One has to think that Mat Gamel had a chance, albeit a small one, of breaking camp with the Major League club this spring. Unfortunately for Gamel, but possibly fortunately for the Brewers, a back injury resulted in first extended time on the DL, and then, with no spot on the MLB roster available for him, his current AAA stint with Nashville.
Gamel got his first taste in the MLB last year, and hit as a league average hitter. His .242/.338/.422 line was good for a 103 wRC+, which looks solid on the surface. However, it was boosted by a .371 BABIP, and Gamel doesn’t strike me as the kind of player like Ichiro, Matt Kemp, or Austin Jackson who could maintain a high BABIP for a long period of time. The other point of concern was a ridiculous 42.2% strikeout rate, which would only be moderately worrisome if not for the fact that he struck out in 32% of at-bats in AAA as well.
Pacific Coast League pitchers just have not been able to figure Gamel out, as he has torched them to the tune of a .319/.392/.502 line that only becomes more impressive when combined with the fact that Nashville is that rarity of all rarities – a pitcher’s park in the PCL. That’s a pretty good improvement, as Gamel hit .278/.367/.473 in 2009 with Nashville, and that was enough to get people excited.
The difference there is almost entirely tied up in batting average. In some cases, that might mean that Gamel is seeing a BABIP increase that isn’t indicative of any real improvement but merely some luck. However, this year, Gamel’s .362 BABIP is actually lower than the .365 BABIP he posted in 2009.
Here’s the big key, though. Gamel has only struck out in only 20% of his at bats this season, and that extra contact has accentuated his natural abilities to hit the ball solidly (26% line drive rate) and for power (.179 isolated power, SLG-AVG). If instead of striking out like Ryan Howard, in around 30% of at bats or worse, he strikes out more like early career Ryan Braun, around 25% of at bats, that will make a huge difference in Gamel’s production at the MLB level.
At this point, I would estimate that Gamel would put up about a 10% walk rate, a 25% strikeout rate, a .160 ISO, and about a .320 BABIP in the major leagues. Using my Four Factors method that I’ve been developing on FanGraphs, that would project as a .333 wOBA, or about 108% of league average offense – that compares fairly well, for example, with Mets 1B prospect Ike Davis. There’s still upside in this, too, if he can continue to cut down on the strikeouts.
Gamel’s not going to be a superstar, but with how much he’s cut down on his strikeouts, Gamel should be able to jump in right away and contribute as a solidly above average major league hitter. Of course, his defense is always a question mark, but from what I’ve seen of him, there’s reason to believe he could be a solid defender at 1B, which would give him decent value in the major leagues. Gamel should be about an average player in the majors, and that would certainly lessen the pain if Prince Fielder were traded in the offseason to acquire pitching.