Ben Gamel Does and Does Not Look Like Christian Yelich

Ben Gamel might be good now.

For a guy who hits for almost no power, Ben Gamel strikes out an awful lot. He doesn’t play strong defense, and his hitting to date has been a touch below league-average. He runs well, but he doesn’t get a ton of stolen bases. In other words, he doesn’t do anything particularly well, which is probably why he’s the Brewers’ fifth outfielder, and why the Mariners traded him for Domingo Santana after 2018. The thing is, he’s seeming like sort of a fun breakout candidate.

It might be nothing. Gamel looked pretty poor in spring training, and — strong small sample size notwithstanding — it’s not all that likely that he remade himself in the matter of a few months. But also… a lot of players have been doing just that. So it’s not exactly out of the question either.

Here’s a tweet from a fledgling analyst, three years ago. That analyst is me:

Gamel’s little timing step has never passed the eye test for me. Even back then. He’s showed some spurts of looking like a legitimate hitter, but he inevitably has always reverted back to being a player that has solid contact skills and plate discipline but can’t do anything once his bat is actually on the ball. With a small tweak, that could be changing though.

Here’s a screenshot of Gamel’s set-up in 2019:

Slightly open stance, some bend in the knees. Nothing crazy.

Here’s a (slightly grainier) screencap of what Gamel has looked like in summer camp:

Very different! He looks like he’s closed his stance a touch, but more saliently, he’s standing a lot more upright, with his bat much more vertical and his hands farther over the plate. I mentioned it in the title, but there’s someone that Gamel looks pretty reminiscent to.

If it isn’t clear, the hitter above is Christian Yelich. Now, Gamel isn’t Yelich. Barring some labyrinthine quantum physics scenario including multiverse theory, the odds of that actualizing are probably something close to zero. It’s funny, he may look like a Yelich ripoff, but he assures that wasn’t his intent (although, Yelich certainly wouldn’t be the worst hitter to mimic). In any case, generally speaking, his new setup is more aesthetically pleasing. Not that it means much, but he looks more comfortable, and it’s better relaxed than unrelaxed.

Now, I’ve only seen so much video of him. That’s the nature of preseason. But from what I’ve seen thus far, it seems like Gamel is doing a better job of lifting balls to his pull-side, but he’s spraying the ball better in general. It’s not like he put the ball on the ground at the rate of someone like, say, Eric Hosmer, but the combination of hitting ground balls at an above-average clip and not pulling the ball hasn’t been particularly profitable for him over his career. It could just be that it’s preseason, but it seems fair to think that this could already be paying dividends.

Let’s watch some video! Here’s Gamel in 2019, on a fastball up and in on his hands in the zone:

To his credit, Gamel does a nice job of fighting this off. That’s 97 mph up and in on his hands. Now, to his discredit, with a normal infield alignment, Brian Anderson fields this easily and tosses it over for an out.

Here’s Gamel in 2019, again, on a similar pitch up and in:

Gamel hits it off the end of his bat and pops it up to Andrelton Simmons behind second base in the outfield grass.

And there’s Gamel on another fastball up and in. But this time, this is just the other day:

Now, this is a significantly different outcome than the ones above, and this is something that Gamel didn’t do with any sort of pitch like this (i.e., ≥94 mph fastball up and in) all of last year. Luis Robert technically catches it, but he loses his glove over the fence, resulting in a home run for Gamel. To briefly bring the conversation back to Yelich, this is kind of the same kind of thing that happened with him. Pitches that he used to beat into the ground or pop-up started to become pitches that he’d pull for home runs or send it to the opposite field as Gamel did here. I’m envisioning a similar progression for Gamel, and that’s going to add up.

Let’s compare Gamel versus the league in xwOBA by batted ball direction, from 2018-2019:

Gamel Versus League Average, xwOBA By Batted Ball Direction

Across the league, most hitters are best at hitting to their pull-side, not as strong up the middle, and not good at pushing the ball to the opposite field. That’s not surprising. For Gamel, he’s a pretty interesting hitter in that he doesn’t do much damage to any part of the field. He’s pretty good up the middle, but all hitters are — his xwOBA up the middle is pretty close to league-average. Pulling the ball, he ranks in the 14th percentile in xwOBA and 79th percentile while going the other way. So, in a way, he’s flipped the script. He’s good going the other way, average up the middle, and well-below average pulling the ball.

That’s always going to put a cap on Gamel as a hitter. Take Robinson Cano, for example. Since 2015, he’s been about equal to Gamel in how productive he is going the other way. The difference is that Cano can pull the ball as well as the rest of the league. Gamel cannot. If any change is going to be made, a newfound ability to pull the ball would be the most prosperous thing for him. He might be making that change now.

Here’s Gamel the other day, getting robbed of a home run:

And then here’s Gamel again, not getting robbed of a home run:

Again, a very small sample against a collection of pitchers who might not all be of outstanding quality. Nevertheless, Gamel has made a tweak, and it seems like it’s affected his outcomes. These are pitches that Gamel absolutely would not have pulled into the air last year, and that’s a big deal. Hitting mechanics are sort of like a thumbprint. Everyone has their unique quirks, and what may work for one hitter isn’t going to work for the next. With that said, Gamel’s changes are plenty sensible — at least in hindsight.

In talking it over with our own Kyle Horton, we came to an agreement over some breakthroughs in Gamel’s swing. Consider the following image, with a 2019 swing on the left and a 2020 swing on the right:

It’s interesting because even despite his new setup, he’s getting to a pretty similar position once his front foot strikes the ground. Despite the rather subtle changes, they’re having not so subtle reverberations. In general, it seems that his swing has better rhythm and that he’s simply transferring energy more efficiently now. I do believe the answer lies somewhere with his hands, too. I know it’s not especially easy to tell in the screengrabs above, but his hands are a lot tighter into his body. The consequences are three-fold; he’s able to keep his bat through the zone longer, he’s attacking the ball from a different angle, and, as I discussed with Kyle, there’s more elasticity from when he pulls his hands back to when he fires to the ball. He’s doing a better job of getting out in front of the ball, and that should mean more loft on balls to right field. Thus far, that’s what he’s been doing all summer camp, and that’s going to play really well in Miller Park.

Ben Gamel was never supposed to hit for power. Even now, he’s not exactly hitting bombs. There’s always existed the potential to be something of a productive hitter, we just always thought that would look more like something resembling a slap hitter. It was starting to increasingly look like that day was never going to come. Maybe he’s finding his swing at the age of 28. It wouldn’t be the first time, and it certainly wouldn’t be the last time, either.

Photos by Larry Radloff/Icon Sportswire | Adapted by Michael Packard (@designsbypack on Twitter & IG)

Michael Ajeto

Michael writes about the Mariners at Lookout Landing, while doing other analysis here at Pitcher List. You can follow Michael on Twitter @dysthymikey, or you can not.

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