If the season ended in June, Ben Gamel would have had the third highest batting average in the American League. He led off regularly for the Mariners that month during Jean Segura’s absense, and was ripping the cover off the baseball. His 161 wRC+ in June was the best of any month during Gamel’s first full season in the bigs.
Unfortunately, Gamel’s fortunes turned in July, as his monthly wRC+ fell below 100 for the first time that season. The downward trend continued into August, where he managed a just 17 wRC+, before turning things back around in September. What could explain such a dramatic difference between two halves?
Ben raked the entire first half of the season, and didn’t see his production fall until his soft contact rate jumped above the league average in July. That marked the beginning of a second half that yielded just a 68 wRC+, nearly half of his number before the All-Star Break. Pitchers started to pitch both low and away, steering away from where Gamel did most of his damage.
Ben’s BABIP was lower on pitches low and away, enticing pitchers to pitch to pound those areas.
Coincidentally, Gamel’s plate discipline stats took a dive in the second half of the season as well. His swing rate at pitches low and out of the zone rose dramatically from the first half of the season to the second. While Gamel managed to cut his whiff rate on pitches in that part of the zone, the contact he generated, for the most part, was unthreatening. Gamel ran a 49.3% ground ball rate over the second half of the season, limiting his BABIP to .263 over that span. Even with a deflated strikeout rate, Ben’s low walk rate and propensity to hit soft groundballs buried limited his production throughout the summer.
Fortunately, Gamel found away to finish his season strong, at least from a batted ball standpoint. Pitchers continued to pound the lowest third of the zone; however, Ben started to generate high quality contact again. His hard contact rate jumped to 34.3%, his second highest of the season, while his soft contact rate fell below 20% for the first time since June. Gamel cut his groundball rate by nine percent from August to September, resulting in sharp increases in line drives and fly balls. Despite not being known as a power threat, Gamel posted a .211 ISO over the season’s final month. He even pounded a few low pitches, running a .556 ISO on pitches below his knees over the middle third of the plate. Small sample size, but it’s evidence of Gamel’s improvement hitting low pitches.
Gamel managed just a 80 wRC+ in September, though he was plagued by unfortunate luck. Ben’s BABIP just .261 in for the month, even though he made hard contact at a rate higher than league average. He was particularly unlucky on line drives, as his BABIP on line drives in September was 0.050 below league average depsite making hard contact on over 50% of his line drives.
One month is a very small sample size, but the batted ball profile Gamel demonstrated in September is very encouraging. He was pounding line drives to all areas of the yard, which will almost always lead to excellent production. Another necessary step for Gamel to return to his first half form is increasing his walk rate. His o-swing% from July through the end of the season was eight-percent higher than his mark from April through June. September was his worst month in that regard, as he swung at over 35-percent of pitches out of the zone, resulting in a 3.1-percent walk rate. Gamel has flashed the ability to draw walks, maintaining a 11.6-percent walk rate over his first 190 MLB plate appearances. As pitchers started to pitch him low and away, Gamel’s swing rates jumped in the surrounding areas out of the zone. This offseason presented Gamel with the opportunity to respond to adjustments made by opposing pitchers, which hopefully will yield an elevated walk rate.
Gamel will enter spring training as co-starter in left field with platoon partner Guillermo Heredia; however, Ryan Divish reported that Gamel is expected to get a few turns at first base while in Peoria. That was published prior to the Rule 5 selection of Mike Ford, though, which might impact the Mariners plans with Gamel moving forward. That said, if Ford doesn’t end up making the roster, Gamel’s ability to play first base could prove vital in giving Ryon Healy days off when needed. Regardless, Gamel will have a pivotal role offensively and defensively in his second full season with the Mariners.
Gamel’s strong batted ball profile in September is encouraging. Connor highlighted some of the adjustments Ben made to rediscover his power during the season’s final month. If he can carry those changes over into 2018, there’s no reason to doubt Gamel will trend back towards his first half form. While it’s unlikely he will benefit from a .400-plus BABIP as he did prior through June last year, he’s demonstrated the ability to spray hard contact line drives to all parts of the yard, while cutting his strikeout rate. Last year’s up and down season resulted in a 99 wRC+ for Gamel. Entering his second full year in the majors, Ben should be more consistent and productive. I expect him to turn in a wRC+ north of 100, offering excellent value towards the bottom of Seattle’s order. May the line drives be as bountiful as his hair!