Friday night, Carlos Gomez went 0-4 against the Dodgers. A glance at the box score paints it as an uneventful night at the plate for him. Yet, those who watched the game know that doesn’t tell the entire story. In fact, according to Baseball-Reference, Gomez’s AB against Brandon League in the seventh inning was one of the most important of the game.
When Gomez batted against League there were two outs, the game was tied at three, and the bases were filled with Brewers. League threw six pitches during the AB with only the second pitch even coming close to the strike zone. Still, Gomez swung at five of them — one swinging strike, three foul balls, and one ball in play.
Gomez got enough of the sixth pitch to roll it softly to short. Dodgers’ shortstop Justin Turner charged the ball and hurriedly threw to first as Gomez hustled down the line. The low throw resulted in an error, a run scored, and an increase in the probability of the Brewers winning the game by 20% wWPA. Gomez swung at a bad pitch, produced a weak ground ball, and had it result in the game’s largest positive spike in win probability for the Brewers. Further proof that you can’t predict baseball.
Even stranger is that Brewers fans may have Manny Ramirez to thank for it.
Carlos Gomez finished the 2012 season hitting .260 AVG / .768 OPS with 19 HR and a 103 wRC+ — his first major league season with an above average wRC+. Instead of playing winter ball in the Dominican, Gomez decided to work out and attend delicious BBQs with Manny Ramirez. The two had met years earlier when Gomez was still with of the Mets organization. They exchanged phone numbers when Gomez was a Twin, kept in touch, and even played winter ball together. When Gomez struggled early in his career, Manny encouraged the youngster to stay positive and keep working hard. More importantly, Manny kept telling Gomez to stay aggressive at the plate.
When Gomez returned for the 2013 season, he brought along a series of new drills taught to him by Manny. One involved batting left handed against a pitching machine only feet away. Drills designed to make it impossible to hit the ball. As Gomez said, “It’s impossible to drive the ball. You want to just touch it. Kind of like playing pepper but real close and real hard.”
Manny did not want Gomez to lose his aggressiveness. He wanted Gomez to use it to his advantage, so Manny taught him these new drills. If Gomez did not have the plate discipline to take pitches and work himself into hitter’s counts, then Manny wanted Gomez to foul off more bad pitches until he got one he could barrel up.
Thus bringing us back to Gomez’s AB in the seventh inning Friday night. Gomez swung at bad pitches, well outside of the strike zone, but was able to foul them off. Finally, he put one in play and let the baseball Gods take it from there. While this AB’s result is an extreme case, it frames Gomez’s new approach in an interesting way. How much did Manny Ramirez’s mentoring help turn Carlos Gomez into the player he is today? Did Gomez’s peripheral numbers support the anecdotes? So I went looking.
Baseball-Reference tracks a stat called AS/Pit, which tracks percentage of pitches swung at. Simply, how many pitches does a player swing at, no matter the result, divided by total pitches, minus intentional walk pitches. By that metric, Carlos Gomez swings the bat at 58.5% of pitches — more than any other player in baseball. Pablo Sandoval ranks second with a 57.9% AS/Pit. This season, Gomez is also seventh in the league with a 33.3% F/Str (foul ball strike percentage). That means a third of all of Gomez’s strikes are a result of him fouling off a pitch. Pablo Sandoval ranks first with a 38.1% F/Str.
So, it’s been established that Gomez is one of the league’s freest swingers this season. Now let’s look at Gomez’s career numbers in those categories to see if they correspond with his mentoring from Manny. I’ve also added pitches per PA (Pit/PA) to see if it tracks and total number of pitches (Pit) for reference.
Gomez may be more aggressive this season (per AS/Pit) than ever before but he is not swinging out of his shoes more because of his new approach. His F/Str numbers do reveal a noticeable uptick in foul balls since he started the drills before the 2013 season. Those extra fouls balls have probably helped push up his Pit/PA too, though not to a drastic degree. (Note: League Average Pit/PA is 3.83). Slapping a few more foul balls into the seats lets him see a few more pitches, while still staying aggressive. But a few extra foul balls may not be the only benefit Gomez has gotten from these new drills. According to Gomez, the new drills have also made him more comfortable in the box against big fastballs: “When I go to the game, I see the ball slow and I can make my approach more easy because I feel like when the people throw 95, 96, I’m feeling like they’re throwing 86.”
In the end, Gomez’s new-found ability to foul off more pitches has not been the only key to his recent success. Just one of the many pieces. The scary thing for Brewers fans is that Manny Ramirez, now a Cubs minor league coach, seems to have found a way for this free swinger succeed. With the recent promotion of Javier Baez, another player singing his praises, Manny may be in the midst of making the rare transition from successful professional hitter to successful hitting coach. As Brewers fans, let’s hope that Manny’s new pupils do not take to his lessons as well as Gomez.