April 8, 2004
Carlos Gomez is a work in progress. At 26 years old, the Puerto Rico native has only 60 innings of professional ball under his belt in baseball backwaters such as Canton, Ohio and Allentown, Pa. With a high school career hampered by injury and a college career marred by ineffectiveness and then a bout of "Ankielitis," envisioning any kind of professional career at all for Gomez seemed a stretch. But persistence and a willingness to experiment have allowed Gomez to cast off his pitching woes and remake himself as a sidearming reliever, and intellectual curiosity has spurred him to incorporate objective research into his pitching approach. His is the story of Moneyball writ small, one player searching for any advantage he can get in order to rise through the professional ranks.
Traveling under the handle "Chad Bradford Wannabe," Gomez began posting to Baseball Primer last fall. Our first encounter found him searching for a way to gauge the level of his independent-league competition using Equivalent Average, a query which brought him to the attention of Baseball Prospectus' writers. Since then, he's become a popular member of the online baseball community, chiming in several times this past off-season on his experiences playing winter ball, his own research, and his evolving approach to the game. Gomez is slated to pitch for the New Jersey Jackals of the Northeast League this year.
Baseball Prospectus: When did you take up pitching?
Carlos Gomez: I started pitching when I was 13, and I wasn't very good at first, to tell you the truth. A coach of mine who had played professional baseball showed me a changeup when I was 14, and I had a pretty decent curveball growing up. I was actually more of an off-speed type pitcher until I finally got some velocity around age 16.
BP: What kind of stuff did you have in high school?
Gomez: Freshman and sophomore year, I had really good stuff. I would guess as a sophomore I was probably topping out at 85, 86 (mph) with legitimate off-speed stuff. I thought I had a legitimate chance of getting drafted if things went the way they should have. I had a coach who was also a Houston Astros scout, Frankie Thon, who seemed interested and let me know that I did have a chance of playing professional baseball. But junior year I hurt my elbow and wasn't really ever the same. I didn't really recover the projectable velocity I was supposed to have. I didn't have surgery, just rest, and I think that kind of messed up my mechanics too.
BP: So how did you end up at Purdue if you had trouble after hurting your elbow?
Gomez: I still had some pretty good off-speed stuff and it happened the day Purdue came down to see me play--actually they were seeing some other guy play--that they went to the high school all-star game. I threw the ball better than I had the whole season. I had more pop on my ball and the Purdue coach told me he liked me. It was one in a million, because I was ready to go to Penn State and try to walk on there. I got a scholarship to Purdue.
Gomez: (Laughs) Ick, thanks for revisiting that! At first it was just the adjustment to college, I think. A little tinkering with my mechanics didn't help either. I didn't pitch well enough, got hammered around. The last two years I had bouts of "Ankielitis," "Steve Blass Disease," whatever you want to call it. I didn't exactly endear myself to my coaching staff that way. My senior year, I came into fall ball really ready. I pitched well in fall ball. I wasn't throwing hard, but I always had really good movement, I was an extreme groundball pitcher, so at least I was getting outs and had some command. Then I had a meeting with my coach as to my role and he told me that I was still on the bubble for making the team. So I went into my winter workout program and completely revamped my mechanics because I thought he liked hard throwers. I'd been throwing balls 80-83 miles an hour at the most. So I'm thinking I've got to start throwing harder and when I came back I was just a complete mess.
I really tried hard to get this out of my head, but I remember we were doing bunting drills and I threw the first pitch right over my coach's head. I was a complete mess for pretty much that whole year. But my coaches were really good, they knew I worked hard. I still kept at it, even though I wasn't traveling with the team most of the time. I'd steal the coach's camera and work on mechanics on my own in the indoor gym. I remember my pitching coach telling me, "I go to bat for Carlos because I know he keeps working hard at it." I got discouraged, of course, but I knew I wanted to at least throw some innings my senior year.
BP: How did you manage to break out of that?
Gomez: What really got me out of the funk was switching my arm angle. That reinvented me. I had no bad memories, nothing bad had happened to me throwing sidearm.
BP: When did that all come about?
Gomez: I graduated in May (2001) with an industrial engineering degree and I signed with Carrier, the air conditioning company, and they hired me to start working in January. I hung around Purdue for three more months. I wanted to see if I could still play ball, thinking, "I'm not going to get noticed throwing the ball 82 miles an hour from over the top." So I dropped it down to see if I could do something, and then all of the sudden I started throwing the ball harder and better than I ever had.
