Evan Gattis’ Rollercoaster Ride Through Baseball Has Ended

For a guy who didn’t play at all in 2019, and was right around replacement level the year before, Evan Gattis has been in the news a fair bit this winter. In fact, as much as any of the Astros’ marquee players, he’s become one of the faces of their illegal sign-stealing efforts and the aftermath, a situation he’s confronted with a candor rare among his former teammates, but typical of his time in the majors. Last week, the 33-year-old slugger confirmed that his playing career is indeed over. In his six-year career, the free-swinging Gattis hit .248/.300/.476 (110 wRC+) with 139 homers and 8.9 WAR, but those numbers barely scratch the surface of what’s been one of the more improbable tours through the professional ranks in recent memory.

Within The Athletic’s landmark November 12 report on the Astros’ sign-stealing efforts was a reference to a September 21, 2017 game in which White Sox reliever Danny Farquhar described hearing a banging sound while on the mound. That trash can-based signal was the cue to alert an Astros hitter if a breaking ball or offspeed pitch was coming. Within hours, Jimmy O’Brien of Jomboy Media posted a detailed breakdown to Twitter and YouTube, showing Farquhar facing off against Gattis, with audible bangs anticipating some of the pitcher’s selections. Upon reaching a 2-2 count, Farquhar summons catcher Kevan Smith; the two changed signs, and Gattis struck out chasing a low changeup.

On YouTube, that clip of Gattis receiving signs and then getting hung out to dry once they were changed — compelling audiovisual evidence to accompany the deep reporting of Ken Rosenthal and Evan Drellich — has been watched over 4.5 million times. Gattis has struck out four and a half million times on that pitch alone.

When he wasn’t on the disabled list for a concussion or right wrist soreness, Gattis split his 2017 season between serving as the Astros’ backup catcher behind Brian McCann and occasionally DHing; he had taken a backseat to newcomer Carlos Beltrán after serving as the team’s most frequent DH in both 2015 and ’16. He hit a modest .263/.311/.457 (105 wRC+) with 12 homers in 325 PA, a total that ranked 10th on the team. Per the data compiled by Astros fan Tony Adams, Gattis ranked eighth in terms of the total bangs that occurred in the 60 home games he logged (71). Though overall he trimmed his strikeout rate from 25.5% in 2016 to 15.4% in ’17, his wRC+ nonetheless dropped from 121 to 10; via Jake Mailhot’s number crunching, which was based upon 58 games logged, Gattis ranked among the team’s three worst hitters in plate appearances with bangs in both medium- and high-leverage situations, about 3.8 runs worse than average; he was only about 0.7 runs above average in low-leverage situations, so it’s fair to say that the scheme was a net loss for him, even with the dip in strikeouts. He wasn’t quite as bad as Marwin Gonzalez (-5.7 runs), Beltrán (-5.5 runs), or McCann (-4.0), but he certainly wasn’t good.

“Nobody made us do shit,” Gattis told The Athletic’s David O’Brien and former major league pitcher Eric O’Flaherty on the 755 Is Real Podcast last week:

“You know what I’m saying? People saying this guy made us, that guy made us, that’s not it. But you have to understand the situation was powerful. You work your whole life to try to fucking hit a ball, and you mean you can tell me what’s coming? It was like, ‘What?’ It’s a powerful thing, and there’s millions of dollars on the line and shit? And that’s the bad of it, too, that’s where people got hurt. And that’s not right. That’s not playing the game right.”

As part of a two-part dig into his career that ran nearly three hours, Gattis offered more insight and frankness with regards to the sign-stealing scandal than just about any Astro thus far. Yes, after the stilted sorries offered by Jose Altuve, Alex Bregman, and owner Jim Crane as the team opened camp on February 13, it was Carlos Correa who sounded like one of the few adults in the room. “There’s no excuse for that. We were wrong for everything we did in 2017,” Correa told reporters that day, but within days, he was defensive and defiant about whether the team didn’t gain an advantage in the World Series against the Dodgers, as if he and his teammates suddenly deserved the benefit of the doubt regarding their own version of events.

Gattis, who sat out all of last season and hasn’t been part of any organization since the end of the 2018 season — and thus, doesn’t have current teammates to answer to — offered a more unvarnished version of events in his podcast appearance, and didn’t spare himself the blame:

“If I had to show up to spring training this year, and deal with what the guys are going through, I don’t think I could win the hearts over of anyone right now — or maybe ever. We didn’t look at our moral compass and say this is right. It was almost like paranoia warfare or something. But what we did was wrong. Don’t get it twisted: It was wrong for the nature of competition, not even just baseball.”

