Can a healthy back fuel Gorman into stardom with Cards?

March 21st, 2024

This story was excerpted from John Denton’s Cardinals Beat newsletter. To read the full newsletter, click here. And subscribe to get it regularly in your inbox.

JUPITER, Fla. -- While the Cardinals have been hit hard by injuries during Spring Training, with the losses of Sonny Gray (right hamstring), Tommy Edman (right wrist), Lars Nootbaar (ribs) and Keynan Middleton (right forearm), no news has been great news as it relates to Nolan Gorman and his occasionally balky back.

There has hardly been any mention of Gorman’s back throughout the Cardinals’ time in Spring Training, and for that, the 23-year-old second baseman deserves plenty of credit. In addition to working to better his already elite bat-to-ball skills, Gorman radically changed his diet this offseason to eliminate any inflammation that had caused his back to stiffen up in the past.

“Obviously, I spent the whole offseason making sure that wouldn’t happen,” Gorman said of there being no mention of his previous back injury. “I didn’t want to come in here to Spring Training and have to worry about it, or really even talk about it. Like I’ve said, I took care of my back in every way that I needed to this offseason."

How serious is Gorman about bettering his body and being at his best in the season ahead? An avid lover of popcorn, Gorman’s dedication to being healthier this season led to him switching from popcorn brands that use peanut oil to ones that utilize healthier coconut oil. That change, combined with a few others in his daily diet, helped Gorman shed eight pounds, and a back that has bothered him for three years is finally pain-free. He’s moving better than ever -- both in the field and at the plate -- as the lineup’s power supply between cornerstones Paul Goldschmidt and Nolan Arenado.

The Cardinals are confident that good health could be the only thing standing between Gorman and a 40-home run season. In terms of their top young talent, Gorman might be the closest thing to a can’t-miss superstar on the club, and that even includes 6-foot-6, 250-pound Jordan Walker. Gorman’s enormous power -- stories about the length of his Minor Leagues homers are still retold in the clubhouse -- lead many within the organization to believe that he is on a collision course with stardom … as long as his bad back doesn’t trip him up.

Despite being limited to 119 games and only 406 at-bats last season by back and hamstring issues, Gorman still mashed a team-best 27 home runs. A deeper look into the numbers shows that his potential is much more grandiose if he can play 140 to 150 games.

Last season, Gorman ranked in baseball’s top 3 percent in barrel rate (16.5 percent) and in the game’s top 9 percent in hitting the ball on the sweet spot of the bat (38.8 percent). His hard-hit rate was in the top 14 percent (48.5 percent) and his expected slugging percentage was among the game’s top 13 percent of hitters (.498).

Another area where Gorman has cleared the way to be in the lineup every day is with his improved ability to stand up against left-handed pitching. After making his MLB debut in May 2022, Gorman was used only sparingly against lefties as a rookie. Last season, he got 73 at-bats against left-handers and had a higher OPS against southpaws (.839) than he did against righties (.797).

“He’s staying in there left-on-left really well, and he did last year as well,” manager Oliver Marmol said of Gorman, who drilled a fastball from Marlins lefty Ryan Weathers into right field for a 108.3 mph double on Friday. “Those were good swings, and he continues to do that really well. When you look at his overall production against lefties from last year, he’s showing that he’s more than capable of [being an everyday player].”

Gorman, who won home run derbies at Miami’s loanDepot park and Chicago’s Wrigley Field as a high school All-American out of Phoenix, has never doubted that he would be an everyday player and that he would hit in a big way at baseball’s highest level. He also has no doubts that he will post big-time numbers in the season ahead, as long as his back stays healthy and continues to be a non-issue.

“I don’t think about numbers at all,” Gorman stressed. “Numbers are going to be where they’re at and where they need to be by the end of the year. If you’re going out there and playing hard and playing to win, the numbers will always be there.”