Ben Gamel Locked In On Fastballs, Legitimately Improving at the Plate
After consecutive impressive offensive performances for the Yankees’ AAA affiliate in the 2014/15 seasons, Ben Gamel was a hot commodity to the Mariners who eventually traded a couple minor league right-handers for him in 2016. An incredible start to the following season got fans really believing in his tools, and the hope was that he was breaking out after significant minor league success.
He carried a hefty .346/.403/.490 line during the first couple months of 2017, but as that was slashed to .226/.263/.359 the rest of the way, breakout hopes for Ben Gamel were equally dashed.
Despite the hard second-half skid, Gamel turned in an admirable performance overall for a first-year player and the Mariners liked him enough to pencil him in for significant playing time on the 2018 roster with the hope that he could blossom further.
Instead, a dreadful start to this season begot some frustrated concern.
Let’s give the guy some credit though. An oblique injury kept him out of spring training almost entirely and he played 10 games between AAA Tacoma and High-A Modesto before coming back to the major league squad; struggling was understandable.
But beneath his struggles and flowing golden locks may have been indicators that the hot streak we’re witnessing was inevitable from the start.
First, let’s rewind to the breakout that wasn’t: 2017.
From his first game through June 24th, 2017 Gamel owned a phenomenal 145 wRC+. Much of that production was accounted for by a sky-high .456 BABIP that I suppose was partially justified by an impressive 27.5% line drive rate (LD%), but Gamel also ran a .436 BABIP on groundballs. The amount of damage he was able to do on typically limited batted balls was astounding.
Per Baseball Savant, he owned a .399 wOBA on grounders compared to a .219 expected wOBA (xwOBA), which was simply unsustainable over a long period, and sure enough, through the end of the season, Gamel posted a .205 wOBA/.195 xwOBA on groundballs.
Unfortunately, he lost his touch for those liners he was hitting as well, as his line drive rate plummeted to 18.1% and he hit 50.6% of his balls in play on the ground. It was a certifiable funk as Gamel’s average exit velocity (EV) dipped from a roughly average 87.4 mph to 85.4 mph and he limped to the finish line with a 65 wRC+ the rest of the season.
This year is proving to be a different story though.
Although he had little pre-season playing time between spring training and a rehab assignment, when Gamel returned his average EV was back up to a relatively strong 87.9 mph through May 13th and he managed an above average 23.7% line drive rate.
The 10 line drives he was able to hit in that time frame were not too impressive themselves (.574 xwOBA) but that Gamel was frequently squaring them up at all while batting around .200 was encouraging.
Additionally, unlike his second-half slump in 2017 when he walked 4.7% of the time over 316 PA, Gamel walked in 8.6% of his 58 PA through May 13th. He didn’t abandon his approach to search for hits and the resulting 8.8% BB% over this season so far has essentially matched his walk rate during his 2017 hot streak.
Despite his poor bottom line, Gamel did not struggle early this season the same way that he did during his slump in the second half of 2017.
Maybe that unfortunate spring training absence hid a more focused Gamel from us until recently. Now that he and the season are in full gear, we start to wonder what part of his newest hot streak is sustainable.
Other than the fact that he is absolutely spanking the ball right now, one of the more impressive things about Gamel’s recent tear is his strikeout rate.
For his career through May 13th, 2018, Gamel had a respectable 22.9% K%, but since then he’s struck out in just 15.9% of his 113 PA. Part of that is playing less against lefties, yet his strikeout rate against right-handers has improved from 19.9% last year to 18.4% overall this year and 15.1% over this recent stretch.
In that time, he also has an absurd 34.9% LD%. Regardless of whether that’s sustainable (it’s not), it appears that he has really honed in on the ball. Notably, according to Brooks Baseball, Gamel is whiffing far less often on fastballs this year.
|Time Period||4-seam FB Pitch Count||Whiff/Swing on 4-seam FB||xwOBA vs. 4-seam FB|
|First 2017 game – 6/24||334||14.39%||.327|
|6/25 – Last 2017 game||408||15.61%||.239|
|First 2018 game – 5/13||84||5.88%||.532|
He left his whiffs back in 2017, and as a result, he has put in play a slightly higher percentage of 4-seamers than he did last year despite swinging at fewer of them and seeing about a 4 percentage point increase in called balls on them. It may be unsurprising then that his xwOBA against 4-seam fastballs (per Baseball Savant) is so high this year.
This is important because Gamel has generally depended on being a good fastball hitter.
By Pitch Info pitch values, per 100 pitches, the only pitch type that Gamel has produced positive value against during each of the last 3 seasons is the 4-seam fastball. He can certainly hit other pitches, but the great majority of his damage is going to come off “straight” fastballs, which should underscore the significance of this improvement.
The less he misses that pitch, the less he has to contend with other offerings. So not only could he legitimately improve his strikeout rate, he could improve his overall quality of contact too.
Since his poor start to the season faded, Gamel has also reduced his whiff per swing percentage on changeups, curveballs, and sliders and has been on an amazing run, slashing .356/.425/.485 since May 14th while being the beneficiary of a less extreme but still above average .262 wOBA/.251 xwOBA on groundballs.
Now that he is completely healthy and has his timing down, perhaps the difference is that Gamel doesn’t have to cheat to catch fastballs and can now sit back a little better and devote more cognitive resources toward differentiating 4-seamers from non-fastballs.
What if we try to Nerf his recent performance though?
If we drag his BABIP down to its current .367 mark to reflect a decrease in his 34.9% LD%, return his doubles rate to its 2017 level because of a lower volume of line drives and nix his K% improvement by restoring it to his career K% of 21.9%, his triple slash over this recent stretch comes down to about .283/.360/.383 — just a tinge under his current .294/.368/.399 line which has earned him a 118 wRC+ on the year.
Even with some regression baked-in, Gamel looks like he has improved upon last season.
Time will tell what reality will come to fruition, but Gamel’s improvement against fastballs and continued success without too much extra help from those pesky seeing-eye grounders create a promising separation between this year’s hot streak and last year’s.
One way to get better at hitting is to absolve your weaknesses. And as Ben Gamel may be showing, another way is to further boost your strengths.
Although he still has not solved breaking pitches, Gamel is doing his best to mitigate that weakness by following the old adage: the best way to hit the curveball is to hit the fastball.
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Whether this means he has the potential to play every day is up for debate until he actually starts playing every day, but for now, though, the Mariners may be polishing a diamond in the rough.
Another interesting tidbit: Ben Gamel’s infield fly-ball percentage is down from 9.2% to 3.2% this year.