Jedd Gyorko started 2017 on an absolute tear. Through the first five weeks, he was a top 10 MLB player and was mentioned as a possible MVP candidate as far into the season as early June. Simply put, his hot start sent a message that was hard to miss: he deserved to be an everyday player.
If you look at his numbers, he’s been a reliable everyday player. When you compare his stats to years past, you see he’s having far and away the best year of his career (Data from Fangraphs.com).
Jedd Gyorko, Season by Season Statistics (2015-2017)
Over the past 3 years, Gyorko has improved, or at the very least maintained, his numbers in each of the categories listed here (he currently has .5 less WAR, but there are 54 more games in the year). Although his average is no longer the .333 he hit for in April, it is still a respectable .275. You might say his strikeout rate is a little high, but upon further review, there are 56 qualified hitters who have a higher K% than Gyorko.
Of course, this is only a look at his offensive numbers. In the field, Gyorko has been “one of the league’s greatest defensive forces.” However, his recent slump has been at the plate, so that’s where our attention will be.
As we have established, Gyorko’s overall numbers are good. Not great, but certainly at a level that would seem to merit a spot in the lineup. The problem with that logic lies in the simple fact that most players in the majors are good enough to ride a hot streak for a period of weeks (Cardinal fans have certainly seen that with Grichuk, and even Dejong as of late).
The hardest part about being a good player is the consistency with which you have to perform over a 162 game season. That doesn’t mean just showing up to the field to play from April through September. It means making the necessary adjustments to be successful even when pitchers change their approach.
It’s these important adjustments that Gyorko has struggled with this year.
There’s no way to pinpoint exactly when pitchers started adapting how they attack him, so to avoid errors from different sample sizes, let’s split the season into two (Data from Fangraphs.com).
Splitting Jedd Gyorko’s Season in 2
|April 2 - June 7||0.314||0.891||142||48|
|June 8 - August 2||0.233||0.719||89||48|
These are all pretty significant decreases. Most notably, his wRC+ went from 142—well above-average—to 89—well below-average.
As you can see from the images below, it is clear that pitchers made a concerted effort to start pitching Gyorko less in the middle and more to the outside—seems like common sense to me (the heat map on the left is how pitchers attacked Gyorko during the first part of the season and the heat map on the right is the same data for the second part of the season).
With these adjustments, Gyorko can’t count on a pitch in the middle of the plate anymore. He needs to be able to cover the outer portion of the plate as well. After pitchers made their adjustment, was Gyorko able to make his?
Here is a graphic of Gyorko’s Z-Contact%. This is the percentage of contact he makes with pitches thrown inside the strike zone.
At about the 50th game, Gyorko’s Z-Contact% plummets—and that might be putting it lightly. In other words, he wasn't able to make the necessary adjustment to cover more of the plate.
One of the biggest differences between these 2 segments of Gyorko’s season has been his success against the fastball. In the first segment, he hit .369 with 4 HR against the pitch, but in the second segment he has managed only a .220 average and a single home run.
The first heat maps we looked at contained data from all pitches, so let's narrow in on the 4-seam fastball (the heat map on the left is 4-seam fastballs from the first part of the season; the heat map on the right is 4-seam fastballs from the second part of the season).
Looking at these side by side, it’s pretty obvious why Gyorko had so much success early in the year and why he is struggling now. For the first part of the season, he was seeing fastballs pretty much right in the middle of the plate. Now that pitcher’s have adjusted, it’s Gyorko’s turn. The only problem is he doesn’t have the plate coverage to be successful against the outside pitch.
Jedd Gyorko certainly isn't the MVP-caliber player we saw in April. And I would go so far as to say he isn’t even the player who posted a .314 average through the first 48 games of the season. Whether or not he is an everyday player on a team that is contending for a championship is up for debate (I would add that he is definitely not the cleanup hitter on a contending team).
But let’s not forget how and why the Cardinals acquired him. In December of 2015, the Cardinals traded Jon Jay for Jedd Gyorko and cash considerations from the San Diego Padres. Gyorko was brought in as a utility man, adding depth to an infield made up of Kolten Wong, Jhonny Peralta, and Matt Carpenter.
Gyorko was never supposed to be a middle of the order bat. But before we condemn the Cardinals front office for acquiring another average player, we should recall that Gyorko was acquired to be a utility player and is currently in the middle of a contract that is extremely favorable for the Cardinals.
He is guaranteed $31M over his 5 years with the Cardinals—$6M per year on average. Furthermore, the Padres are paying 7.5M of the contract, lowering the per year average the Cardinals pay to under $5M per year. When you consider that the going rate for a win is around $8.5M on the open market, Gyorko is well outperforming his contract.
Even with Gyorko in a slump, his numbers this year far surpass the value expected out of his cheap contract.