…”Everybody wants to be the best player in the fucking world, man. To find out how good you are, I think, is valuable. And we cheated that, for sure. And we obviously cheated baseball and cheated fans. Fans felt duped. I feel bad for fans.

…”I’m not asking for sympathy or anything like that. If our punishment is being hated by everybody forever, just like, whatever. I don’t know what should be done, but something had to fucking be done. I do agree with that, big-time. I do think it’s good for baseball that we’re cleaning it up. … And I understand that it’s not fucking good enough to say sorry. I get it.”

…”It got out of fucking control. That’s why I’m actually glad that the objective truth is out there. We fucked up, and it was not right. It was wrong. It’s a little easier to see it being fucked up afterwards. Don’t get me wrong, I’m very happy we won the World Series. … But once that all fades, now it’s kind of different. That happened and we cheated. You can’t feel that good about it.”

Maybe there are current Astros who feel as strongly as Gattis does, but if so, none has said so as unsparingly. Obviously, such words don’t undo what’s done, but they’re better than offering platitudes and mealy-mouthed denials.

Gattis had made news earlier in the week when he tweeted a photo of a glass sold by a Houston bar depicting A’s pitcher Mike Fiers, who pitched for the Astros from 2015-17 and served as the whistleblower in The Athletic’s report. “Snitches get stitches” reads the caption below Fiers’ face, the implication being that physical harm is coming Fiers’ way:

A day later, Gattis did offer some additional context for the picture, tweeting, “For the record I have zero bad feelings towards Fiers. We have actually texted and I hoped he didn’t get too much hate/ (actual scary hate mail, threats etc.) he was our teammate. I just thought the glass was funny.” He added in a second tweet, “The way the ‘public’ feels about us cheating is how I felt when I at least assumed that other people were cheating against us. No excuses. But I understand everyone’s anger. Doesn’t exactly put humpty dumpty back together again.”

Gattis may not put Humpty Dumpty back together in one series of tweets and podcast appearances, but he has brought to a close an eventful 16-year odyssey. Growing up in Forney, Texas, he bounced around high schools in the Dallas-Fort Worth area to play for specific coaches, and at one point was a teammate of Clayton Kershaw at Highland Park High School and on a traveling team called the Dallas Tigers. Coming out of Bishop Lynch High School in 2004, he expected to be drafted in the first eight rounds — “He had tools you just don’t see,” recalled Dallas-based scout Gerald Turner in 2013, citing his power and throwing arm. “He might be the strongest human being I’ve ever shook hands with” — but he went unclaimed. Bypassing an offer to play first base for Rice University, the defending national champions, because he wanted to catch, he instead signed a letter of intent to play at Texas A&M.

Gattis never showed up at A&M because he feared not only failing a drug test, but of failing, period. As he told MLB.com’s Brian McTaggert in 2015, “I was a scared kid that smoked too much pot, a 17-year-old. I never really gave myself a chance to fail, so really the big thing was coming back and playing and kind of go face these fears and kind of march back into it. At least if I fail, I’ll be a success just to go do it instead of chickening out or just being afraid.”

Gattis, whose family situation (his parents divorced at eight) weighed heavily upon him, spent a month in rehab and three months in an outpatient program. He wound up at Seminole State Junior College in Oklahoma, where he redshirted a year and played half a season before suffering a knee injury and then dropping out and drifting through a series of odd jobs. Via USA Today’s Bob Nightengales:

Gattis says he spent the next four years working as a car valet in Dallas; a ski lift operator at the Eldora Mountain Resort in Colorado and Taos, N.M; a pizza cook at Nick-N-Willy’s in Boulder, Colo.; a housekeeper at the Abominable Snowmansion hostel in Taos, and another in Flagstaff, Ariz.; a machinery operator at Kimbrell’s Kustom Machine Shop in Garland, Texas; a golf cart attendant at the Firewheel Golf Course in Garland and a janitor for Jan-Pro Cleaning Systems in Plano, Texas.

Amid this run, Gattis was hospitalized in 2007, and diagnosed with clinical depression and an anxiety disorder. “I was so depressed, all I could think about was killing myself,” he told Nightengale.

