He’s 26 years old and has but 933 plate appearances in professional baseball, none above the Double-A level. But don’t for a second think that Evan Gattis isn’t considered a legitimate prospect by the Braves. The know they have a special case with the big Texan catcher-turned-left fielder, who keeps responding to new challenges by crushing baseballs.
The Gattis legend has spread to Venezuela this winter, where he’s picked up the nickname “El Oso Blanco” (White Bear) from his mostly Latin teammates on the Aguilas squad while hitting .324 with five homers, 16 RBIs and a 1.009 OPS in 18 games through Thursday. And can I just say, that’s a damn fine nickname.
Gattis was tied for fourth in the Venezuelan Winter League in homers, fifth in OPS, and had six doubles and a league-high 43 total bases.
After getting off to a torrid start at Class-A Lynchburg in 2012 but then missing nearly half of the season with a wrist injury soon after his Double-A promotion, the Gattis train is picking up steam once again.
“He can hit and he can do some things,” Braves general manager Frank Wren said a few days ago. “He’s an interesting player. Last year was such a shame when he got hurt. He had just made the transition [to left field] and we had moved him there, and he took to it pretty well.”
For those unfamiliar with the unique Gattis story, how he was out of baseball for nearly four years while traveling the western U.S. and doing a variety of part-time jobs to support himself while he sought out his purpose in life, here’s a link to the story I first did on him at spring training. He got an invite to big-league camp in after hitting 22 homers and posting a .986 OPS in 88 games at Class-A Rome in 2011.
This season he was a man among boys at high-A Lynchburg, batting .385 with nine homers, 29 RBIs and a ridiculous .821 slugging percentage and 1.289 OPS in 21 games before being promoted to Double-A Mississippi, where he was to play mostly left field and occasionally catch.
Despite missing about two months with a wrist injury that was worse than originally thought, Gattis came back and had 26 extra-base hits (four triples, nine homers) with 37 RBIs and an .865 OPS in 49 games for Mississippi. He finished the season with a .305 average, 18 homers, 67 RBIs and a .995 OPS in 74 games (314 at-bats), and only 43 strikeouts.
With Brian McCann at the major league level and top catching prospect Christian Bethancourt rising through the minor league system, the Braves decided to have Gattis, who is about 6 feet 3 and 235 pounds, work some at first base during spring training, then had him move to left during the season. That’s how much they wanted to find a way to get his bat to the majors if he was going to keep hammering pitchers at every level, which he has done.
He’s not a bad catcher, and Braves bullpen coach Eddie Perez and roving catching instructor Joe Breeden rave about his work habits and desire to improve behind the plate. But Gattis might only be adequate defensively at catcher, and with cannon-armed Bethancourt waiting in the wings, Gattis would likely be better suited in left field in the Braves organization.
While he hasn’t played the outfield enough to judge his long-range ability at the position, from all reports he’s serviceable, not a butcher. And given the way he hits, it’s not a stretch to say that Gattis could get his first major league opportunity at some point this season. In fact, I’ll go out on a limb and predict it’s going to happen.
Wren even mentioned him and Bethancourt as catching possibilities for the first weeks of the season, when McCann is expected to be in the final stages of his recovery from October shoulder surgery and the Braves will need a second catcher to go with David Ross, provided they re-sign the veteran backup.
In Venezeula, Gattis has been used almost entirely as a designated hitter so far, but Wren said the plan is to have him play some left field there and do a little catching. Gattis wants to make sure he catches enough to stay sharp behind the plate, and the Braves agree that’s a good idea.
But obviously it’s the bat that will get him to the majors. Already, Veneuzelans have seen what potentially sets him apart. On Oct. 23, the muscular Gattis hit a two-run, two-out homer to complete a ninth-inning comeback for Aguilas on the road against its rival Leones del Caracas.
Here’s a video of that home run, which will also give you some idea of the level of passion and the atmosphere that you’ll find at most winter-ball games in Latin countries.
Some scoffed last year when I suggested that Gattis was a prospect, despite his relatively advanced age. So I hesitated at calling him a prospect anymore, but rather just stuck with descriptions such as “Braves hopeful” or “minor league slugger.”
This week, to get a gauge of how he’s viewed by the Braves, I asked Wren if he viewed Gattis as a prospect despite his age.
“No question,” Wren said. “He’s a very good prospect. He’s a right-handed hitter with power, and he’s athletic. He can do a lot of things. Evan’s a good looking player.
“The age is really irrelevant. Where the age is a negative on his side is, it may shorten his career because he’s [already] 26. But theoretically, he should be in his prime.”
• Remembering Pascual: He met a violent death this week at home in the Dominican Republic, and those who knew the colorful, animated former pitcher Pascual Perez hated to hear it. Some didn’t seem too surprised, given his drug problems stretching back decades, but that didn’t make it hurt any less or make the news any sadder for those who really had a chance to know him, including a couple of former Braves teammates.
Phil Niekro, the man who started that infamous game in 1982 when Perez missed a start while circling Atlanta, lost on I-285, found out Perez had been killed in an apparent home invasion when I left a message on Niekro’s cellphone. Dale Murphy, another teammate on those early-1980s Braves teams, found out early Thursday morning out in Nevada when he saw someone mention it on Twitter.
“One thing for sure, he was a real competitor, he really was,” Niekro said. “He really competed as hard as he could. I think the people who remember him remember a couple of things, the one thing being when he got lost on 285. I had to pitch that night. A half-hour before the game I was notified.”