BP: How did you end up getting a professional contract?
Gomez: Since my college career was obviously terrible, I had almost given up. I thought maybe I wanted to coach, but that summer I was going though a few tryouts and starting to throw the ball better being a funky sidearm guy. After my lease ran out at Purdue I went to Puerto Rico to live for a few months until the job with Carrier started. Once I got to Puerto Rico, I'm like, "I think I can play." I knew my stuff was good enough, so I badgered all of the general managers and all of the scouts down there to give me a shot. Eventually one of the general managers for one of the teams in the Puerto Rican Winter League gave me a shot to play in these exhibition games they had. The league has pretty huge rosters. They'll have seven or eight guys who are inactive at the time, so they'll round up all the inactive guys from those six teams and they'll play exhibition games. I managed to sneak my way into those and I found myself getting outs. I was doing well against these guys.
I probably pitched in five or six games, but nothing came out of it so I went to work for Carrier from January through May in 2002. In March I went to a tryout in Fort Myers for Boston, because I told Carrier I still had the baseball bug. I didn't do very well in the tryout but I still thought I could, and I told Carrier this. I bought this throwing program to increase my velocity and I worked out pretty hard from March until I signed in July. I completed the training program with Carrier with the understanding that they would hire me back had the professional baseball thing not worked. They were really good to me when I left. They said 'do your thing, if it doesn't work come back with us.'
After May I went to live in Rochester, N.Y. with family. That summer while I was working I would call all of the general managers in the Frontier League and just badger them until they gave me a shot. I went to three tryouts and finally the third tryout I went to, I signed with the Gateway Grizzlies in Canton, Ohio, July 25th.
BP: What was the Frontier League like, was the caliber of competition much tougher than college?
Gomez: At the time that I played, it was a very young league, comparable to high-level college. We played some of the top teams in college baseball and they were comparing them to us. From our 25 guys on our college roster, I'd say maybe five to eight would be able to play in the Frontier League.
BP: How did you move on from the Frontier League to the Northeast League?
Gomez: I started out really well in the Frontier League but huge control problems plagued me after a while, so they released me. After they released me I moved down to Orlando and went to a Northeast League tryout camp and I signed there. I went to a whole bunch tryouts between (being released) and then.
BP: Was the caliber of competition noticeably better there than the Frontier League?
Gomez: Definitely. More guys that "know how to play the game." The Frontier League has made big strides now, by the way. I talked to Clay Davenport, he e-mailed me and showed me the equivalencies and I guess the Frontier League is a pretty legitimate low-A league and the Northeast League is a pretty legitimate high-A to low-Double-A league. I don't want to bash the Frontier League, it's an up-and-coming league, but the Northeast League was better competition, for sure.
BP: You led your team in games pitched with 36. What was it like all of a sudden getting a chance to pitch regularly for Allentown?
Gomez: Confidence was the biggest part of it, not only that I improved my mechanics and worked out harder than I ever had. Just to be counted on to kill rallies or to throw a couple of good innings, knowing I was secure with how my manager used me, that was awesome. I wanted to pitch more. I think he babied me a bit to tell you the truth. But it felt really good to be counted on in clutch situations, just to know that the other guys looked to me as our best relief option.
BP: You didn't get too tired with the workload you had?
Gomez: At the end of the year, I was definitely gassed. I hadn't thrown that much in forever. But from the beginning to the middle of the year when I was really hot, when I was really throwing the ball well, I thought I could have been used a whole lot more. Northeast League rosters are 22 guys so we were carrying as little as nine pitchers, sometimes. One time we had nine and one guy hurt so we were carrying five starters and three relievers. Eventually we went to four starters. It was kind of a non-role type thing--"You two guys relieve today, you two guys relieve tomorrow."
BP: As a sidearmer does it help when you're tired, the way it (supposedly) does with a sinkerball pitcher?
Gomez: I like to feel as strong as possible. But that's a good point. When I pitch better is when I don't have my best oomph, my best velocity, because I know I have to hit more spots, and generally speaking I have better movement. I still like to feel strong and that my arm isn't bothering me, but I don't want to feel 100% strong because I'll try to overthrow everything and think I can actually throw hard. I'm really not a hard thrower, but hey, I did get one fastball this year clocked at 90 mph from up top.
BP: So you don't throw sidearm all the time. Do you vary from pitch to pitch, or from batter to batter, or depending upon platoon situations?
