Kyle Schwarber: Evan Gattis 2.0?
Is there anything better than a reclamation story punctuated by monster home runs? Throw in some apple pie and a pickup truck and you’ve got the definition of ‘Murica right there.
Evan Gattis’s tale reads like a cross between the legends of Paul Bunyan and Odysseus with the real-life tragic wanderlust of Into the Wild. After a promising high school career in the Dallas-Fort Worth area that saw him play on teams with the likes of Clayton Kershaw, Austin Jackson, Homer Bailey, and Justin Upton, Gattis eschewed a shot at the Majors to play baseball at Texas A&M.
Rice University had offered him a scholarship as well, but it was as first baseman. The Aggies were going to let Gattis catch, so he headed off to College Station. But lingering anxiety from his parents’ divorce 10 years prior (his baseball schedule had never allowed him to fully process it), coupled with fear of failure in college, led the young slugger into depression and substance abuse. He would go undrafted in ’04.
After a stint in rehab and some time in a halfway house, Gattis enrolled at Seminole State College, a juco in Oklahoma, where he redshirted as a freshman. After playing half of the following season, a knee injury forced him to shut down for a while. And that’s when things got really interesting.
Hurt, depressed, and burned out on baseball, Gattis returned to Dallas and found work as a parking valet. When visiting his sister in Boulder, Colorado, Gattis decided to sell his truck and stay, this time working in a pizza parlor and operating a ski lift at a local resort. But the change of scenery did nothing for his depression.
By the summer of ’07, insomnia had eaten away at him, to the point where he even contemplated suicide. But Gattis sought help, entering an inpatient psychiatric ward and receiving a diagnosis of clinical depression and an anxiety disorder. Upon his release, he moved back to Dallas and worked for a while as a janitor.
It was at around this time that Gattis got hooked up with a New Age spiritual advisor, who suggested he head out to Taos, New Mexico. After only 3 months of living in a hostel and operating another ski lift, Gattis moved on to California, where he communed with more spiritual gurus. He then trekked to Wyoming, working at Yellowstone National Park.
So after nearly 4 years away from the game, having outrun his demons and rediscovered a desire for baseball, Evan Gattis returned to Texas and enrolled at the University of Texas of the Permian Basin (UTPB). Now tell me that doesn’t sound like something straight out of The Odyssey.
That year at UTPB, Gattis hit .403 with 11 home runs and was selected by the Atlanta Braves in the 23rd round of the amateur draft. He spend 2011 bouncing between the rookie-level Danville Braves, extended Spring Training, and the Class-A Rome Braves, closing the season strong.
Gattis began 2012 with the high-A Lynchburg Hillcats, where he absolutely raked, hitting .385 with 9 HRs and 29 RBI in 21 games. He then moved up to the AA Mississippi Braves, but because he was blocked at catcher by both Brian McCann and Christian Bethancourt, he was moved to left field, finishing the season there.
No stranger to travel, the burly ballplayer capped off his minor-league season with a 53-game stint in the Venezuelan Winter League, where he batted .303 with 16 homers and a .595 slugging percentage, both of the latter of which led the league. And so the legend of El Oso Blanco (that’s The White Bear for you gringos) was born.
Invited to 2013 Braves Spring training, Gattis made the team as a 26-year-old rookie in order to split catching duties with Gerald Laird while McCann opened the season on the DL. Gattis’s first hit, a home run off of Roy Halladay, came in his second AB, and he didn’t stop there.
Gattis won the NL’s Rookie of the Month for April and once McCann came back, an injury to Jason Heyward opened up an outfield spot. Playing primarily LF, Gattis went on to capture the RoM award for May as well. Due to a slump and the desire to get more regular playing time, he spent some time at AAA Gwinnett before finishing the season back in Atlanta.
His monstrous power was displayed in a game against the Phillies on September 8th, when Gattis turned a Cole Hamels offering 486 feet in the opposite direction, the longest home run of 2013 and the longest in the history of Citizens Bank Park. He would later hit another bomb after flying out to the warning track in between, proving that El Oso Blanco was alive and well.
