From the bottom to the top: Is Evan Gattis the next Josh Hamilton?
Unlike any other sport, baseball is a game of numbers. Numbers can make you a legend, see 715, or infamous, see Mendoza line. They can help you get paid, right Aaron Rowand, or benched right Aaron Rowand? The reliance on numbers can be crippling at times and squeeze potential prospects out of a fair shot at the pros. Why do I bring this up, you ask? Because rarely will you see a 25-year-old prospect with only three seasons under his belt and a checkered past have so much buzz about what he could bring to an established lineup. But that’s exactly what Atlanta Braves prospect Evan Gattis brings to the table.
A highly recruited high school prospect, Gattis looked to stay in his home state of Texas and play for the Texas A&M. It was at this point that Gattis’ journey to the Braves began.
The pressure of “big time” baseball got to Gattis before he could even lace his spikes for the Aggies. Gattis never reported to A&M, instead he was checked into a drug rehab center by his parents. Dealing with anxiety and the thought of failure for the first time in his baseball career, Gattis began to self-medicate with excessive drinking and marijuana. The next four months of his life went from potential college standout to in-patient care and halfway houses.
Then, it seemed that Gattis had his life back on track. He enrolled at Oklahoma Junior College to continue to utilize his natural abilities. However, his lack of happiness caused him to yet again drop out of school in pursuit of, as Gattis describes it, “a thing called happiness.”
The next three years were spent traveling. Not the exciting backpack across Europe that early 20-somethings put life on hold for, but the kind of traveling that had Gattis working odd jobs and living in his car across the Western United States. The low-light of his working career? Working at a national park as a cook. Gattis, a straight shooter, held no punches, “it sucked … it was the worst job ever.”
After excursions from New Mexico to California, hitchhiking to Idaho and 37-hour bus rides back to Texas that Gattis said “added five years to his (looks).” It is amazing he even could find an impulse to be a productive member of society. However, baseball was still the continuing passion that arose in this young man. After calling his stepbrother, Drew Kendrick, who was playing for Texas-Permian Basin, Gattis secured a spot with the team.
Initial rust was no problem despite being away from the game for four years. So much so, the Braves decided to gamble select Gattis in the 23rd round of the 2010 draft. A modest $1,000 bonus was all that it took to sign the man that Baseball America ranked as the 27th-best prospect in the Braves organization.
Switching from metal bats to wooden ones was no problem in 2010 for Gattis. He was assigned to the Appalachian League, Rookie Level, and hit an outstanding .288 with 64 hits in 60 games. That performance wasn’t enough to secure a starting position in the organization.
The Braves kept Gattis in extended spring training for the beginning of the 2011 season, but his bat and injuries forced them to make a decision. In May, he was assigned to the Braves Low-A affiliate Rome. Playing in only 88 games and getting only 338 at-bats, Gattis destroyed South Atlantic League (SAL) pitching. He won the league’s batting title with a .322 clip, he was named a Post-Season All-Star, was a two-time SAL “Player of the Week” and was named by MiLB.com as an Organization All-Star for Atlanta. He also hit 22 home runs during the season, combining power and average.
After all the trials and tribulations, Gattis had arrived and the Braves noticed. He was invited to spring training in 2012, a non-roster invitee, but that didn’t discourage Gattis from proving why last season wasn’t a fluke. Whether he was facing Braves standout relief pitcher Eric O’Flaherty or all-world closer Craig Kimbrel, Gattis was crushing pitching early in the spring. In an interview with the Atlanta Journal Constitution, O’Flaherty said, “Normally, guys are late on your heater this time of year, but he was turning on it, pulling it.”
A wonderful spring led to a starting role in Lynchburg, Virginia, with the Hillcats. The High-A Hillcats were a hot spot for catchers last season from the highly touted Christian Bethancourt to journeyman like Ryan Query, the Hillcats had it all. They knew they were getting someone special in Gattis, but few could have predicted his meteoric rise.
Penciled in day-to-day between catcher and designated hitter, Gattis started to mash from the very beginning of the season. The hits were there but it took until his sixth game for the power surge to start. From April 12th to the 27th – a 13-game span — Gattis hit nine home runs, five doubles and added 25 RBI to go along with an absurd .375 batting average. He garned Carolina League “Player of the Week” honors to start the season. It was about this time that speculation on his advancement in the organization began. With Bethancourt in front of him on the depth chart in Double-A Mississippi, it was going to be hard for Gattis to crack the line-up. Proving his determination and maturity, the Braves started to make plans to move him to left field.
Most catchers are stocky guys with limited speed and mobility. The knock on Gattis was exactly that. In addition, could he handle major league pitching behind the plate? Were his defensive skills too much of a liability no matter how good his bat was? These questions arose even though Gattis had committed to losing between 20-30 pounds just a season ago using the “Crossfit” workout routine.
Crossfit is a routine used by police, military and even martial artists. It’s goal is to be broad and help you work your core while conditioning. Gattis was such a big believer in this he got his Hillcat teammate Robby Hefflinger involved. Hefflinger lost 20-25 pounds over the Winter and continues to sing the praises of the program and Gattis for helping him be in the best shape of his career.
In the midst of his torrid pace, Gattis began getting extra work in practice to work on his fundamentals in the outfield. Just one week later, he made his debut in left field for Lynchburg. His bat certainly forced this situation, one the Braves suspected was coming, but also the lack of production and injuries from the Mississippi lineup was a factor.
Between learning a new position, working on improving as a defensive catcher and being a clubhouse leader as one of the oldest members of the team, Gattis never missed a beat. His production never wavered and just a few days ago, when Bethancourt went down with an injury, Gattis was the first to be called. The Braves even had him removed from a game and board the next flight to Mobile to join the Mississippi squad.
In true Gattis fashion, he was thrown right into the fire in his first game with the Mississippi Braves. Hitting between Atlanta’s fourth-best prospect, Andrelton Simmons, and last season’s Carolina League MVP, Ian Gac. Not to mention that the starting pitcher for the Mobile Bay Bears was Trevor Bauer. Does that name ring a bell? If not, he was the third overall pick last year by the Arizona Diamondbacks and is currently rated by Baseball America as the ninth-best prospect in all of baseball. Do you think that mattered to Gattis? Of course not! Two RBI and a hit later, and he is off to a good start with his new team.
It could be just a matter of time before you see the hulking 6′-4″ Texan in the majors and ESPN with Buster Olney or John Barrcovering this Disney-like story. You’re welcome, fellas, for the tip.