So far this year, Nolan Gorman is showing why he was once the St. Louis Cardinals top ranked prospect. The slugger ranks second amongst all Cardinals hitters, and third amongst all Cardinals players, in fWAR at 0.6, ranking behind only Paul Goldschmidt (0.8 fWAR) and Jordan Montgomery (0.7 fWAR).
In fact, he already has more fWAR in 18 games than he did in 89 games last year. This is clearly an early season breakout for Nolan Gorman. But the question with every breakout is...Is it sustainable?
And that’s what I want to examine in this piece. We all know about the issues with Gorman’s plate discipline last year, his propensity to swing-and-miss, and his struggles with pitches at the top of the zone. Our examination of this breakout will necessarily cover these things as well. So let’s get started with some surface level numbers before diving deeper.
Surface Level Stats
A lot of times numbers like BABIP and all the x stats can tell you whether or not a player is simply getting lucky. Nobody sustains a .400 BABIP and if there’s a big gap between the stats and the x stats, there’s a pretty good chance that a hitting is just experiencing some good batted ball luck.
That’s not the case with Nolan Gorman, though. His BABIP is a pretty reasonable .317, which may be a touch high but not at all high when you consider how hard Gorman hits the ball (92nd percentile exit velocity).
There is a 32 point gap between his wOBA and his xwOBA but it’s his xwOBA that’s actually greater. At .452, it’s pretty clear that Gorman isn’t simply overachieving the expected results; rather, he’s simply crushing the ball and getting the batted ball results that come with that.
Surface level stats? Check. No concerns here.
Now let’s go a little deeper and see if Gorman has made any improvements on his suspect plate discipline.
As it turns out...he has!
Nolan Gorman Plate Discipline
The chase rate should be the first thing that jumps out at you. A drop from 31.1% to 22.2% is CRAZY. And for a hitter with so much power, making better swing decisions can absolutely be a game changer and lead to a breakout. And that’s exactly what we’ve seen so far.
And we have seen better swing decisions. I want to emphasize that because some hitters see a decline in their chase ratae simply becuase they are swinging at everything less. A decline in chase rate isn’t always a sign that a hitter’s eye or discipline has improved because if a hitter stops chasing but also stops swinging at pitches in the zone, then he hasn’t gotten better, he’s just stopped swinging in general.
But that’s not the case with Gorman. In fact, he’s actually swung at a higher percentage of pitches in the zone so far this year. And that’s great on so many levels. He’s looking to punish the right pitches but he’s also swinging less overall and taking more balls. That’s a great recipe for hitting the ball hard and taking more walks. And, again, that’s exactly what we’ve seen with Gorman this year.
His walk rate has jumped 4% from last year, going from a healthy 8.9% to an outstanding 12.9%, while his isolated power has taken a leap in conjunction, going from .194 to .317.
I want to point out that it’s still early and we probably shouldn’t be expecting Nolan Gorman to post Brendan Donovan-esque walk rates this year, but the underlying plate discipline metrics support the jump in his walk rate.
I also want to point out that walk rate tends to stabilize around 120 plate appearances. Gorman is only at 70 plate appearances, so he’s got a ways to go before we can start to feel better about his improvements not simply being small sample size noise. Yet, I would expect things like chase rate to stabilize more quickly because the the data points being used are individual pitches and swings, not plate appearances.
Gorman has already seen 250 pitches this year and that provides a much larger sample to use when looking at his individual swing decisions. Thus, the walk rate may be a bit high and that may correct itself as the season continues but it does appear that Gorman has become a more selective hitter and that should support a sustainable uptick in his walk rate. We won’t know for sure until later in the year, but since his chase rate ranks in the 81st percentile, I’d say the signs are pretty good.
The Top of the Zone
We’ve seen a lot of positive things from Gorman so far this season. He’s crushing the ball, he’s not chasing pitches out of the zone and he’s being more aggressive in the zone, but he’s hasn’t made improvements everywhere.
After a Spring Training in which the Cardinals seemed publicly confident that Gorman has re-worked his swing to better reach the high pitch, it’s pretty clear that nothing has changed. Yet anyways.
Gorman still doesn’t hit the high pitch well. And by well I mean at all.
He’s still whiffing when pitchers climb the ladder. And even when he does manage to make contact with pitches up in the zone, he generally doesn’t do much with them.
I again want to stress that we’re only looking at a sample of 70 plate appearances and 250 pitches but it does seem like nothing has changed for Gorman in this regard which leaves him with a glaring weakness in an otherwise strong and improved hitting profile.
Swing and Miss
You may expect that the improved chase rate would lead to fewer whiffs, but that’s not the case. As you can see from the whiff rate by zone image above, Gorman is still swinging through a lot of pitches. In fact, he whiffs on almost a third of the pitches he swings at and his 33.1% whiff rate puts him in just the 17th percentile.
That’s actually a decline of 1.4% from last year, but essentially, it’s the same story for Gorman. He’s still going to whiff and he’s still going to strikeout and that’s likely always going to be a part of his game. His strikeout rate is actualy much improved from last year at 25.7% but I don’t expect him to maintain such improvement.
Don’t look at that statement too harshly, though. This is a pretty typical flaw for a slugger and Gorman has shown that he can slug with the best of ‘em. He hits the ball hard enough to be an impactful hitter even with an elevated strikeout rate.
So how does all this analysis apply to the question I asked at the beginning of this piece? It gives a picture of Gorman as a hitter and can help us determine whether or not he can sustain his newfound success.
The first think I’ll say is that he’s not going to maintain a 166 wRC+. He’s just not. It’s that simple. But Gorman is a different hitter than he was last year. Not completely, but in some important areas.
To begin with, Gorman is hitting for more power and he’s doing a better job of squaring the ball up. He won’t sustain a barrel rate in the 91st percentile as that’s inflated due to an unsustainable 32.6% line drive rate. But he is still crushing the ball whenever he makes contact, even more than he did last year.
He’s also making better swing decisions, and that’s a huge boost for a power hitter. So, essentially, we’re taking 2022 Nolan Gorman, a 107 wRC+ hitter, and adding a bit more power and a lot better discipline.
That gives me confidence that Gorman can sustain his early breakout even if he won’t keep hitting at the exact same pace. We do need to be aware of his limitations against pitches up in the zone, and how he handles (or covers for) such a glaring weakness will really determine just how effective Gorman can be.
MLB pitchers are smart. They’re going to attack him at the top of the zone until he figures out how to hit pitches there. But the encouraging part is that pitchers also make mistakes. And when a pitcher tries to climb the ladder but doesn’t get all the way to the top of the zone, he’s putting a pitch right in Gorman’s wheelhouse.
Even if Gorman can’t cover the whole zone yet, he can still do a lot when the ball is anywhere else.
He pretty clearly looks like a better hitter this year, and even though he still has weaknesses, I expect him to continue being a weapon in this Cardinals lineup.
Thanks for reading, VEB. Have a fantastic Sunday.