Evan Gattis is a beast. El Oso Blanco. Gattis has slugged .587 and has 10 homeruns (coming in to Friday’s game), second on the team to Justin Upton in both categories. Last season and just before this season started, when Gattis started to appear on the radar of baseball fans throughout the Americas, many were skeptical about how big an impact he would make in the majors. ESPN’s Keith Law didn’t really consider him a prospect because he was in his mid-20’s playing in the low minors against players in their late-teens and early-20’s. He was just way more physically developed than anyone at the lower levels of the minors. Gattis had a great story and everyone loved his perseverance but many didn’t consider him much more than a player who would barely start in the majors or would be a bench bat. But Gattis is hitting for plenty of power at the major league level so far this season and hasn’t embarrassed himself at catcher, leftfield or firstbase. Has he done enough to change minds?
Well, one thing to consider is Gattis has only played in 37 games and has only 133 plate appearances in the majors. Plenty of players have played over (or under) their heads in 37 games and 133 plate appearances. Unless folks thought Gattis wasn’t much of a power hitter, what he’s done in 37 games isn’t all that shocking to those who were skeptical that Gattis could make a significant impact in the majors.
We knew coming in that Gattis had power but the question was what kind of approach will he have and what kind of hitter would he be in terms of hitting for average and getting on base. So far Gattis has a .308 OBP and has drawn 8 walks, that’s one fewer than Juan Francisco in 20 more plate appearances. His walk rate is 12th on the team. Among players who have gotten regular and semi-regular playing time, only Andrelton Simmons and Chris Johnson have lower walk rates. I’m not much of a fan of batting average (at least not over OBP and SLG and many other metrics) but Gattis is hitting just .256 and is also not drawing walks. So it’s not shocking that his OBP is .308. Gattis hasn’t done enough in terms of approach and hit tool to convince the skeptics to change their minds.
One area where the skeptics might want to rethink Gattis is his ability to handle catching duties. Many questioned that Gattis would be able to even handle catching at all in the majors much less fill in as the primary starter for Brian McCann. He seemed to do just fine. Now part of that is because he provided so much in the way of total bases that his defense wasn’t all that much of a concern. And I’m not claiming that Gattis is a great catcher or that the skeptics were wrong about his defense. Perhaps where they were wrong is in the importance of having a good defensive catcher or what makes a catcher adequate on defense.
Perhaps Gattis should make us rethink what is required of the catching position. If a guy is athletic enough to make good throws and block balls in the dirt, if he can provide some offensive value, it may be worth putting him behind the plate. Catching is obviously tough, don’t get me wrong. But perhaps, relatively speaking, it’s not as tough as some other positions. I would say it’s more physically demanding than tough, again, relatively speaking. I don’t want to undersell how tough it is to play any position in the majors and I can’t emphasis enough that I’m simply referring to catching not requiring the same kinds of defensive attributes as other positions, to a lesser degree than we once thought. Gattis may be just fine behind the plate next season, if the Braves go that route. At the plate, even if his approach and hitting doesn’t improve, he’ll impact some games with his power.
So far Gattis’ approach and power looks a lot like Juan Francisco. If Francisco were a catcher, his offensive skills would be good enough to be a starter at that position, though not a star. But if it’s too early to draw conclusions that Gattis is going to be one of the better sluggers in the game, it’s also too early to say he’s going to be the Juan Francisco of catchers. Still I would tend to trust guys like Keith Law, who have sources in scouting and in front offices and have been paying attention to Gattis for a while, as opposed to putting a lot of stock in a 133-plate-appearance sample. And those prospect guys like Law thought Gattis was a part-time type player. I always thought of Eric Hinske or Ryan Doumit. I will continue to root for Gattis and the Gattis story. It’s just too good to be true no matter what type of major leaguer he ultimately becomes. But I don’t think we’ve seen enough to drastically change our minds or to call out Keith Law or other prospect writers who were skeptical of the kind of impact Gattis could make in the Majors. We’ll see.