Part of the growing legend of Evan Gattis was a purported sense of invincibility, a summation of which can be found in the tongue-in-cheek @GattisFacts Twitter account where such gems as this have been compiled: “When Gattis gets hit by a pitch, the ball goes on the 15-day DL.”
Unfortunately for Gattis and the Braves, the rookie is the one who was placed on the disabled list on Tuesday with an oblique strain, apparently suffered while catching in Monday night’s rain-delayed win over the Mets. His oblique muscle is either impervious or oblivious to the narrative.
The rookie sensation has had a remarkable season so far, with 14 home runs and an .894 OPS in just 183 plate appearances, all of which are more compelling given his incredible backstory. A promising high school prospect, Gattis took a four-year absence from the sport, during which time he worked odd jobs a few months at a time while undertaking a spiritual odyssey, before belatedly returning to the game and racing through the minors. Playing in the Venezuela winter league, his power earned him the delightful nickname of El Oso Blanco, or White Bear.
The injury, particularly if it persists beyond the minimum 15 days, will negatively impact Gattis’ NL Rookie of the Year credentials. Despite being named NL Rookie of the Month for both April and May, Gattis was slipping behind the Cardinals’ Shelby Miller and others.
More importantly, his loss will hurt the Braves, especially in late-game situations. Gattis was starting two or three games per week, but the roster is equipped to cover those opportunities. The presence of Gerald Laird gives Atlanta a capable backup catcher behind Brian McCann, and it has already been about two weeks since Gattis started a game in leftfield now that Jason Heyward is healthy and productive enough to play rightfield, allowing Justin Upton to return to left.
But Gattis has been truly extraordinary as a pinch hitter, going 6-for-8 with four home runs and two walks in 10 plate appearances. No other major leaguer has more than two pinch-hit home runs; in fact, no other big league team has more than three home runs from its pinch-hitters.
“I don’t think he puts too much pressure on himself,” general manager Frank Wren recently said about Gattis’ pinch-hitting exploits. “He expects to be successful, and he goes up every time and puts up a good at bat. It doesn’t matter who’s out there on the mound. The part of it is the way he’s built and the way he handles tough situations -- it makes him probably more uniquely qualified to be successful in that job.”
The Braves do have Reed Johnson to fill the righthanded pinch-hitting role, though he lacks the power and growing intimidation factor of Gattis. Atlanta may be able to manage without Gattis in the short term -- despite his incredible production, he remains a part-time player -- but increasingly we’re seeing the importance of depth in the game today. A slugger who can capably catch, as well as play some first base and leftfield, is a remarkable luxury to have, and it has been comforting for manager Fredi Gonzalez to have him ready and available to be deployed into action.
“He’s just been a pleasure to be around,” Gonzalez said. “He’s ready to play. When you look for him to pinch hit or on days he’s not playing, he’s right in my hip pocket looking to get into the game somehow, ready to help the team.”
It’ll be at least two weeks before Gattis is back in the spot, ready in a pinch.