particularly when he’s driving it to the outfield. In case you’re a visual learner, here’s the charts from Baseball Savant comparing 2016 and 2017.

Note the cluster of grounders to the second base area, but the huge increase in fly balls & line drives to the outfield. That’s exactly what you want to see - Gamel is using his power to make powerful contact.

The second thing I want to point out harkens back to Gamel’s BABIP. Remember that BABIP doesn’t take homers into account, of which Gamel has just two. Only 4.0% of his fly balls are becoming homers, a rate much lower than last year (again, SSS alert) and much lower than the league average. So while some of Gamel’s doubles may soon turn into outs due to an end in his good fortune, a few of them might also become dingers.

Gamel is going to have to do better with offspeed pitches. My good friend John Trupin pointed out to me that Gamel has the 13th-highest expected value on hitting fastballs in all of MLB, which is good!

But that offspeed bugaboo hurts him as well, particularly sliders and changeups. He’s 1/24 on sliders this year, having whiffed on 13 of 109 pitches, and 6/26 against changeups with 17 whiffs on only 93 pitches. Pitchers will see this (they surely have already) and they’ll attack him relentlessly. It’s up to him to adapt.

On the plus side, Gamel has hit well in every single level so far. He began his slow march to MLB in 2010, and most recently spent two full years in AAA, thrashing International League pitching to the tune of an MVP award in 2016. He hasn’t abandoned his plate discipline skills, striking out slightly more than he did in the minors but still walking as well.

In the end, what do we make of Benjamin Joseph Gamel? He’s not the player we’ve seen so far - in fairness, there are few non-fish-named players who are - but there’s plenty of room to be optimistic. Gamel has hit the ball well to all fields and shown clear improvement since his cup of coffee in 2016. His control of the strike zone is improving. He plays good & exciting defense, and he does so with the best hair on the team. (Sorry, Taylor.)

All of that adds up to a valuable player. In his 40 in 40, Anders Jorstad wrote:

One thing is clear: Gamel is going to play in 2017. The team is going to give him chances to prove himself. It’s up to him to show that their faith was well-founded.

He’s done his part thus far. Let’s hope he can keep it going the rest of the year and for a long, long time.