Nolan Gorman is the next player I’m going to examine in my “What’s Next” series. The 22-year-old had a strong rookie year, despite the opinions of some who seem to be disappointed with a 21/22-year-old rookie being an above average major league hitter. I do understand some of the disappointment as he struggled defensively and had some strikeout issues, but on the whole Gorman’s 2022 season was a success. He got his feet wet in the majors, showed that he could hit pitchers at the highest level, and gave glimpses of his potential.
But, as we all know, everything didn’t go smoothly for Gorman at the Major League level and that’s what I want to examine. Why did Gorman strike out so much and what can he do to overcome his swing-and-miss issues? Where does his long-term defensive home lie? What’s in store for him in 2023 with a stacked lineup of hitters in St. Louis? These are all important questions and we’ll look at each one in turn. So, let’s get started.
A Hole in Gorman’s Swing
It’s no secret that Nolan Gorman is the kind of player with swing-and-miss in his game. That’s been the book on him for as long as he’s been a prospect and that’s not likely to go away. However, a 32.9% strikeout rate is a lot. That means he struck out every third time he walked to the plate and that rate led all St. Louis Cardinals hitters with 300 or more plate appearances. Drop the plate appearance requirement down to 200 and only Paul DeJong was ahead of Gorman.
We know Gorman can thump the ball (89.2 mph average exit velocity) but now comes the age-old dilemma for power hitters. Can he make enough contact to tap into his plus power consistently. He was fine in 2022 but he could be even better with more contact. And, lucky, or perhaps unlucky, for him, there’s a big hole in his swing and if he could fix it, he could see huge benefits.
Gorman can’t hit the high pitch.
That’s a big problem for a hitter in the modern age. Pitchers love to throw the high heat now and if Gorman can’t handle it, he’s going to get a steady diet of high fastballs, and particularly up and in fastballs. So, while he whiffs a lot at the top of the zone, he pretty much never puts high pitches into play.
You can see how this is a problem. And this problem led to a whopping 36% whiff rate against four-seamers. Now, Gorman did hit 4 home runs against four-seam fastballs but those came on pitches that were supposed to be up but drifted too far down in the zone. None of them came on pitches at the top of the strike zone. Outside of those four home runs, he didn’t have a ton of success against four-seamers as he batted just .160 against them.
So we know what the problem is, but now we need to find the cause. And the cause to me is simple. He lacks bat control.
To put it another way, he’s not great at adapting his swing to the different regions of the zone. Gorman is a big uppercut guy and that helps him elevate pretty much everything he hits. And that’s great for a power hitter. But the problem is that he’s unable to flatten out his swing at the top of the zone. Take the following image for example.
Here’s a familiar scene — Gorman whiffing on an up and in fastball. But notice the angle of his bat. It’s still a huge uppercut. Now notice how high Gorman’s hands are. And he’s still swigning underneath the ball. He would need to get his hands even higher to maintain that kind of a bat angle and make contact with the pitch. That’s simply not ideal.
He would be able to better handle the high pitch if he could flatten his swing out. Let’s use Brendan Donovan as an example. The Cardinals other rookie second baseman (but also utility man) dominated four-seam fastballs. He posted a .393 wOBA against the pitch while only whiffing 11.3% of the time.
Here’s Donovan taking that same pitch over the fence.
Here’s what his bat looked like at the moment of impact.
Notice how there’s still an uppercut. That’s okay. That’s how he got enough loft to put the ball over the fence. But notice how the uppercut isn’t nearly as big as Gorman’s. Basically, as a general rule, the size of the uppercut needs to match the location of the pitch. A big uppercut is fine when a pitch is at the bottom of the zone but it’s not okay when it’s at the top of the zone. At the top of the zone, a hitter needs to level out a bit to make contact. That’s the part that Gorman struggles with.
But, as you may expect with Gorman’s big uppercut, the slugger rakes against pitches at the bottom of the zone. This is really where he does damage. Anything middle or down is right in his wheelhouse. So guess which pitches he crushed? Sinkers, sliders, and changeups. I’ll get into why that’s important in a minute.
This is what his wOBA by zone looked like in 2022.
That’s a lot of red at the bottom. Now here’s his expected wOBA by zone. This factors in quality of contact (exit velocity, launch angle, etc.) instead of just focusing on the result.
