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Jedd Gyorko is wrecking the league

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The Cardinals’ utility man could be bringing it all together for a fun year.

Cincinnati Reds v St Louis Cardinals Photo by Scott Kane/Getty Images

The Red Baron made the point yesterday that Aledmys Diaz’s breakout rookie campaign was the most welcoming surprise in an otherwise dour 2016 season for the Cardinals. I don’t disagree. A close second though has to be whatever got into Jedd Gyorko around 2016’s All-Star break. And in retrospect Gyorko’s story might be even better because so far in 2017 he’s been even better.

He’s been “where would the Cardinals be without him” good with an Eric Thames-ian slash line of .348/.408/.710, enough for a wRC+ of 190. His 1.3 fWAR ranks in the top ten of the National League even though most of his surrounding company has at least 25 more plate appearances for the season. Since the second half of last season, Gyorko has hit .266/.330/.582, good for a 138 wRC+. That includes 29 home runs in just 348 plate appearances. Imagine that pace over a full season of 600 plate appearances and Gyorko would join Mark McGwire as the only other Cardinal to reach 50 home runs in a season. And that’s crazy.

Getting out of San Diego may have helped Gyorko. During Tuesday night’s broadcast Jim Edmonds called the environment at Petco Park a career killer for hitters (they have moved in the fences since Edmonds’s short stint there in 2008), although to be fair Busch Stadium has typically played neutral at best when it comes to hitters.

The ball may very well be juiced, which could also be helping Gyorko as well as every other hitter. Last season there were 568 more home runs hit in MLB than any other season during the last ten years; one home run for every 32.9 plate appearances. This season is actually ahead of that pace (32.0 entering Wednesday night). And a juiced ball goes especially well with a player like Gyorko who is typically ahead of the curve in stats like exit velocity and launch angle, if those things are of your interest.

Gyorko has likely been the beneficiary of some early luck which at this point in the season can make for some fun stats, but stats which will surely be different in a month or two all the same, such as his .409 batting average on balls in play (Gyorko’s been historically a low-BABIP hitter), and his .362 ISO.

Some of the credit, however, may go entirely to Gyorko because he’s been a more patient hitter. Here’s what the Red Baron wrote about Aledmys Diaz when explaining Diaz’s current regression from last season:

There is, unfortunately, worse news on the swing front. O-swing%, as I’m sure you can guess, is the percentage of pitches outside the zone a hitter swings at. Obviously, a hitter is going to swing at some balls no matter how selective and disciplined he is, but the lower the number on O-swing%, generally speaking, the better.

Diaz’s O-swing% in 2016 was 26.3%, which is pretty good. It’s only a few percentage points higher than we see from ultra-patient hitters like Dexter Fowler and Matt Carpenter.

Diaz’s O-swing% in 2017: 40.1%.

You want to know why Aledmys Diaz doesn’t look like the same hitter in 2017 as he did in 2016? And you want that knowledge condensed into a single number? Well, the number is 40.1. Diaz is chasing balls out of the zone at an appalling rate so far this year.

Gyorko is trending in the other direction. For his career, per FanGraphs, he’s swung at 30.9 percent of pitches outside of the zone. In 2015 and 2016, he chased 31.2 percent of pitches off the plate. This season that number has dropped to 24.9 percent. Overall, he’s only swinging at 44.4 percent of pitches both inside and outside the zone, which is a career low. Similar to what was noted about Diaz, the rest of Gyorko’s plate discipline stats haven’t fluctuated all that much.

But Gyorko’s O-swing% is a welcoming development because it goes right at what has always been one of his weaknesses. Last season he had a .306 on-base percentage which is a number you can live with when he’s slugging .495, but not when he’s slugging about 100 points lower as he did in San Diego in 2015. His walk rate (7.9 percent) this season is actually a bit lower than it was in 2016 (although above his 7.2 percent career mark), but if he can force pitchers to challenge him over the plate by not chasing the bad pitches, then that should only help Gyorko get on base if not clear all of the bases.

With Jhonny Peralta on the outside looking in until further notice, Gyorko might actually get those 600 plate appearances. He’s not likely to hit 50 home runs because hitting 50 home runs is not an easy thing to do and his bat will eventually hit a drought. His more patient approach at the plate is a good sign though and could be the foundation for a potential career year.