Just about one year ago, the Houston Astros were trying to get to the playoffs, and they decided Carlos Gomez was worth a bushel of pretty good prospects. In the present day, the Astros are again trying to get to the playoffs, and they decided Carlos Gomez isn’t worth much of anything. Wednesday, Gomez was designated for assignment, and that’s a tough break for someone coming up on free agency. Of course, the damage was already done.
You might not realize how swift the fall has been. Though the scenarios aren’t exactly the same, Gomez has kind of Shelby Millered. On the season, Gomez has been among the least-valuable regulars. He’s not even 31 years old. And between 2013 – 2014, here are the position-player top five, by WAR:
- Mike Trout, 18.5 WAR
- Andrew McCutchen, 15.3
- Josh Donaldson, 14.1
- Carlos Gomez, 13.1
- Miguel Cabrera, 12.6
McCutchen this year has been a disappointment, but the Pirates aren’t on the verge of dropping him or anything. The Astros have set Gomez free, and anyone can have him. Someone will take the chance; the track record alone demands it. Plenty of team officials will look at Gomez and see a player they might be able to rescue. Yet I honestly don’t know how to be encouraged.
If you want to be optimistic about Gomez, here’s the starting point: He’s Carlos Gomez, and not very long ago, he was one of the best outfielders in the world. He hasn’t forgotten how he did that. There are two ways you can look at his projections. Over the rest of the year, we have Gomez projected for about 0.6 WAR — that would work out to a little over two wins per 600 plate appearances. That’s a roughly league-average player. Any team would love to have a free league-average player.
On the other hand, we have both current projections, and preseason projections. Compared to what the projections were in March, no hitter’s projection has dropped more than Gomez’s has, based on his 2016. Mark Teixeira comes close. He’s retiring. Gomez isn’t supposed to be close to retirement, but he’s gotten worse in just about every way. And one of the things about projections is that they can be slow to pick up on sudden changes in talent.
Prepare yourself for a handful of rolling-average plots. I want to give you some perspective on where Gomez is. To start with, here’s his entire career, in wRC+:
Gomez wasn’t very good following last year’s trade, but this year he’s been even worse. You kind of knew this — you could at least guess this based on the transaction that the Astros made. But this has looked more like pre-breakout Gomez, the version who didn’t hit for power. The version who simply didn’t hit. Let’s break this into components. Gomez hitting fly balls:
When Gomez blossomed, he blossomed as a hitter with power. He said that previous coaches had told him to try to hit the ball on the ground and run, and that didn’t work for him very well. Gomez started to swing for the fences, and while he might still swing hard, the air balls haven’t been there so much. Statcast knows of 339 hitters with at least 50 tracked batted balls in each of the last two seasons. Gomez’s average launch angle has dropped more than eight degrees. Only Drew Butera has had a bigger drop, and no one’s looking to Drew Butera for offense.
If you’re not hitting the ball in the air, you probably don’t want to pull it. However:
That’s just Gomez rolling over on a bunch of pitches. Those are easy outs. So we’ve got Gomez producing less, with less power. Oh, is that ever not it.
Gomez’s strikeouts have gone way up. Now, on the bright side, there’s been something of a recent downturn — the strikeouts might be regressing, in a positive way. But the underlying concern is more swinging and missing. This plot might be even worse:
Gomez, for years, made contact with about 76% of his swings. This year, he’s at 66%. Out of everyone with at least 100 plate appearances in each of the last two seasons, Gomez owns the third-biggest drop in contact rate, behind only David Wright and Desmond Jennings. Put it together in your head, now: Gomez has become more grounder-prone and more strikeout-prone. That’s a dreadful combination, and if the Astros saw anything encouraging in there, it didn’t outweigh the discouraging factors. The Astros are prepared to play a lot of Jake Marisnick, and Jake Marisnick hasn’t hit. He is, at least, a good defender. Gomez used to be one of those. I forgot to say that his defense has apparently gotten worse, too.
As I see it, there are just a few things to find moderately promising. One, yeah, this is Carlos Gomez. Two, in that last plot above, you see a drop in contact right in the middle of those star-level seasons. He bounced back. And then, these are Gomez this year:
Gomez has still been able to clobber some baseballs. He’s still been able to tap into his bat speed. By average exit velocity on balls hit in the air, Gomez is in the 59th percentile, around names like Nolan Arenado and Marcell Ozuna. The pop is still in there somewhere, or at least it has been. That means there’s a realistic path toward Gomez hitting some more. His talent hasn’t completely eroded.
But the swing consistency just isn’t there. It’s not for lack of trying, but Gomez and the Astros couldn’t get him figured out. You can talk about pressure, and maybe that’s it. You can talk about a league change, and maybe that’s it. You can talk about psychology, and maybe that’s it. But this sure feels like something physical. The decline has been so sudden, so dramatic, and it’s coincided with known health issues. Remember that Gomez wasn’t ultimately traded to the Mets. The numbers make it look like Gomez just physically isn’t right, and if that’s the matter, he wouldn’t get good again tomorrow. He’d need, at the very least, extended rest. Maybe more. I’m not really in the business of this sort of speculation, but depending on things, it could be the best-case scenario. If it’s not something physical, that could be more troubling.
At the end of the day, I don’t actually know what’s been wrong with Carlos Gomez. I know how the issue has manifested in the stats, but I don’t know the problem in specific. I know the raw ability is still in there. Gomez has shown enough flashes, and that’s why he’s going to remain a major-league player. I just don’t see any reason to believe he’ll be a good major-league player again soon. Not to defer to authority, but the Astros would love to have a good center fielder, and they wouldn’t drop Gomez if they thought there was something to salvage. There are still skills present, and presently hidden. They need an awful lot of help getting out.
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.