Gomez: I'd say I'm sidearm 70% of the time and over the top the other 30%. Handedness has a lot to do with it. I've always had substantial splits, lefties always hit me harder. So I'll come over the top more to lefties than I do righties. But sometimes it has to do with command. If I'm commanding upstairs better, I'll go upstairs, if I'm commanding sidearm better, I'll go sidearm.
BP: What's your repertoire like? How many pitches do you have that can you throw for strikes?
Gomez: I have a four-seamer and sinker from up top and a curveball, a sinker and a slider from underneath. Those are really my bread-and-butter pitches. I throw an occasional slider from over the top and I'm working on a changeup from both up top and sidearm.
BP: How does sidearming compare in terms of the day-to-day wear and tear that you put on your arm? Is it easier than going over the top?
Gomez: If I only threw sidearm I could throw everyday, all the time, as much as possible. But since I come over the top...one of the things I do is mess around with my mechanics a lot. I'm a constant tinkerer, always looking to get an edge. One of the things I'm trying to do is that I want to be as low as possible, as submarine-ish as possible. Submarining is really tough on my elbow. When I sidearm, I have three different angles sidearming. I'll go really low, I'll go Steve Reed high, and then most of the time I'm Byung-Hyun Kim low, like waist high. If I didn't tinker around with my release point and my mechanics as much, I think my arm would hold up great. As it is, it does take a beating. It's not as easy when you're constantly changing your arm angle.
BP: It sounds like you need a good pitching coach...
Gomez: (Laughs) What I need is just to decide where the hell to throw the ball from and stick with that. The funny thing is that my manager at Allentown, Ed Ott, he's fine with me coming from both angles, but he doesn't want me to be dropping down as low. He says just to come sidearm and don't drop as low first of all because you can hide it better where you're coming from, which is a great point. But why I want to be as low as possible is that generally speaking, the lower you throw the less hard you have to throw. They'll say oh, he throws 80 but he throws down at knee height. I still don't know know what's best, to throw 84-85 from the waist or Chad Bradford 80.
BP: Tell me about going to Puerto Rico this winter. How did that come about?
Gomez: About July, the general manager for the Caguas Criollos saw that I was doing well in the league, called me up out of the blue and said: "How would you like to pitch in Puerto Rico? Has anybody contacted you?" My plan was to have a good year and go down to Puerto Rico, say, 'this is what I did,' maybe work out with some teams and then hook on that way. But he called me. I didn't negotiate very well because I was so giddy. I'm like "Sure, send the contract." I signed it in 15 minutes and sent it right back.
BP: When you were in Puerto Rico you didn't get to pitch that much but you had some big leaguers on the roster: Alex Cora, Alex Cintron, Luis Matos, John Valentin, Donovan Osborne, plus prospects like Alexis Rios. What did you learn from being around all of those guys?
Gomez: They revamped the whole way I attack. I'm going to pitch this year in a totally different way than I ever have. They coached me, especially the pitchers. Brian Schmack was a huge influence on me, Carlos Reyes was a big influence on me, Donovan Osborne too. Schmack taught me about the first-pitch strike thing. I can't tell you how much just talking baseball with them helps me become a better professional. And talking to the hitters too, especially when they're talking about facing sidearmers and what they're looking for. You just kinda hang around and see what they're talking about and you pick up things.
BP: What kind of similarities do you see (between yourself and Chad Bradford), besides the most obvious one?
Gomez: Well, I'd say he's a submariner more than a sidearmer. We're very similar in that we're extreme groundballers, both of us. But he's 6'5", I'm 5'11" on a good day. He's got great command, I really don't. There really aren't very many similarities except for the arm angle, to tell you the truth.
BP: One thing that struck me re-reading the Bradford chapter in Moneyball is that he was pretty much at the end of his rope before turning to the sidearm thing, and it sounds tome from your story that that's almost exactly the same thing that happened to you.
Gomez: Absolutely, I needed to do something in order to continue to play ball. One of the things I liked in the Bradford chapter is that he says that the more he kept throwing sidearm, the lower he ended up getting, without even knowing it, to the point where he scraped the ground a few times.
BP: What did you take from reading Moneyball besides the Bradford stuff?
Gomez: First, just having a Bradford chapter in Moneyball helps me. Since I'm not an extremely skilled raw athlete throwing the ball 94 sidearm, it tells me that there are some people out there that will look at what I'll do and see that I get outs, not that I don't throw the ball extremely hard.
