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August 14, 2012

Overthinking It

Anthony Gose is Not Ready Right Now

by Ben Lindbergh

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Last month, I wrote an article about 2012 Red Sox draftee Shaq Green-Thompson, who had begun his professional career by going 0-for-16 with 16 strikeouts. I wasn’t sure whether to write it. Baseball players go through slumps, and baseball writers write about them. That’s the way this works. But Thompson was just a couple months out of college, and his struggles were so acute that to draw any extra attention to them seemed cruel. The Red Sox source I quoted was concerned that I was out to “crush the kid.” I wasn’t, but I was worried about what would happen when other sites picked up the story. Ultimately, I decided to write about Thompson, but I tried to do it in a way that dwelt on his strengths, explained his struggles, and focused on what his streak said about baseball. It was still the first and only time I’ve felt bad about writing about a baseball player.

Eleven days later, Deadspin picked up on the story (via some other site, which made me feel a bit better). By then, Thompson’s stat line looked even worse. A flurry of Thompson tweets and articles followed. Not all of them were nice. Thompson went on to finish the short season 0-for-39 with 37 strikeouts. He’ll be better at football, which he’ll play this fall. Maybe he’ll return to baseball next summer. Or maybe he’ll decide not to come back and risk causing any more crises of conscience.

Extreme performances are inherently interesting. The only thing that might be more interesting than watching a player who hits everything is watching one who can’t make contact. Not just because of our natural urge to rubberneck, but because it’s a peek behind the curtain, a reminder of how difficult the feats we take for granted really are. We’re getting another one of those reminders now.

Another player who debuted this summer has looked as much like Shaq Thompson as anyone in the majors over his first few weeks. On the day the Deadspin story about Thompson appeared, the Blue Jays called up Anthony Gose. Gose was replacing Jose Bautista, who’d hit the DL with a wrist strain. No one whom the Blue Jays could have called up to replace Bautista would have, you know, replaced Bautista. But there was some surprise that the Jays had picked Gose, a 21-year-old hitting .292/.375/.432 in his first season at Triple-A Las Vegas, when they could have promoted Travis Snider or Eric Thames. Snider was three years Gose’s senior, had four partial big-league seasons under his belt, and was hitting .322/.415/.548 for Las Vegas. Thames, who was even older than Snider, had been up earlier in the season and was hitting .310/.399/.483 against PCL pitching.

As we know now, Snider and Thames were both roughly two weeks away from being ex-Blue Jays. Maybe the Jays just wanted to see what they had in the player they knew they were going to keep, or maybe they didn’t want to risk jeopardizing the trade value of their expiring assets by exposing them to better pitching. That’s not what they said, though.

Manager John Farrell said the decision to call up Gose instead of Snider or Eric Thames was based on the advice of the staff at Las Vegas as well as Toronto scouts who had observed the Class AAA team.

"It's not a slight on anyone," Farrell said. "They were asked (for a) recommendation. They said, 'This is the guy that's most ready right now.'

“Most ready right now” is not a phrase anyone would use to describe Anthony Gose today, unless one were comparing him to Shaq Thompson. Since that call-up, Snider has hit .288/.333/.493 for Toronto and Pittsburgh, while Thames has hit .211/.231/.342 for Seattle. But this isn’t really about them, or about the rationale behind Gose’s call-up. It’s about what Gose has done since making the majors. In 19 games and 72 plate appearances, he’s hit .188/.257/.234.

That’s an ugly line, but it’s not unprecedented. Two years ago, we saw Brandon Wood hit worse than that in 200 more trips to the plate.* There aren’t many good .188 averages—a “good” average under .200 is a lot like “good Hodgkins.” But some .188s are worse than others. Rob Deer once hit .179 over a full season with a .260 TAv. Gose’s TAv, though, is below his batting average. His is not one of the good .188s.  

*It wasn’t what Wood wanted out of baseball, but he did leave behind a legacy: an almost universal ability to make other players look better by comparison. “Brandon Wood was worse” is the one defense that works for almost any slump. It even works outside baseball. Next time you get caught stealing office supplies, or stretching the truth on your timesheet, or reading about baseball during work hours, remind your employer that Brandon Wood once hit .146 for the Angels. You couldn’t possibly steal enough staples to be that bad. And you’re paid a lot less.

Still, it’s not so much the triple-slash stats as how Gose has arrived at them. And it’s not so much how Gose has arrived at them as how he’s looked while doing it. Often, BP article ideas start with a stat. This time, the stats were secondary. This one started on Sunday, when I saw Gose strike out like this in the first inning:

And then like this in the fourth:

Both times, he missed by a wide margin, and both times, he took a knee. In his third at-bat of the game, Gose took a curve for a called strike three on the outside corner, and in fourth and final appearance, he swung behind a 94-mph fastball. Those were pretty tight breaking balls, but Pedro Cerrano probably would have read the breaks better. As Kevin Goldstein put it, “He’s looked overmatched. Period.”

