Nolan Gorman, Balanced Bludgeoner
If Nolan Gorman were filling out a hitting resume this year, he might struggle with the “weaknesses” section. “I care too much,” he might have to settle for, or “my teammates say I have trouble letting go after work.” It would have to be one of those silly platitudes; he’s in the midst of an admirably complete season. It’s not just his .301/.392/.636 slash line, though that’s great. He’s been good against four-seam fastballs, good against sinkers, good against curveballs, good against cutters and changeups; the only pitch he’s struggled with even a little bit is the slider, and he’s still roughly average there. He’s hitting for power and average, taking his walks, and even holding his own against opposing lefties.
That balance is all the more impressive because it’s a 180-degree turn from last year’s campaign. Gorman’s 2022 ended in disappointment. He was called up to the majors in mid-May and briefly found everyday playing time, but by season’s end, the bloom was off the rose. He slumped badly down the stretch, posting a .138/.219/.310 batting line in September, and was demoted to Triple-A before season’s end.
What went wrong? This:
Yes, Gorman had trouble with high fastballs. “Trouble” is understating it, really. He was downright atrocious against four-seamers. He ran an 18.3% swinging-strike rate against them (counting foul tips). Edwin Díaz, the best closer on earth, got swinging strikes on 18% of his four-seamers. We’re talking Joey Gallo territory among hitters, or lost-phase Keston Hiura.
I’m not a big swing mechanics guy, but this one isn’t hard to figure out. Gorman’s swing isn’t geared for those pitches. His bat path simply couldn’t get up to them. Even when pitchers left fastballs slightly low, he frequently swung under them:
To be clear, this isn’t a disqualifying flaw on its own. Pitchers throw high four-seamers because they’re hard to hit. Plenty of good hitters crush fastballs and swing under well-located high ones. Mike Trout famously struggles with high fastballs, occasional fixes notwithstanding. No hitter can cover absolutely everything; there’s always a give and take.
You can succeed while having trouble with the high fastball, but you can’t succeed if you have as much trouble as Gorman did. Of the 188 hitters who saw at least 400 high fastballs last year, he was 181st in runs added or lost per pitch. That’s the kind of performance that you need to do something exceptional elsewhere to counteract. Pitchers picked on that weakness mercilessly: On the season, a third of the pitches he saw were fastballs up, compared to about 25% for hitters as a whole. In September, 38% of the pitches he saw were high fastballs. It was an untenable situation.
Pitchers are still aiming high against Gorman this year. He’s seeing high fastballs on 30% of pitches. There’s just one change:
That’s right: Gorman is now doing damage against high fastballs. It’s more than just the occasional line drive, though. He’s coming up empty less frequently on his swings. He’s also swinging at them less frequently in the first place. That changes the equation substantially, because pitchers don’t always hit their spots, and if you throw Gorman a mid-height fastball, you better duck:
That kind of devastation is nothing surprising; he’s a powerful hitter with fly ball tendencies. His swing was made to take waist-high fastballs and deposit them in the right field bleachers. Every pitcher makes mistakes from time to time; there’s nothing wrong with a swing designed to mash poorly-located fastballs.
Gorman’s changes this year have all been about making that swing play up, both in the absolute sense and in the up-in-the-zone sense. Watch the GIFs of his struggles last year, then re-watch a few from this year. One thing jumps out to me: he’s starting from a less crouched position. He’s virtually upright this year, which lets him keep his hands high the entire time against pitches up in the zone. It also seems to help him track high pitches better, though that’s entirely speculation on my part. And hey, don’t take my word for it. Robert Orr noticed the same changes, and the same likely benefits, in an early-season look at improving hitters.
Seriously, though: a lot of the way you beat high fastballs is by not swinging at them, and Gorman has done a ton of work in that area. Imagine the area that starts right at the top of the zone and then extends a few balls above it. That’s the area where good high fastball pitchers live. Gorman swung at four-seamers in that area 40% of the time last year. That’s not an abysmal mark — league average is 46% — but if you’re weak up there, it’s still a bad look. Trout, for example, swings at those pitches less than 20% of the time.
This year, Gorman is swinging at those pitches only 28% of the time. That’s a huge difference, taking him from below average to above average when it comes to offensive value added. His combination of frequent swings and infrequent contact meant he was one of the worst hitters in baseball in that area last year, as you’ll recall from above. This year, he’s 60th out of 140 hitters who have seen at least 150 high fastballs.
With that weight removed, the rest of his game is singing. He’s a fearsome pull hitter, pulling 40% of his air contact this year, a dead ringer for José Ramírez and Alex Bregman. He’s got natural thump that puts those guys to shame, though, which explains why he’s slugging a ludicrous 1.655 when he pulls the ball in the air. For comparison, Ramírez and Bregman have career marks in the 1.250 range.
In xwOBA terms, Gorman is a top-15 pull power hitter in baseball. None of the hitters who do more damage when they pull the ball in the air do so more frequently, either. He’s currently showing Pete Alonso levels of power when he pulls the ball in the air; he’s also getting to that pull power far more frequently. It’s a terrifying blend for opposing pitchers, particularly now that it’s not being undermined by a boatload of bad swings at high pitches.
Is this devastation going to continue indefinitely? No way. Gorman is on a plate discipline hot streak right now, and a production on contact hot streak, too. Those are bound to cool off, and pitchers will come up with a new plan of attack at the same time. He’s a changed hitter this year, but not a wholly different one. Not swinging at high fastballs is a great adjustment, but he’s not suddenly immune to the pitch, merely less vulnerable. Changes and all, he’s still a low-contact hitter, and patches of empty production come with the territory.
With all due respect to that fact, though, who cares? Gorman wasn’t a major league quality hitter last year; you can tell that because he got demoted to the minor leagues. This year, he’s been one of the best five hitters in the game. Overshoot or no, hot streak or no, he’s found a way to turn what used to be a debilitating weakness into a minor flaw. This is what great major league hitters do: adjust their approach to minimize their weaknesses and accentuate their strengths. And oh, by the way, Gorman only turned 23 two weeks ago. Not that the Cardinals needed more offensive firepower, but it looks like they’ve found some.
Ben is a writer at FanGraphs. He can be found on Twitter @_Ben_Clemens.
I bet Gorman was part of the sample in Ben’s article from yesterday, about bad hitters having hot streaks. Here’s hoping he manages to sustain as much of this improvement as he can, especially the plate discipline. There were a few months when he was repeating AA (I think?) where his plate discipline also went through the roof before he was promoted and he was gorming all over the place like he is now. That’s the hitter I was hoping would show up eventually in the majors. Fingers crossed!
Maybe, but Gorman is not a “bad” hitter, he’s been a blue chip prospect almost entirely on the strength of his bat since he was in high school.