In 2010, Gattis joined his stepbrother Drew Kendrick at the University of Texas-Permian Basin. There he put himself back on the baseball map by hitting .403 with 11 homers. On the strength of a showcase for Turner — “The wind was blowing in, and he still hit 15 to 20 homers out” — the 23-year-old slugger was drafted by the Braves in the 23rd round, and signed for a $1,000 bonus. His raw power carried him up the ladder in spite of his rawness behind the plate; he hit .322/.386/.601 with 22 homers at A-level Rome in 2011, then .305/.389/.607 with 18 homers at High-A and Double-A in 2012. After entering the 2013 season ranked eighth on the Braves’ prospect list by Baseball America, he broke camp with the team while McCann recovered from offseason shoulder surgery. He homered off the Phillies Roy Halladay in his second major league plate appearance, and the hits kept coming. He did the bulk of the Braves’ catching duty until early May, when McCann returned, then moved to left field. By the end of May, he had clubbed 12 homers and slugged .619 in 43 games.

By this point, the legend of “El Oso Blanco” — a nickname he acquired while playing in the Venezuelan Winter League in 2012-13 — was growing. In the tradition of the Matt Wieters/Chuck Norris comparisons, Rob Jenners of 680 The Fan, the Braves’ flagship radio station, wove together some tall tales.

“Raised by wolverines in the mountains of Tibet… in fear of dethroning the game’s greatest players, he was hesitant to play professionally… One time in the middle of a game, he ran off the field to thwart an international hostage crisis… he then returned two innings later and hit a walk-off three-run shot to win the game, the kind of thing Yunel Escobar would never have done…”

Though his bat cooled due in part to an oblique strain that sidelined him for nearly four weeks in June and July, Gattis finished the year with a .243/.291/.480 (110 wRC+) line and 21 homers in 382 PA en route to 2.1 WAR, and tied for seventh in the NL Rookie of the Year voting. On September 8 that year, he homered off the Phillies’ Cole Hamels; the 486-foot estimated distance made it the season’s longest homer and the longest in the brief history of Citizens Bank Park.

With McCann departing for the Yankees in free agency, Gattis took over the Braves’ regular catching duties and improved to .263/.317/.493 (125 wRC+) with 22 homers in 401 PA, again good for 2.1 WAR. Traded to the rebuilding Astros in a five-player deal that sent Mike Foltynewicz to Atlanta, he was the starting DH on a team that won a Wild Card berth; he accompanied his 27 homers with 11 triples, a remarkable achievement for a player with his speed — or lack of it.

After not catching at all in 2015, and missing most of spring training in ’16 due to February hernia surgery, Gattis spent that season backing up Jason Castro when he wasn’t DHing, and he set career bests in on-base and slugging percentages (.319 and .508), home runs (32), and WAR (3.0). From there his offense eroded, however, and he battled injuries; he did hit .267/.425/.433 with an ALCS Game 7 homer off CC Sabathia during Houston’s championship run, but the glory of that hot streak is now tarnished. Despite homering 25 times as a full-time DH in 2018, and winning AL Player of the Week honors in June, he finished with a .226/.284/.452 line and -0.1 WAR.

Though Gattis stayed in touch with the Astros over the 2018-19 winter, the team opted to piece together their DH situation without him, and by midseason, rookie Yordan Alvarez began tearing up the league en route to unanimous AL Rookie of the Year honors. In October, Gattis told a Houston reporter, “I don’t even know if I could play, but right now I don’t want to,” and that he was ready to move on.

Thus his recent declaration that he’s done isn’t a surprise. Gattis never made an All-Star team, and rarely grazed any leaderboards. He made his mistakes with his involvement in the sign-stealing mess, and it sounds as though he’ll be stewing on those for awhile. Still, the glimpses he offered into his struggles, particularly when it comes to speaking frankly about his mental health woes, elevate him beyond his journeyman status. The legend of El Oso Blanco will live on.

Brooklyn-based Jay Jaffe is a senior writer for FanGraphs, the author of The Cooperstown Casebook (Thomas Dunne Books, 2017) and the creator of the JAWS (Jaffe WAR Score) metric for Hall of Fame analysis. He founded the Futility Infielder website (2001), was a columnist for Baseball Prospectus (2005-2012) and a contributing writer for Sports Illustrated (2012-2018). He has been a recurring guest on MLB Network and a member of the BBWAA since 2011, and a Hall of Fame voter since 2021. Follow him on Twitter @jay_jaffe... and BlueSky @jayjaffe.bsky.social.

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3 years ago

I was wondering why he was so blunt and honest about it.
It would be interesting to know what came first, the intent to retire or to ‘fess up.
One hopes for the latter.

3 years ago
Reply to  fjtorres

He didn’t play in 2019 and had no known offers in 2020. I dong think he really had to come up with the idea to retire.