For the year, Gattis started 48 games in LF, 42 at C, 4 at 1B, and 2 at DH (96 total), compiling a .243/.291/.480 slash with a .771 OPS, 21 HR’s and 65 RBI. Playing exclusively behind the dish this season, Gattis has improved to .276/.331/.520 with an .852 OPS, 20 HR’s and 50 RBI in only 85 games.
So why spend nearly 700 words on a guy who plays for the Braves when this is a Cubs blog? Well, for one, Gattis’s story is awesome, even if you’ve already heard it before; when I first read it, my initial thought was of Josh Hamilton. Okay, that’s not entirely true. I first thought: “Damn, that’s one big-ass hippie.” Then I thought of Hamilton.
But if I had not pecked out that prologue and had simply written about an anonymous player with a big build, prodigious power, and a catching pedigree with a team-dictated move to LF, then removed the psychiatric and substance issues and the tour of the Western US, would that sound familiar to you? Perhaps your mind would turn first to Kyle Schwarber, the Cubs recent draft pick and future masher du jour.
The Cubs used the #4 overall pick on Schwarber for his bat with the knowledge that a team can always find a spot for a hitter with his kind of power and advanced plate approach. That said, the initial thought was that his quickest path to the Majors would be in LF and not behind the dish.
The primary reason for this thinking is that it takes longer to develop as a solid MLB catcher than it does as a leftfielder. And what’s more, that added focus on catching could very well detract from the further development of Schwarber’s hit tool.
Given Schwarber’s college experience, and, at least according to Cubs Senior VP of player development an amateur scouting Jason McLeod, his status as the best bat in the draft, one would think that his timeline to reach Chicago would be somewhat shorter than that of a high school player or more raw hitter. Think Kris Bryant but with less sparkle.
For that reason, Schwarber has spent a majority of his time in the Cubs system in left, playing 34 games there as opposed to 19 in the crouch and 15 as a DH. But with news that Jorge Soler has been called up and will be playing LF for the Cubs, at least temporarily, could this change things for Schwarber?
Right field at Wrigley isn’t the best place in the world for a converted catcher to ply his trade and, in general, it’s been said that LF is the National League’s version of the DH. That would seem to eliminate right as an option. And Tom has written about the shortstop logjam, sharing the desire of many to see Starlin Castro, Addison Russell, and Javier Baez together in the infield.
In order for that to come to fruition though, Kris Bryant would have to be moved to a corner outfield spot, likely opposite Soler. And if that happens, there’s really no spot left for Kyle Schwarber unless the NL decides to adopt the actual designated hitter spot.
Of course, this is taking into consideration many moving parts and assumes that all prospects will pan out, a dangerous leap of faith to say the least. But if Schwarber continues at his current pace (.352/.440/.664 with a 1.104 OPS, 18 HR’s and 53 RBI), he’s on track to arrive about a year after Bryant.
That kind of projection doesn’t leave a lot of room to develop a quality backstop and the Cubs have proven time and again that they are all about getting the most value out of a given player. Then again, while a corner outfielder who can hit for power and average is basically a must, a catcher who can rake is of enormous value to a team.
As the Cubs begin to see their core materialize, they may look more and more at Schwarber as a viable option to stick behind the plate, a possibility my sources say is being discussed within the organization. He’s acquitted himself quite well in limited action there so far, and if other young players perform in the Majors there is less urgency to move Schwarber through the ranks as quickly.
When it comes to getting the most out of a player, few commodities are as valuable as flexibility, and that’s where my long-running Gattis comparison comes in. The Braves shifted him in order to shorten his path to the Bigs, but circumstances dictated moves all over the diamond before he eventually settled in. Even if Schwarber is not an everyday backstop, he could see steady playing time at multiple positions, just like Gattis.
When all is said and done, the Cubs are going to do what’s best for the organization and they’ll have Schwarber in position(s) to make that happen. So don’t be surprised if you see another version of what took place in Atlanta last year. Call it Evan Gattis 2.0, or maybe El Cachorro Blanco.