Niekro laughed about it as he recounted that famous incident, which led teammates to give Perez the nicknames “Perimeter Perez” or “I-285.”
“I can’t remember who the manager was that year,” Niekro said [it was Joe Torre], “but I know he came up to me about 25 minutes before the game and he said, ‘Can you pitch tonight?’ And I said, ‘Well, hell yeah I can pitch.’”
The Braves had lost 19 of 21 games before that August night when Niekro filled in for Perez on short notice – and won.
Murphy said, “My memory is we were really struggling and Pascual … all of a sudden, we’re in the dugout and I ask [catcher] Bruce Benedict, what’s up? He said, ‘Well, Pascual’s not here. Knucksie said he can go.’ He [Niekro] always said he could pitch. And then he went out and won. I like to think that kind of got us out of the doldrums and got us back on top that year.”
The Braves won 12 of their next 14 after that and clinched the division title. Perez had two big road wins in the final week of the season, then went 15-8 with a 3.43 ERA the following year.
“The other thing people remember was that big fight with the San Diego Padres,” Niekro said, referring to an epic 1984 brawl that Perez triggered when he hit Alan Wiggins to start the game.
The Padres threw at Perez four times in the game after that, and each time the skinny pitcher avoided getting hit. He tossed his bat at the San Diego catcher and a benches clearing melee ensued, with 19 players and coaches ejected.
What some remember about that fight was how Bob Horner, who was injured at the time and in the broadcast booth, rushed down to the field to help protect Perez, who had slipped away and was in the dugout as the two teams went at it.
“The Padres were running away with [the division], a few games up,” Murphy recalled. “Typical mid-summer game, we weren’t doing much and they were doing well. And out of the blue, Pascual, who had really good control, hits Wiggins in the back with the fiist pitch of the game. I’ve heard since then that [Padres maager] Dick Williams said before he [Williams] kicked out, ‘Every time Pascual comes up, I want him hit as long as he’s in the game.’
‘Every pitcher than came in was throwing at Pascual, and every pitcher that came in for us was retaliating. Bob Horner was up in the booth as a guest commentator, in a cast, and he came down to protect Pascual from Champ Summers. [Murphy laughed.] Bob was on the top step and Pascual was somewhere in the dugout. It was a mess.
“Pascual was truly a character, but I appreciated him as someone who was a good teammate. And beside Knucksie and Rick Mahler, he was one of the mainstays of our staff for the eyars he was there.”
Niekro said, “It’s a sad, sad story. I really enjoyed him. He was a good friend of mine. I’ll certainly keep him in my prayers, for sure.”
As for the apparent murder, Niekro said, “I think it’s a reminder that we don’t know what’s going to happen from one day to the next. I think it’s also reminder to keep your doors and windows locked, and if you don’t have a security system, get one.”
Well, there you go. Practical advice from a Hall of Famer.
Ahmed in AFL Rising Stars
Shortstop Nick Ahmed has hit .350 (14-for-40) with three doubles, a triple and eight RBIs in nine games for Phoenix in the Arizona Fall League, and will be the Braves’ lone representative in Saturday’s AFL Rising Stars All-Star game. It’ll be carried on the MLB Network.
I’m looking forward to seeing Ahmed, Edward Salcedo and hopefully pitcher Zeke Spruill and a couple of other Braves prospects when I stop by the AFL for 2-3 games next weekend on the way back from the GM meetings Wednesday through Friday in Indian Wells, Calif.
San Francisco has now won one more World Series in the past three seasons than the Braves have won since moving to Atlanta in 1966…. The Braves have scored 12 runs in their past 5 postseason games, including four one-run losses to Giants and the error-plagued 6-3 loss to the Cardinals in this year’s Wild Card game…. Among major league pitchers who had at least 50 plate appearances, Tim Hudson tied for fourth with a .218 batting average in 2012 and ranked fifth with a .523 OPS. By the way, the only pitchers who’ve made more starts for the Atlanta Braves than Hudson’s 222 are Niekro, John Smoltz, Tom Glavine and Greg Maddux.
• Let’s close with one from the great John Lee Hooker, off his classic The Healer album. Charlie Musselwhite is also featured in this tune, which you can hear by clicking here.
“THAT’S ALRIGHT” by John Lee Hooker
Lord, Lord, Lord, Lord, that;s alright, babe
That’s alright, that’s alright, babe
I know you done me wrong, baby,
But that’s alright
As the years go passing by,
I keep on loving you, baby
Lord, Lord, Lord, Lord,
I keep on lovin’ you, baby
You done me wrong, baby,
But I forgive you, baby
You, you, you done me wrong baby,
Done me wrong, baby,
But I, I, I forgive you, forgive you
Now come home, come home, come home,
Come on back home to me, baby
That’s alright, baby, that’s alright, that’s alright
Look now people, when you love a woman,
You know she’s doing you wrong
But love is blind, love is blind, love is blind
Used, used, used,
You know you been, you know you been used
But that’s alright, that’s alright, baby
Lord, Lord, Lord, Lord, Lord
That’s alright, baby, that’s alright
You did me wrong babe, did me wrong,
But I’ll keep on lovin’ you
Keep on, keep on, keep on, keep on
As the years, years go passin’ by, passin’ by
Babe, babe, babe, baby
As the years, go, passin’ by,
I love you, I love you more and more
But that’s alright, that’s alright, that’s alright, that’s alright
– David O’Brien, Braves/MIB blog