For Astros, Gattis awakes from early-season slump at just the right time
The end of a prolonged slump is usually not as obvious or as decisive as it was for Evan Gattis on April 26. It wasn’t simply that Gattis finally got his first big hit as a member of the Astros—a two-run double in the top of the ninth that turned a 6–5 deficit against the Athletics into a 7–6 win—after three weeks of doing nothing. It was the way he got the hit.
Tyler Clippard, Oakland’s closer, released a 93-mile-an-hour fastball that started high and seemed to climb higher, forcing his catcher, Stephen Vogt, to spring up from his squat into a standing position. By the time the pitch reached Gattis, it was at beard level, but he was not fazed. He raised his hands to the height of his shoulders, and as he swung, he angled his bat’s barrel up to meet Clippard’s pitch. Somehow, improbably, Gattis crushed it, driving it over the head of the defensively superb Sam Fuld in centerfield. After the game, in the clubhouse and during their trip to begin their next series in San Diego, Gattis’s teammates kept watching the clip over and over on their phones and tablets, trying to figure out how he’d hit the ball at all, let alone hit it so hard.
The Astros could be sure of one thing: This was the preternatural bat speed that they, their front office and Gattis himself had been waiting to see. All at once, it seemed, the man who earned the nickname El Oso Blanco (the White Bear) back in 2013 with the Braves was uncaged.
Gattis had a dispiriting start to his Houston career, going hitless through his first five games (striking out in 12 of 20 at-bats) and hitting just .136 with a single RBI on a lone home run heading into April 26. But with that double, it was suddenly behind him. Over nine games starting that day in Oakland, Gattis batted .333 with five home runs and 17 RBIs. If you want to know how the long moribund Astros ripped off a ten-game winning streak that vaulted them atop the American League West, the stunning turnaround of their newly minted cleanup hitter is an excellent place to start.
Astros general manager Jeff Luhnow envisioned powerful stretches like this when he traded a pair of top prospects for the 6’4”, 260-pound former Brave in mid-January. Luhnow, like everyone else, had followed Gattis’s unusual personal journey—he dropped out of college in 2006 and then became an itinerant pizza maker, janitor and ski-lift operator before Atlanta drafted him in the 23rd round in 2010—and was in awe of it. “I love him,” Luhnow told me in March. “He’s got one of the best back stories in baseball. From a janitor to a winter ball hero to being part of a blockbuster trade after two years in the big leagues is pretty incredible.”
But Luhnow was less intrigued by Gattis’s path to self-discovery than by his potential, which he felt was being limited by the fact that, until this season, Gattis had been a member of both the formerly stacked Braves and of the National League. Atlanta had trouble fitting him into its lineup and finding a position for him, as he was a subpar defender wherever they tried him—particularly at catcher, where he spent most of his time. “Catching takes a toll on your body, if you’re a big guy like Gattis,” said Luhnow, who had seen more of him than he had most two-year players because the Braves’ Orlando-area spring training facility is just a half hour away from Houston's. “So he’s only been able to play two-thirds of the season, max.”
Still, Gattis had blasted 21 and 22 homers in his first two years despite playing in only 105 and 108 games, suggesting that 30 bombs were easily within his reach with a full season’s slate. The ability to put him at designated hitter, thereby removing both the psychological and physical burdens of defending, suggested the possibility of much more. “If you imagine Gattis getting 500 plate appearances as a righthanded hitter in Minute Maid Park, without the toll of catching, you’re talking about a guy who could really be one of the offensive powerhouses,” Luhnow said.
Luhnow was forced to continue imagining that until exactly ten days ago. In retrospect, the odds of a fast start for Gattis were stacked against him: He has relatively little professional baseball experience for a man of 28, and he was forced to contend with not just a new league and new pitchers, but also with a new role as an everyday designated hitter. Even if he seems built to be a DH, he is not the first player to struggle to become accustomed to its strange rhythm, with its minutes of intensity followed by up to an hour of sitting on the bench with little to distract you from focusing on your last at-bat. Failures, of which Gattis experienced many early on, can become insidious.
Now, though, Gattis is used to it. He is another reminder as to why it's foolish to write off gifted players after even the most miserable of starts and has cemented himself as another crucial building block in the Astros’ ever more formidable future. He appears to be just what Luhnow envisioned: a fully formed slugger who, due to the delayed start to his career, won’t reach free agency until after the 2018 season. By then, if you believe certain sources, a ten-game winning streak will rank low on the list of accomplishments for the Astros.
Gattis isn’t the only star who has already recovered from a brutal start. Here are five other hitters who have busted early slumps.
Bautista whiffed in eight of his first 12 at-bats and was hitting .139 with a .659 OPS through April 17. In ten games since, despite a strained shoulder, he has three home runs, 11 RBIs and an OPS of .987.
The Royals started hot, but their MVP candidate didn’t: Gordon had one hit over his first five games. He's now batting .300 with three home runs and nine RBIs, and a .935 OPS, since April 20.
Freddie Freeman, 1B, Braves
The cleanup hitter's average dipped to .219 on April 25, but he's batted .400 in nine games since with six doubles and a 1.019 OPS.
After failing to drive in a run last September, Kipnis had just four—with no homers and a .231 batting average—through April 28. Over next five games, though, he slugged three homers and drove in seven.
Stanton started the season without a homer in his first nine games, calling into question his massive contract and ability to return from last year’s season-ending pitch to the face. Now he has six home runs and an NL-best 24 RBIs.