In his first 70 plate appearances, Gose struck out 27 times. It’s no secret that Gose has a strikeout problem. It’s right there in his player comment from Baseball Prospectus 2012

In 2011, Gose improved his walk rate, his power numbers, and his base running. That leaves only one major tool left to develop: his contact rate. His strikeouts remain high, and his free-swinging ways and difficulty with off-speed stuff mean the last step of the developmental path will be the hardest.

Before the call-up, it looked like Gose might be making some strides down that path. He struck out in 21.5 percent of his plate appearances in Las Vegas after fanning in 26.9 percent across two lower levels last season. But the progress probably wasn’t real. The PCL is a hitter’s league, and the 51s play in a park that plays very favorably for hitters because of both its elevation and its low humidity. As BP alum Dan Fox wrote in an article at milb.com in 2006, “thinner air means that pitchers have more difficulty getting their breaking ball to bite.” A place where breaking balls don’t bite, and where groundballs skip off a dried-out infield, is Anthony Gose’s idea of heaven.

Now Gose is in the AL East, where the breaking balls bite quite a bit. He’s hitting .279 and slugging .326 against four-seamers, two-seamers, sinkers, and cutters, which isn’t worth much of a mention over a sample this size. However, all 12 of his hits have come off one of those pitch types. He’s seen 121 curveballs, sliders, changeups, and splitters, and he hasn’t had a hit off one yet. In fact, he hasn’t hit one out of the infield.

That’s the other problem with Gose: when he has managed to make contact, he hasn’t hit the ball very far. Over 70 percent of Gose’s batted balls have been on the ground, the highest percentage this season for any hitter with as many PA. Gose’s speed would allow him to get some singles out of grounders, especially on the turf at Rogers Centre—he’s already beaten out a couple of infield hits, plus a pair of bunts—but the point of sacrificing power and entering slap-hitter mode is to make more contact. Slap hitters who can’t make contact are screwed. And when Derek Jeter wants to know why you’re hitting so many groundballs, you probably need to elevate at least a little more often, even if you do start to make contact with curveballs.

Before the season, Kevin ranked Gose the 68th-best prospect in baseball, citing “insane” tools, calling him a plus-plus runner and a fantastic center fielder, and praising his plus-plus arm and developing power. Early in July, he bumped him up to 42nd on the mid-season list, citing a “shorter, quicker swing that is more focused on contact than power.” We’ve seen the fantastic center fielder, and we’ve seen the guy who stole 70 bases last season, but so far, we haven’t seen that swing. I asked Kevin whether Gose’s slow start has affected his opinion at all. “My concern has always been the swing and miss in his game,” he said. “And when your concern about a player is the exact problem, that’s not good.” In short: yes, at least a little.

As bad as Gose has looked, though, it’s still only 72 PA by a player who just turned 22 last Friday. Since 1950, 32 players have struck out at least as often as Gose did in their first 70 PA in the majors. (One of them, Brandon Hicks, did it this season). Some of those players are big names: Reggie Jackson, Matt Williams, Giancarlo Stanton. And Gose plays in a high-strikeout era—the highest-strikeout era—so his 27 Ks would look a bit better if we adjusted for era. Still, there aren’t a lot of players on the list who had Gose’s skillset. It’s mostly three-true-outcome types, guys whose strikeouts were a product of their patience and power: Jack Cust, Russell Branyan, Wily Mo Pena (and Todd Dunn, who sounds like Adam’s off-budget brother but wasn’t).

Only three players since 1950 have struck out at least as often as Gose has in his first 70 PA and had an ISO lower than his sub-.050 mark. The first was Willie Crawford, a Dodgers outfielder who debuted in 1968, played 14 seasons in the majors, and retired with a .290 career TAv. The second was Nate Colbert, a (primarily) Padres first baseman (and all-time team home run leader!) who debuted the following season and played for 10 years, retiring with a .293 career TAv.

And the third? The third was the guy Gose replaced: Jose Bautista. Jose Bautista is simultaneously one of the best and one of the worst comps a player could have, in that he’s been two completely different people: a journeyman who couldn’t catch on with a team, and the best hitter in baseball. No player who looked like Jose Bautista at age 23 has gone on to look like Bautista at age 29. On the whole, though, that trio has to be considered extremely encouraging. Another stat that seems reassuring: Gose isn’t anywhere near the league leaders in swing rate, and he isn’t chasing outside the zone anywhere near as often as many other high-strikeout hitters. The results are lacking, but the approach can be salvaged if the pitch recognition improves.

It helps to get those glimpses of Gose’s possible futures, because his present is tough to watch. However, we won’t have to watch it much longer. Bautista is hitting off a tee, and when he returns, Gose will go back to the minors or have his playing time severely curtailed. Then he’ll spend the long offseason swinging through curveballs in his sleep, and we’ll try this again in 2013. “The question is how much he’ll hit,” Kevin wrote over the winter, and the question hasn’t changed. It’s just being repeated a little more loudly.

Thanks to Rob McQuown for research assistance.

Ben Lindbergh is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Ben's other articles. You can contact Ben by clicking here

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