Carlos Gomez stunk in 2015. That statement is relative, of course — Gomez is a good ballplayer, and 2.6 wins above replacement (WAR) in 115 games ain’t so shabby — but for a consensus top-10 fantasy pick in 2015, he was a bust.
For anyone who hasn’t followed the trajectory of Gomez’s career over the years, it has been a tumultuous one. A top-100 prospect who bounced from team to team early on, Gomez hit his stride in a half-season sample for the Brewers in 2011 during which his isolated power (ISO) spiked 60 points alongside season-long paces (600 plate appearances) of 19 home runs and 37 stolen bases. Fantasy owners who noticed the improvement and expressed skepticism toward a depressed batting average on balls in play (BABIP) were rewarded handsomely in 2012. Gomez paid even more dividends in 2013 as he demonstrated the legitimacy of his gains.
We’ve reached a strange point in his trajectory, however. Gomez, having turned 30 three days ago (happy birthday, Carlos!!!!) and coming off his worst offensive season in half a decade, may be declining or, at the very least, have fallen from his elite offensive perch for good. Gomez’s production in terms of weighted runs created (wRC+) depicts a sharp and sustained increase in production followed by a two-year plateau and then a profound leap off said plateau in 2015.
To employ a poorly conceived financial metaphor, Gomez has diversified his portfolio over the years, deriving annual profits through various revenue streams. In 2015, , however, they may have all dried up.
Gomez’s 2013 encore to his 2012 breakout yielded a monstrous leap in production to the opposite field, his wRC+ spiking from 66 to 152. His hard-hit rate (Hard%) peaked in this year, increasing only marginally from 27.4% to a career-best 31.9%. However, the hard-hit gains coincided with a .355 BABIP — a gain I’m inclined to believe is unsustainable given Gomez never mustered an opposite-field BABIP better than .267 in every other season since 2011.
Like clockwork, that BABIP fell in 2014 (down to .267) and the wRC+ fell with it (65, mirroring 2012’s mark of 66). Worse, Gomez’s hard-hit rate plummeted from its peak at 31.9% down to 20.0% in 2014 and 19.1% in 2015.
This alarming change in hard-hit tendencies, however, may have been the result of a slightly different approach at the plate. They didn’t completely mitigate the aforementioned losses to the opposite-field hard-hit rate, but his hard hits up the middle occurred at a career-best frequency (40.4%, up from 35.5% in 2013).
Frankly, I’m reluctant to conclude that Gomez’s small gain in Hard% by itself caused his home runs per fly ball (HR/FB) on hits up the middle to jump to 15.7%, up from 9.4% (2012) and 8.9% (2013). For additional perspective: Gomez hit 11 home runs in 299 balls in play up the middle from 2011 through 2013; he matched that total in fewer than half as many balls in play up the middle (144) in 2014.
I hesitate to say “like clockwork” again, but like clockwork, the up-the-middle HR/FB regressed — actually, it over-regressed — to a meager 4.1% in 2015 despite a largely unchanged batted ball profile for such balls in play. But I’ll get to that in a second.
To briefly recap: in 2013, Gomez hit with authority to the right side in a season that ended up being the beginning of a two-year pinnacle of excellence. This opposite-field prowess crumbled in 2014, however. Thus — f or the sake of constructing a narrative — thus, Gomez shifted his authoritative production up the middle.
Yet in 2013 and 2014, luck seemed to buoy his gains in production, either in the form of an uncharacteristically high BABIP or HR/FB one way or another.
Which brings us to 2015, when it all fell apart. As previously stated, Gomez’s opposite-field hard-hit rate couldn’t rebound, and the BABIP, which had fallen from .355 to .267, remained suppressed at a lowly, but not uncharacteristic, .262 this season. Furthermore, Gomez’s ground ball rate (GB%) to the opposite field spiked to 33.7% in 2015, the worst rate in any full season of his career and more than 12 percentage points higher than any rate dating back to 2012.
Then the HR/FB up the middle tanked. At least there’s a silver lining there, though, in that the rest of his batted ball profile for balls in play up the middle looks pretty strong, save for some volatile fluctuations in his fly ball rate (FB%).
Something had to go wrong elsewhere, however, and go wrong it did. Gomez’s pull-side BABIP, which hovered between .347 and .402 from 2012 through 2014, crashed down to .272 in 2015. And while some of his gains in previous years seem kind of fluky in hindsight, this decline seems less attributable to Lady Luck in light of a pull-side hard-hit rate that fell from 41.4% in 2014 to a miserable 29.9% in 2015. In case it needed reiteration, Hard% (predictably) correlates strongly and positively with BABIP (and ISO). It’s possible, then, that Gomez suffered some bad luck, but the change in hard-hit rate to his dominant side is, frankly, quite worrisome.
Good question. At this point, it’s mostly a matter of (in)validating all these changes to Gomez’s game. A comparison of Gomez’s ISO heat maps between his two-year peak (2012-13) and this past season reveal equally peculiar and woeful trends.
Gomez failed to capitalize on pitches in the zones he punished during his peak. His lumpy beach ball hot zone became more of a sad jumbo shrimp — pitches both up-and-away and up-and-in eluded him in 2015. Moreover, he failed to muster the same kind of oomph on pitches in the heart of the zone, losing more than 70 points of ISO there, as depicted by more generalized versions of the above heat maps:
Of course, a heat map, descriptive as it may be, may not tell the complete story. For example, did Gomez battle injuries throughout the year? (Indeed, he did — hamstring [April] and intercostal [September] strains twice forced him to the disabled list.) Moreover, a heat map is not necessarily prescriptive. In other words, this heat map can’t clarify whether Gomez will bounce back or continue a slow, steady descent into old age.
What we do know is this: Gomez stopped raking on breaking pitches.
Weighted Runs Above Average on Sliders and Curves:
2012: +6.5 runs
I presented that like it would be some kind of ultimate truth, but truthfully, Gomez’s effectiveness has been so volatile each year — he crushed breaking balls in 2013, fastballs in 2014, change-ups in 2015 — that it’s hard to give much credence to these fluctuations. Still, his effectiveness against breaking balls has suffered, and it’s not just a one-year thing.
These kinds of dips in pull-side efficacy probably* don’t rear their ugly heads too often. (*Because batted ball splits by ball-in-play location aren’t available on our leaderboards, this remains a probably and not a certifiably.) Gomez may no longer be a lock for 20 home runs even if given a clean bill of health. And, in light of successfully converting less than two-thirds of his stolen base attempts in 2015, he may no longer be a lock for 20-plus stolen bases, either, as the Astros could yank his green-light privileges.
I’m interested to see how various systems project Gomez for next year. Steamer is already posted to FanGraphs (and Carson Cistulli started rolling out ZiPS projections by team), and it expects 19 home runs, 24 stolen bases and a .255/.317/.409 line, good for a 103 wRC+. There’s a bit of optimism there regarding the power, but Steamer expects the BABIP to remained depressed, a sentiment I echo. I think I’m even less cautiously optimistic. I would take the under on the home runs, albeit by a negligibly small margin, but also the under on steals by a much larger margin based on this trend:
Still, with the production Steamer anticipates, Gomez would be a solid asset in 2016, even in standard leagues — he’ll just be a much riskier investment on draft day without the kind of bounce-back upside people might expect. I’m fairly risk-averse, and my Gomez cup is half-empty, so I probably won’t touch him unless he falls far — and I simply don’t expect that to happen.