How this 2nd-year player became one of the top 3 hitters in baseball

May 27th, 2023

The  breakout, Part 2, is here, and he has his decision-making in the box to thank for it.

Gorman is a smarter hitter today than he was a year ago. The Cardinals' 23-year-old slugger is making the same elite contact he was when he first got called up in 2022, but he's adjusted his approach to make it harder for pitchers to exploit him in the same way they did later in his rookie season.

Entering the weekend, Gorman's 1.002 OPS and 172 OPS+ were leading the National League, ahead of even early-season MVP favorite Ronald Acuña Jr.

Here's how better swing decisions have brought Gorman into that top tier of MLB hitters in 2023.

The first part of "better swing decisions" is just to look at Gorman's overall plate discipline. It's better. He's cut his chase rate from over 31% to under 25%, while maintaining his aggressiveness against pitches in the strike zone -- Gorman's in-zone swing rate sits at 72%, five percentage points higher than the Major League average of 67%. He's reduced his strikeout rate from 33% to 26% and increased his walk rate from 9% to 13%. That's the trend you want.

He's been especially good about jumping on pitches in the heart of the zone. As Cardinals beat writer John Denton noted earlier this week, Gorman already has 11 home runs against pitches in the heart of the strike zone, trailing only MLB leaders Aaron Judge, Max Muncy and Pete Alonso (13 each). That includes six homers against "meatballs" -- pitches that are truly right down the middle -- which Gorman is hacking at nearly 95% of the time.

Statcast can convert every player's swing/take decisions, and the outcomes they result in, into an overall run value for that hitter. Gorman is a top-three hitter in baseball this season by the swing/take run value he's created for the Cardinals.

Swing/take run value leaders for 2023

  1. Yordan Alvarez: +23 runs created
  2. Ronald Acuña Jr.: +22 runs created
  3. Nolan Gorman: +20 runs created
  4. (tie) Aaron Judge / Marcus Semien / Adolís García: +19 runs created

But within Gorman's overall swing decision improvements is a targeted adjustment aimed at addressing what caused Gorman the most trouble as a rookie.

Last season, pitchers figured out the book on Gorman: attack him with fastballs, particularly high fastballs. And that turned his promising start into scuffles that eventually even sent him back to the Minors.

Gorman batted just .188 and slugged .336 against four-seam and two-seam fastballs in his debut season, with a 31% strikeout rate. Against elevated fastballs, those in the upper third of the strike zone or higher, he batted .069, slugged .103 and had a 49% strikeout rate.

But Gorman put in the work this offseason to make the swing changes necessary to handle Major League heat, and his turnaround vs. fastballs is driving his sophomore surge.

Gorman is batting .304 and slugging .580 against fastballs in 2023, and his strikeout rate against them is down to 23%. He already has more homers against them, five, than he did all of last year (four).

“He’s moving faster and ... there’s more explosiveness in his swing,” Cardinals manager Oliver Marmol said in Spring Training. "To his credit, he took the information, he applied it and he’s a different guy now."

But the big question is, what about the high fastballs? And Gorman's answer there is what's interesting.

The high fastball can still be an area of vulnerability -- but it is for a lot of hitters, even great sluggers -- and Gorman is doing a great job just laying off of them.

Call it the Mike Trout approach to the high fastball. Trout, historically, has been weaker at hitting high fastballs. So he doesn't swing at them. Gorman's approach this season has echoes of Trout's.

Gorman is swinging at just under 35% of elevated fastballs this season, one of the lower rates in the Majors and right around Trout's 33% mark. Instead, he's picking the right fastballs to attack. Last year, half of Gorman's swings against fastballs were against elevated fastballs; this season, that portion is down to 41%.

"Obviously, that’s the name of the game -- you’ve got to get a good pitch to hit, and everyone is trying to do that when they’re in the box," Gorman said after crushing a three-run homer to beat the Dodgers last Saturday. "Being able to be in a good position and being ready to hit when you get that good pitch, that’s really important."

Compare the heatmap of Gorman's swings against fastballs from last season to this season. He's picking out the ones in the very heart of the zone.

By making better swing decisions against high fastballs, Gorman has cut his strikeout rate against them from 49% to 35%, and increased his walk rate against them from 21% to 33%. His swing/take decisions against high fastballs, and their results, have produced a value of +4 runs created for the Cardinals. Last season, he had a negative-4 run value vs. high fastballs.

Now add Gorman's top-tier power to the mix. He's squaring the ball up even better than he did as a rookie, when he was already dangerous.

Gorman ranks near the top of the Majors in all the key Statcast quality-of-contact metrics for power hitters:

  • 49.5% hard-hit rate -- 86th percentile of MLB
  • 42.2% launch angle sweet-spot rate -- 94th percentile
  • 15.6% barrel rate -- 91st percentile
  • .552 expected SLG -- 94th percentile

Gorman did what it took to get the most out of his potent bat, and he's reaping the results in Year 2.

"I knew what I needed to do in order to be here," Gorman said after a multi-homer game to cap off the Cardinals' Opening Series. "And I went into the offseason hungry to get there."