There’s a pretty clear indication of where Gorman likes to be pitched. He crushes anything belt high and below. But pitchers are going to notice that and they are going to start pounding him high. So, he will need to improve his bat control and learn how to adapt his swing to high fastballs if he wants to counter that. While that isn’t an easy fix, there is a quick, short-term solution as the Cardinals figure out how to give everyone playing time.
Gorman his a certain type of pitcher well. And that type of pitcher is the sinker/slider/changeup pitcher. This is a pretty traditional combination of pitches since they all tunnel well. Gorman also struggles against a certain type of pitch and that the four-seam/curveball pitcher. Again, this combination makes sense because a high four-seamer tunnel well with a low curveball as they can be thrown at the same spot before diverging to different parts of the zone.
So, as the Cardinals figure out how to balance playing time at second base and DH between Gorman, Donovan, Yepez, Burleson, and others, I would worry less about the handedness of the pitcher and more about the type of pitcher. Gorman will have the most success being hidden against four-seam dominant arms, and especially four-seam dominant arms with good curveballs. When that kind of pitcher is starting, Gorman should be out of the lineup. However, the slugger should be let loose against the sinker/slider/changeup pitchers that like to live at the bottom of the zone as that’s when he will thrive.
Before moving on to a quick discussion about Gorman’s defense, I want to make sure I hammer home one point. I’ve talked about how Gorman’s inability to flatten out his swing at the top of the zone has led to his struggles in that region, but my guess is that his general lack of bat control is what causes him to miss pitches in other regions of the zone too. His struggles up in the zone contribute to his strikeout rate but the main cause of his swing-and-miss problem seems to be a lack of bat control. That’s probably something you had already inferred from the discussion about his struggles at the top of the zone but I want to make sure that’s clear.
Bat control is going to be the key for Gorman as it will determine how much he can tap into his power and how difficult it will be for hitters to pitch against him. Because a pitcher with a gaping hole provides a clear plan of attack for opposing arms.
Finding a Defensive Home
Before I keep belaboring the obvious, let’s move on to defense. This is perhaps the area where Gorman struggles the most but it’s hard to blame him for that as he has been forced to learn a new position at the highest levels of the game. The problem for him is that he’s not exactly a world-beater at second base and he can’t be hidden with the shift anymore.
But where else is he going to play?
I could see him getting some time in the outfield except for the fact that Tyler O’Neill, Dylan Carlson, and Lars Nootbaar already have that locked down with some guy named Jordan Walker waiting in the wings and Alec Burleson and Moises Gomez needing time too. He can’t play first base because that’s where the reigning MVP plays and he can’t play 3rd base because that’s where the other, better Nolan plays.
So, what do the Cardinals do with Gorman?
My answer is a firm “I don’t know”. I’m really glad that I just write for some blog and don’t have to make that decision because that’s a tough one. And Gorman and Donovan can’t even platoon at second base because they’re both lefites. So, good luck making that decision Marmol and Co.
Really what Gorman needs to do is hit enough to where he can’t come out of the lineup. His position needs to be hitter because his glove isn’t going to force it’s way into the picture. That’s why it’s so important for Gorman to work on his bat control. For now, I expect him to see the bulk of his playing time at second base but I’m sure he’ll DH plenty and maybe even see a little bit of time in other places.
The defensive question is a big one but I don’t see how it gets answered this year, barring any trades or breakout from Gorman. He may improve at second base with more experience but the competition there is already stiff from Brendan Donovan, who certainly has a case to be an everyday player.
As a former top prospect, Gorman’s upcoming campaign was already going to be fascinating, but it seems to me that he’s still looking for a defensive home. The likeliest option is still second base but another year of a 1st percentile OAA and that may change.
So, to summarize, what does Gorman need to do?
- Develop his bat control (aka fix the hole in his swing)
- Find a defensive home or hit enough to where it doesn’t matter
Gorman is one of the most promising young players in an organization full of promising young players but he does have some key areas to work on this year. He could be a really good hitter if he could learn how to hit the high pitch and make more contact (which may sound like a lot, but really, this isn’t abnormal for a 22-year-old with a power hitting profile) and it’s his bat that will need to carry him for as long as he can’t play his natural hot corner spot.
Gorman’s defensive concerns are important but not nearly as important as the concerns with his bat. If his bat comes around, he will play. It’s as simple as that. And that’s a pretty good thing for a player with tantalizing power.
Thanks for reading, VEB. Enjoy your Sunday.