Deep Dive: The Ace in the Hole for the Pittsburgh Pirates

Deep Dive: The Ace in the Hole for the Pittsburgh Pirates

by April 19, 2022 0 comments

The atrocities that the Pittsburgh Pirates committed have endeared themselves to the Deep Dive series. Last September, we looked into three of Pittsburgh’s best players. That came not too long after a glance at Richard Rodriguez, whom the Pirates had just dealt to the Atlanta Braves. Speaking of Rodriguez, well, he has had an interesting go of things lately. Now, it’s time to close out the trilogy. In terms of third installments, hopefully this is less like Spider-Man 3 and more like Thor: Ragnorak (that Love and Thunder trailer looks cool!).

Lineup Dynamics

Entering a series against Pittsburgh, two dangerous batters pop out at you. Bryan Reynolds is one, and he was a part of the second deep dive. The other is young Ke’Bryan Hayes, who slumped in 2021 but is still a threat for the Pirates. When Hayes is at the plate, the batter in the hole has emerged as a potential third problem for opposing pitchers. That man is Ben Gamel.

Before fans of Gamel’s former teams are lost, most notably the Yankees, Guardians, and Brewers, where he was unremarkable, wait for some of the comparisons to pop in. Gamel has clear weaknesses, but his strengths line up with some of the better players in the game. One place where that is absent, surprisingly, is on defense. You would assume that a guy who started his career as an extra outfielder with above-average speed would grade well in the field. However, he had -10 outs above average in 2021 with the Pirates and -17 defensive runs saved in his career.

Patient Hitter

In a day and age where on-base percentage trumps batting average (according to most baseball minds), Gamel’s lowly .255 average with the Pirates last season can easily be excused as long as he walks a lot. Luckily for him, he can definitely take ball four. Gamel’s 12.8 walk percentage was in the 90th percentile of hitters and 29th among batters with at least 250 plate appearances in 2021.

This is not a new development, either. In his career, Gamel’s BB percentage was only under 10 percent once, in 2017. He’s off to a good start in 2022, walking 18.8 percent of the time. Strikeouts were a problem, however. Gamel had a 19th-percentile strikeout percentage of 26.3 in 2021. On the bright side, he is not completely taking himself out of at-bats. His chase rate sitting in the 78th percentile.

Batting Profile

The new method of teaching hitting leans away from groundballs and preaches elevating the baseball. The term ‘launch angle’ is used very often. While he doesn’t compare to someone like Joey Gallo, Gamel is good in the launch angle game. In 2021, his average launch angle was 16.7 degrees. Notable hitters in that same range include Shohei Ohtani, J.D. Martinez, and Brandon Lowe.

The 29-year-old also keeps the ball in the air. His groundball rate of 32.4 percent was the 18th-lowest among hitters with 250 plate appearances or more in 2021. He was the only player in all of baseball to have a higher line drive rate than ground ball rate. Ronald Acuna Jr. was the next closest but missed by a bit more than two percent. Gamel’s 33.2 percent line-drive rate was the highest in the league among players with 400 or more plate appearances.

A solid comparison for Gamel is the Los Angeles Dodgers’ Justin Turner, a player consisting in the OPS range of around .900. Both players do not have remarkable barrel percentages, each at exactly 7.9 percent in 2021. Gamel’s ground ball to fly ball to line drive ratio in 2021 was 32.4: 29: 33.2. That is eerily similar to Turner, who finished at 35.4: 33.1: 24.5. Of course, no two players will have the same percentage in all three categories, but, Gamel comes close to Turner.

Pedro Cerrano

Gamel destroyed fastballs in 2021. Four-seamers had a run value of seven against him, which for hitters is a good thing. He whiffed on just 13.6 percent of heaters, with an outstanding .382 xwOBA. For context, only 23 hitters in all of baseball had a total xwOBA of .382 or better. Batters just missing the mark include Jose Ramirez, Pete Alonso, and Matt Olson. Seven of Gamel’s eight home runs were off of fastballs, the pitch he saw 56 percent of the time.

Of course, there has to be a catch. For Gamel, that is the inability to hit anything aside from fastballs. Moving back to run value, changeups had a -6 RV, and sliders had a -5 RV versus Gamel. Some pitches with a -6 RV last year include Brandon Woodruff‘s changeup, Clay Holmes‘ sinker, Zack Greinke‘s changeup, and Nathan Eovaldi‘s curveball. For Gamel, being in that contention against sliders and changeups is a disastrous development.

The lowest xwOBA of all hitters with 250+ plate appearances in 2021 was .230, by Colorado’s Joshua Fuentes. Gamel had an xwOBA lower than that against two types of pitches entirely. For breaking balls and off-speed pitches, Gamel had a .212 and .229 xwOBA, respectively. This goes to show that while Gamel has numbers that size up well with baseball’s top hitters, everyone has a weakness. For Gamel, just don’t throw him fastballs.

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