Digging For Diamonds: Ben Gamel
It is hard to believe, but here we are, wrapping up another exciting All-Star break and quickly approaching the trading deadline at the end of the month. The All-Star break is when many team owners and general managers start to truly reflect on the team the assembled this offseason and the work that still needs to be done. Several teams are starting to have to face the decision of whether or not their team can contend this year or whether it is smarter to start selling. Several surprising players have started to establish themselves in the first half, and it is important to decipher whose first few months were real, and whose were a mirage.
Entering play just this past Thursday, July 6th, the American League leader in batting was not someone you would expect. He did not make the team out of Spring Training, nor was he a highly regarded prospect in the six years he spent in the minors before receiving his Major League call-up last Cinco de Mayo. Ben Gamel, Seattle Mariners outfielder, and his .335 batting average rank above All-Stars Jose Altuve, Aaron Judge, Carlos Correa, Jose Ramirez, and every other qualified player in the American League entering last Thursday’s play. If Gamel were to end the season as the league leader, he would be the first rookie to do so since some guy named Mike Trout did way back in 2012, if you can remember that far back.
So where did this guy come from, and just how legit is he? The Yankees thought they were selling high on him when they traded him to the Mariners for two promising young arms just one day after being named the International League’s most valuable player, although due to the Yankee’s glut of left-handed outfielders, you can’t really blame them for trading him when they did. Gamel’s breakout actually started when he adjusted his footwork in the 2014 offseason, and even though he won the MVP last season, he actually hit better in 2015. Despite two strong seasons in Triple-A (and not the hitter-friendly PCL, mind you), Gamel consistently was labeled as a fourth-outfielder by every major prospect publication, most likely because of his ability to play all three outfield positions extremely well (although his energy and effort may have him winding up on the Disabled List once or twice). Despite an .824 OPS in 62 spring at-bats, Gamel found himself opening the year in the minors for the seventh straight season. If not for an injury to Mitch Haniger and an underperforming Leonys Martin, Gamel might still be languishing in the minors.
Gamel has a “line-drive bat with occasional pop” according to John Sickels, and Longenhagen goes on to mention in his report that Gamel “has excellent hand-eye coordination and has improved his timing at the plate…. he laces line-drive contact from gap to gap.” I’m guessing that improved timing corresponds with his change in footwork, and like so many other hitters we have seen in recent years, Gamel has shown that making mechanical and mental adjustments can often pay dividends. He has truly established himself as one of the premier line-drive hitters in the game of baseball, and the statistics back him up. His 29.74 LD% in the minors is 1.7% higher than the current MLB leader, Daniel Murphy. He has carried that same line-drive mentality in the Majors, as Gamel ranks sixth in all of baseball in LD%. Even though he may lead the league in BABIP, I expect his success with the bat to continue even if some regression is inevitable. If he can provide a little more power and speed and keep finding his way to regular at-bats, he could end up being one of the more valuable contributors in the outfield as we approach the second half of the season.