The other thing that really hit me about Moneyball was the importance of on-base percentage, where (Dodgers GM Paul) DePodesta thinks it's three times as important as slugging. I know it's not the answer you're looking for, but I'm telling you that really hit, how much OBP matters over slugging.
BP: What do you think of the idea that you can be scouted based on your stats, that somebody somewhere who's never seen you play, a GM or assistant GM, can look at your record and say, "This guy's getting outs, we ought to look into this." Does that give you a lot of confidence?
Gomez: That definitely helps. The GM for the Puerto Rican team I played for, he plain told me he just saw my stats and called me up. He had no idea who I was, he'd never seen me, he didn't know I was a sidearmer. He didn't know if I was left-handed or right-handed. Hopefully that's what will happen.
There are some things I need to do to improve, obviously, but it definitely gives me more of an opportunity. Of course I'm going to keep working to improve my raw skills, but I think numbers is the way I'm going to get to the majors, not overall raw talent.
BP: Had you been following baseball on the Web before reading Moneyball, or is that something that followed after reading it?
Gomez: I've been following baseball for a long time on the Web. Before I read Moneyball, I had been reading Prospectus for a little while. I read the The Hidden Game of Baseball in college, that was a big one. In college, our coaching staff believed in the bunt in a ridiculous way, bunting and stealing. When I read Hidden Game, I'm like, wait a second, we might not be doing this right. Especially growing up rooting for the Tigers and their Three True Outcome players and then going to an extreme program where bunting and baserunning was almost above all else, and then going back to the objective research. The Hidden Game of Baseball had a lot to do with the idea that maybe you shouldn't be sacrificing every single guy over to second base.
BP: What's it like as a player to read all of this stuff like The Hidden Game or the statistical analysis work that's done by people who aren't necessarily playing, and who probably haven't played in years? Do you feel like, "These guys don't know what the hell they're talking about?" or do you see a perspective there that you don't have on the field?
Gomez: You remember when Voros McCracken told Derek Lowe about batting average on balls in play and his reaction? Well that was my initial reaction too: "C'mon, dude. There's no way that I can't control how the batter hits the ball. I can control what he's going to do." And you want to think that as a pitcher you're gonna control more than that. You almost feel useless when you first read that stuff. At first you're thinking these guys don't know what they're doing, these stats geeks...I'm a stats geek too, don't get me wrong.
BP: What changed that for you? Have you come around on that?
Gomez: Oh absolutely! Objective research has revamped the whole way I think. I talk about it in the bullpen with everybody. I remember discussing (ESPN columnist Rob) Neyer's Beane Count, telling the guys in the bullpen, "Look, walks and bombs, whoever's on top is probably the best team in the league."
The big thing for me was the fielding research that's been done. I think Bill James is the one who said for someone to make an error, he must have done something right to get to the ball. The whole Derek Jeter thing blew me away--he cannot be this bad, you know? But the numbers are there. I always have the Jeter argument with somebody on every team I play for and it always comes down to, 'how do you know who the best power hitters are year after year?' The guys who hit the most home runs, or isolated slugging, whatever you want to go for. You expect the power guys to be up there every year. If I look at fielding stats, Jeter's stats should match up to his perceived levels, and the fact that his stats never have indicates that maybe he's overrated. I always have that argument.
I do disagree with some of the research which has been done. As much of a stats guy as I am, I do pitch to the score, at least in my mind. I know I've said to myself, while I'm on the mound, that it's better to allow a run to score on a groundout than to walk a guy, for example.
The other thing I disagree with is "clutchness". The research is there and the conclusions are very convincing, but I like to think that I'm clutch. I also know I pitch differently in clutch situations, depending on the score, the hitters coming up, etc. But honestly, I may not want to believe that clutchness doesn't exist because again, I'd like to think that I have more control over the situation, so maybe it's more of a "I don't want to believe it because it keeps my head on straight" thing.
BP: Does your general take and the fact that you look at these things so differently cause you any problems with your teammates, or is it more, "Oh there's Carlos, he's that kooky stat geek guy"?
Gomez: (Laughs) I think it's mostly like that. They take offense to it, I think. Every time the Voros stuff comes up that brings out the biggest reaction. They don't want to believe it. I tell them strikeout rate is really, really important for your future and for every pitcher's future. I know I've influenced my teammates' thinking in that way, because I have the research to prove it.
