Carlos Gomez’s Symbolic Pursuit

Way back at the beginning of May, the Diamondbacks were preparing to play the Brewers, and Kirk Gibson warned his pitchers about Carlos Gomez. He tipped them off about his aggressive tendencies, making clear that the pitchers would need to be careful. On Monday, May 5, Arizona got out to a 1-0 lead in the top of the first. In the bottom of the first, Mike Bolsinger started with a cutter, and Gomez swung, and the score was 1-1. One pitch, one swing, one dinger. It was exactly what Gibson warned against, and it’s just one of those things that Gomez does.

Said Gibson:

“We didn’t execute pitches from the first pitch of the game,” Gibson said. “I talked to you guys about Gomez. He’s a first-pitch fastball hitter and we threw one there and hit he it out of the park.”

Admitted Bolsinger:

“I knew he was a first-pitch guy, but I didn’t know he’d swing like that on the first pitch of the game,” he said. “I thought I could (sneak it by him), but I guess I didn’t.”

Gibson was right about Gomez being a first-pitch fastball hitter. Since 2012, when Gomez turned his career around, he’s hit .361 against first-pitch fastballs while slugging .669. That is a hell of a lot of damage.

But Gibson was wrong in that Gomez isn’t just a first-pitch fastball hitter. Against first-pitch breaking balls or offspeed stuff, he’s hit .434 while slugging .802. Carlos Gomez isn’t a first-pitch fastball hitter — Carlos Gomez is a first-pitch baseball hitter, and as he’s grown more and more comfortable with his new style, he’s taking things toward an extreme.

Baseball-Reference keeps track of first-pitch swing rates. A year ago, Gomez led regulars by swinging at 52% of first pitches. He had a lead on second place of six percentage points. Right now, Gomez leads regulars, having swung at 55% of first pitches. He has a lead on second place of almost 11 percentage points. Every statistical category in baseball has to have a leader. In almost every single instance, the leader is only the leader by a small margin. Gomez isn’t just swinging more at the first pitch than anyone — he could stay in the lead by taking more than 70 consecutive first pitches, were everything else to stay the same.

At 55%, Gomez is in rare territory, for an everyday player. In 2004, Vladimir Guerrero checked in at 54%. The same went for Randall Simon in 2002, and Vinny Castilla in 2001. To find a higher rate, you have to go back to Ozzie Guillen in 1991, when he swung at 56% of first pitches. And, in 1988, Mike Marshall swung at nearly 59% of first pitches. As raw percentages, Guillen and Marshall have Gomez beat. But, in 1988, the league-average first-pitch swing rate was about 33%. In 1991, it was about 30%. This year, it’s about 27%. As the years have passed, batters have gotten progressively more conservative on the first pitch, so if you adjust for that context, Gomez goes back on top. It’s a record that would hardly be a record, it’s not something anyone would talk about, but Carlos Gomez is on the way to posting the highest adjusted first-pitch swing rate in recent history, and that more or less captures what he’s become as a player.

Gomez, essentially, is aggressiveness, personified. He’s aggressive with his swing tendencies. He’s aggressive with his swing itself. He’s aggressive on the basepaths and he’s aggressive in center field. And while over-aggressiveness has caused otherwise talented players to fall short of sticking in the majors, this seems to be precisely Gomez’s wheelhouse. Offensively he’s like the best version of Josh Hamilton, but he can also run the bases and handle the middle of the outfield. There’s no questioning now that Gomez has blossomed, and it’s because he’s been allowed to embrace the player he was supposed to be, instead of the player coaches thought he should be.

The turnaround’s been thoroughly documented. Gomez grew tired of being told to put the ball on the ground and survive on his legs. So he basically asked for permission to try to drive the ball, and the Brewers were more than happy to assist. Here’s what he used to look like at release:

gomez2011

Here’s what he looks like now:

gomez2014

And here’s how some swings can end up:

gomezbolsinger

It would be one thing if Gomez were just more aggressive across the board. What’s remarkable is how he’s remained mostly in control. Between 2008 – 2011, Gomez swung at 36% of pitches out of the zone. Since 2012, he’s swung at 37% of pitches out of the zone. Meanwhile, between 2008 – 2011, Gomez swung at 65% of pitches in the zone. Since 2012, he’s swung at 76% of pitches in the zone. With a more fitting swing unleashed, Gomez has felt more comfortable attacking pitches worth attacking. He’s still aggressive out of the zone, but he’s increased his good aggressiveness without increasing so much of the bad, and that’s been a key to his unlocking this level.

Relatedly, let’s do some math with Baseball Savant. Between 2008 – 2011, Gomez swung at 30% of first pitches out of the zone. Since 2012, he’s swung at 33% of first pitches out of the zone. Meanwhile, between 2008 – 2011, Gomez swung at 56% of first pitches in the zone. Since 2012, he’s swung at 73% of first pitches in the zone. This year he’s up to 79%. Gomez still has his vulnerabilities, and he only makes contact with first pitches 70% of the time, but that’s when he gets to swing most aggressively, when he still has two more strikes to give. This year, Gomez has seen fewer first pitches in the zone than ever, as pitchers have responded to his aggressiveness. Gomez, in turn, has responded by passing up fewer opportunities than ever. Which makes for a tricky mental calculation, for pitchers — throw in the zone to get ahead, and Gomez might punish it. Try to take advantage of his aggressiveness, and you might fall behind. In this way Carlos Gomez is going on the offensive.

There’s a variety of factors behind the annual increase in strikeout rates, but among them is that hitters have been more passive with first pitches while pitchers have been slightly more aggressive. So batters have fallen behind more often, and then it’s the batters who have to defend. Carlos Gomez is zigging where a lot of baseball has been zagging. Gomez isn’t the only aggressive player in baseball, but he’s the most aggressive player in his way, which is the way of a possible MVP. Far more than anybody else, Gomez is attacking the first pitch he sees. This is because Carlos Gomez is forever on the attack.

We hoped you liked reading Carlos Gomez’s Symbolic Pursuit by Jeff Sullivan!

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Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.

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Bucky
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Bucky

Cannot agree more with the sentiment in this article. And there are few other managers who would have created an atmosphere in which Gomez can succeed. Ron R wants his guys to push the action. ALWAYS. It is no coincidence the Brewers draw few walks and run into all kinds of outs on the bases. That is their manager’s preferred approach, and his players do what is asked. Right or wrong Milwaukee players are always forcing things be it at the plate or in the field.