Do you remember when Nolan Gorman was one of the most productive hitters in baseball? That may feel like a long time ago but it’s only been just under a month since Gorman snapped his 15-game hitting streak and began his extended slump.
That slump has done a number on his season stats, though. Before starting his slump on May 26th, Nolan Gorman had a 166 wRC+ but now that figure is down to 115. That’s a 50 point chunk taken off his wRC+ in less than a month. It’s been a big slump. And a long one.
In fact, as of the time of this writing, Gorman has a -4 wRC+ since May 26th. He’s batting just .103 in that time with an even 40% strikeout rate. That’s rough. He’s been floundering at the plate for the better part of a month and when a key contributor hits (or, rather, doesn’t hit) like that, it takes a toll on the offense as a whole.
When the slump first started, I didn’t think it would be a big issue. Nothing more than just another slump for a streaky hitter. But now that the slump has been going on for so long, it’s worth an investigation into what’s changed to see if we can identify the cause of the slump.
Batted Ball Data
Nolan Gorman is a player that hits the ball hard. We know that. He’s also a player who hits a lot of fly balls. So, when considering Gorman’s slump, we should first look into changes in his batted ball data.
Is he still hitting the ball hard? Is he still hitting the ball in the air? These are important questions becuase some hitters, like Kolten Wong, tend to roll over a lot and beat the ball into the ground when they’re slumping. And worse, they do it to the pull side. Other hitters simply stop finding the barrel and stop producing as a result.
But that hasn’t been the case for Gorman. The eye test tells us that but the data matches up too.
Nolan Gorman Batted Ball Data
Over 75% of Gorman’s batted balls have been hit in the air since the beginning of his slump on May 26th which is actually a higher rate than prior to his slump. That’s an ideal batted ball profile for a slugger like him.
So how about exit velocity? Is he still hitting the ball hard? The answer is yes. In fact, his 92.3 mph average exit velocity during his slump is actually a full 2 mph harder than his average exit velocity prior to his slump (90.6 mph).
So that leaves us with a hitter who is crushing the ball in the air. That’s usually a good thing, so what’s the problem?
There are actually two. Or, I guess we could consider it three problems but the last two are linked so I’m only counting them as one.
I know I said above that Gorman has had an ideal batted ball profile during this slump but that’s not exactly true. He is hitting the ball hard and he is hitting it in the air, but he’s getting under the ball too much.
Fly balls are great but if the launch angle of a fly ball is too high then it just becomes a lazy fly ball that gives the outfielder plenty of time to camp out underneath it. And that’s what’s been happening to Gorman. I’ve seen it in the games I’ve watched and the data backs up this idea.
This is where sweet spot rate can help us. If you’re unfamiliar with that stat, it refers to the rate of balls that are hit with a launch angle between 8 and 32 degrees. This is the optimal range for doing damage as it falls somewhere between line drive and fly ball but excludes ground balls and high fly balls and popups.
Prior to Gorman’s slump, he had a sweep spot rate of 42.2%, which was 9.2% above the league average. That’s a great number. However, during his slump the slugger’s sweep spot rate has dipped to just 28.9%, which is below average compared to the rest of the league but also well below average when compared to Gorman’s career rate (42.8%).
So, while it’s great that he hits the ball in the air a lot, the problem is that his launch angle has been too high. He’s been putting too much air under the ball, meaning that his hard hit fly balls are traveling too far up and not far enough out. That’s how a double or a home run turns into an easy fly out.
While that’s a problem, it’s not the biggest one. The biggest problem is that Gorman’s strikeout rate has spiked to 40%.
That’s simply too high for any hitter, even one who hits the ball as hard as Gorman does. A hitter can’t produce if he isn’t hitting the ball and Gorman really isn’t hitting the ball.
He’s always had swing and miss issues so it shouldn’t be surprising that this is the way he slumps. The good news is that Gorman hasn’t completely forgotten how to hit the ball. Rather, he’s simply been expanding the zone and and swinging at pitches that he can’t hit.
Gorman’s chase rate has risen from 23.1% in April and 25.9% in May to 31.5% in June and that’s mostly been caused by a 12.2% increased in chase rate against breaking pitches in the month of June.
As you can see from the graph above, Gorman’s chase rate against fastballs has risen a bit but has mostly stayed static. The change is that he’s swinging and more breaking and offspeed pitches outside the zone.
And considering that he has a 41% whiff rate against breaking balls, it’s not great for him to be chasing those pitches.
His increased aggressiveness against those pitches has thrown off his whole approach and it’s been catastrophic to everything he does at the plate. The first thing I notice is that while he’s chasing more breaking balls outside the zone, he’s also whiffing at a higher rate on those pitches.
That’s the first problem. But what may be an even bigger problem is that he’s now missing fastballs in the zone.
That’s a 10% increase in in-zone whiff rate against fastballs which really isn’t great considering that he does most of his damage against heaters (.374 wOBA against fastballs).
So he’s chasing more breaking balls outside the zone, whiffing on more breaking balls outside the zone and then missing fastballs in the zone. That’s a lot of issues and they all seem connected.
First, his approach is off. He’s either being more aggressive or he’s struggling to identify pitches out of the hand. That’s leading to him swinging and breaking balls outside the zone, which are typically thrown low and outside.
He’s also missing those pitches a lot which means that he’s likely on guard against them considering how futile his swings have been. And if he’s geared up from down and out breaking balls, then he’s not ready to hit fastballs when they come.
So, really, to sum it all up, Gorman is swinging and missing a lot but the real problem is his approach. He needs to get back to laying off the breaking balls that he can’t do anything with and get back to feasting on fastballs when pitchers attack him in the zone.
This was his approach at the beginning of the year when he was crushing the ball and now he’s gotten away from that, whether intentionally or not.
Last year, Gorman chased breaking balls at a rate of 38.2%. In the first two months of the season, he chased them at 33.3% (April) and 31.0% (May). That’s a sign that he improved his approach from last year and he reaped the rewards from that.
He’s gone away from that new approach in the last month and been punished for it.
That gives us a clear sign of what needs to change for Gorman. He still crushes the ball when he hits it but when he chases breaking balls, he starts whiffing more and isn’t ready for the fastball.
You’ll be able to tell when Gorman is getting back to his old self when he starts laying off the down and out breaking balls. Even if the results don’t come immediately, when he fixes his pitch selection, he’ll get back on the right track soon enough. Until then, he’s likely to continue his run of futility.
Nolan Gorman has pretty much always been a streaky hitter. He was in the minors and he’s proving to be one in the majors. Slumps are likely going to be a part of his game going forward but so are period where he obliterates everything he sees.
The thing about Gorman’s slumps is that he never stops hitting the ball hard. He may have an issue with his launch angle (not hitting enough sweet spots) but the batted ball data mostly is what it is with Gorman. He’s going to hit the ball hard and he’s going to hit the ball in the air. That’s who he is.
It’s the pitch selection that will drive his results. Swing and miss is a part of his game even when he isn’t chasing too many pitches outside the zone so if his pitch selection ever falters, he’s going to whiff a lot more.
It’s a different way of slumping that some of the other streaky hitters that have come through St. Louis but it doesn’t make Gorman a bad hitter.
Based on the changes in his approach that he showed in the first two months of the season, I have confidence that Gorman can get back to raking. He just has to get back to leaving breaking balls in the dirt where they belong first. But when Gorman breaks out again, he’ll be fun to watch and he’ll give a huge boost to a St. Louis Cardinals lineup that could use another productive bat.
Thanks for reading, VEB.