It has been another forgettable summer in Pittsburgh. The Pirates reside in last place in the National League Central at 41-66. Their team ERA of 4.93 ranks 25th in the league. Their collective 85 wRC+ ranks 28th. They made headlines for all the wrong reasons when they forgot how force outs work.
While their season has been rough overall, it has featured a few bright spots. Bryan Reynolds and the since-departed Adam Frazier were starters for the National League All-Star team. There is another player who has quietly been producing in the Steel City: outfielder Ben Gamel.
After a pair of mediocre campaigns as a fourth outfielder for the Milwaukee Brewers (89 wRC+ and 0.7 fWAR in 174 games), Gamel joined Cleveland on a minor-league deal. He made their Opening Day roster out of camp, but he was demoted to Triple-A in mid-April and eventually designated for assignment a few weeks later.
The Pirates claimed Gamel off of waivers on May 9, and he has since put up a solid .275/.352/.440 line (116 wRC+) in 229 plate appearances. It may be easy to write off this newfound productivity as a fluke, but both the eye test and a peak under the hood reveal that the veteran has transformed into a much different hitter.
A New Stance
Let’s start with the visual analysis. Pictured on the left is the batting stance that Gamel used in 2020. On the right is his new stance.
Last year, Gamel adopted a more upright stance with his hands away from his body, a change that was designed to improve his timing and help him use his legs to generate power. The results were mixed. Gamel’s 6.7% barrel rate and 11.5-degree launch angle were career bests, but his 30.7% strikeout rate was a career worst. While he increased his ISO to .167, three home runs in 127 plate appearances did not exactly make him a power threat.
This year, Gamel has once again made significant alterations to his setup. His hands are closer to his body, he is bending his knees, and he is standing more open. While his previous stance looked somewhat stiff, Gamel now looks more comfortable in the box with his new mechanics.
More Authoritative Contact
The new stance has been accomplishing what the previous one was intended to. Gamel’s hard-hit rate has increased to 38%. He currently boasts career-highs in exit velocity (90.3 mph), barrel rate (9.3%), and average launch angle (18.6 degrees). Most notably, he has stopped hitting ground balls and now hits substantially more line drives and fly balls than the average hitter. His batted ball profile now looks dramatically different than it did for much of his career. It’s a tale that has become quite common across baseball in recent years: stop hitting ground balls, and good things happen.
Gamel used to be a frequent victim of the shift because of how often he would pull the ball on the ground. There are a couple of ways to beat modified defensive alignments. One is to shoot the ball to the opposite field. The other is to hit it over the heads of the defenders. Gamel is doing the latter. Thanks to his newfound loft, the shift has been unable to silence him in 2021.
On the Attack
In addition to the adjustments detailed above, Gamel has been more aggressive at the plate. In particular, he is ambushing the first pitch. His 25.4% first pitch swing rate is a massive jump from his career rate of 16.1%. His 66.3% zone swing rate is also a career high. Gamel is capitalizing on hittable pitches early in counts, and it has played a huge role in his improved production. Hitters across baseball are batting .343 with a .936 OPS on the first pitch this season. Gamel is hitting .400 with a 1.000 OPS.
As an added bonus, Gamel’s more aggressive approach has not come at the expense of his walk and strikeout figures. In fact, he is sporting a career-high 11.4% walk rate. While his 25.2% strikeout rate remains below-average, it is his lowest since 2018.
Gamel has been working to drive the ball more for awhile now. Thanks to a new batting stance and increased aggressiveness, he is finally accomplishing that goal. He has been a comfortably above-average hitter for the Pirates, but he remains far from a true power threat. As he continues to refine his new stance and approach, Gamel may soon tap into more power. The former prospect is proving to be a nice buy-low transaction by Ben Cherington.
Photo by Nick Wosika/Icon Sportswire | Adapted by Ethan Kaplan (@DJFreddie10 on Twitter and @EthanMKaplanImages on Instagram)