I love the fact that the SABR community has given me all these tools to improve on my knowledge of the game. I feel more enlightened, that I know more about what wins games than the average baseball player. I really like having a different perspective on things. When I look at opposing hitters' stats lines, I like the fact that I can roughly gauge an opposing hitter's plate discipline by seeing their walks per plate appearances. Everyone jumps to batting average, right? Well, I like the fact that I notice the things that matter most.
Because of the perspective you have, you regard your performance and your statistics a little bit differently from other players in that you know that people are watching your stats and you know which stats they're watching, that you need to improve your strikeout rate, cut down your walks, not that those things don't translate into on-field performance.
Unfortunately, or sometimes fortunately, most GMs still will look at ERA first or for hitters they'll look at batting average, or some stat that doesn't actually reflect how good the work you've done is. My ERA (3.23) was not as good as the other numbers suggest. The walks and the HBPs have got to go.
BP: You posted a bit of your own research on first-pitch strikes after a teammate told you of a study done by pitching coach Dave Duncan which said that only 8% of first-pitch strikes result in base hits. What did you learn from that study?
Gomez: The main conclusion I drew from that was, "Go after the hitters." Throw that first-pitch strike because I don't get any better odds anywhere else. I'm going out there this year and going to attack the middle of the plate. I've still got to try to throw the ball down so they beat it into the ground. But when I look at those stats, I really don't have much to fear. I don't have to hit a corner to try to make an out is what I drew from that.
BP: You said in that thread the combination of your arm angle and the fact that most hitters want to see at least one pitch before they even bother swinging, if you're throwing a strike you're going to come out ahead a lot of the time.
Gomez: I also looked at (results) after 0-1, and I compared a few sidearmers, Mike Koplove, Bradford, and Kim, and after 0-1 versus after 1-0 is a huge difference. There's no sense for me for me to nibble around at the corners. It makes more sense for me to throw the ball right down the middle of the plate and hope they either take it, foul it off, or put it in play. I want them to put it in play most of the time.
Sometimes I want to throw the ball down the middle and it doesn't happen to go there. But I always knew that because of my arm angle and my funk, that I wanted guys to swing because I'd always think that their mechanics would break down, that their shoulder would fly open or something. My ball sinks pretty well, plus I don't throw very hard, which is another adjustment they have to make. It was always kind of intuitive to me that I wanted guys to swing as early as possible and the research is there to prove it.
Brian Schmack is the one who actually brought it up to me, who really hammered it into my brain. I took it out to the mound for my third and last outing in the Puerto Rican League, and he was amazingly right. I tried to throw the ball in the middle of the plate and down. I faced nine hitters and threw seven first-pitch strikes, and even when I missed, I didn't miss by much, and when I missed a little bit either way it was still a strike. I felt so in control, I couldn't believe it. I couldn't believe I was so wrong all these years.
BP: You've talked about how all of this stuff is changing your approach to pitching. Besides attacking the hitter, what's going to be different for you this season?
Gomez: I want to develop a changeup and use it mostly against lefties. The other thing I need is to do a better job of holding runners. I do get a lot of runners on base, so I need to be quicker to the plate. I want to finally settle on an arm slot for the sidearm, so I don't keep changing it around, so that my command doesn't come and go as often as it does. Obviously the more strikes I throw, the better I'll be.
Carlos Gomez (2/14/78) 5'11" 185 lbs R/R G W-L ERA IP H R ER BB SO HR Sv 1998 Purdue 7 0-0 11.42 8.2 16 11 11 3 1 1999 Purdue 8 1-0 10.97 10.2 18 16 13 7 9 2000 Purdue 3 0-0 3.00 3.0 1 1 1 2 2 2001 Purdue 2 0-0 0.00 2.0 4 0 0 1 0 Tot 20 1-0 9.26 24.1 35 28 25 13 12 2002 Gateway 9 0-0 4.97 12.2 13 8 7 10 11 2 0 2003 Allentown 36 2-2 3.23 47.1 46 18 17 26 29 1 3 Minor Lg Tot 45 2-2 3.60 60.0 59 26 24 36 40 3 3 2003 Caguas 3 0-0 2.45 7.1 6 2 2 4 6 1 0
The creator of the Futility Infielder web site, Jay Jaffe is a graphic designer and freelance writer living in New York City. Even with his surgically-repaired shoulder, he has no plans of dropping down to sidearm. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.