The Minnesota Twins' Carlos Gomez displayed last year some of the raw natural ability that he possesses.
Blazing speed, for instance. Gomez stole 33 bases in 2008, his first full season of Major League baseball. This ranked him seventh in that category in the American League.
The bad news is that he was caught 11 times, ranking him third. As he gains experience and knowledge of pitchers, one can expect his efficiency in stealing bases will dramatically improve.
Gomez led all regular center fielders with a range factor of 3.15. He also had nine putouts, only one more than the number of errors that he committed. That, too, should improve as he gains maturity.
Gomez sported a .258/.295/.351 batting line in 2008. He showed some decent pop with seven home runs, and he drove in 59 runs, a respectable amount considering the fact that he batted atop the Twins' lineup for most of the season.
Gomez, at times, showed flashes of brilliance at the plate. He made an auspicious debut for the Twins by going 2-for-3. About a month later, he hit for the cycle. Gomez was hitting .282 entering June, before he eventually slumped.
Everybody agrees that Gomez must cut down on his strikeouts and improve his on-base percentage in 2009 to fulfill his potential and perhaps become an elite player one day.
Gomez, though, is already in elite company.
He is one of seven players in Major League history who have walked 25 or fewer times and struck out 130 or more times in a single season. The others are Bo Jackson, 1988; Cory Snyder, 1989; Alfonso Soriano, 2002; Corey Patterson, 2002; Jeff Francouer, 2006; and Kevin Kouzmanoff, 2008.
None of these players will likely ever need to ready a speech in preparation for his induction into the Hall of Fame. (Soriano is fashioning a borderline resume, if he continues to produce numbers at the same pace for the next half-dozen years.)
It's a small statistical sample, infinitesimal in fact, given all the Major League players who have ever donned spikes, but it leads one to wonder precisely how much improvement can one expect from Gomez, whose continued development is seen as essential to legitimize the trade of Johan Santana to the New York Mets.
Is the ability to distinguish "good" pitches from "bad" pitches an innate gift, much in the way that some persons are born with perfect pitch. (No pun intended.)
Or, is discipline something that can be learned through experience and the patient tutelage of teammates and a batting coach?
The core sample of players mentioned above doesn't shed any light on the dilemma. The cold, hard fact is that none, expect Soriano, have enjoyed sustained Major League success.
Bo didn't know the strike zone very well in 1988, but he still belted 25 homers and drove in 66 runs in 439 plate appearances for the Kansas City Royals. In 1989, Jackson's walk and strikeout totals both increased, as did his batting average (.010 points to .256) and his home runs (32) and RBI (105).
Jackson actually looked he was developing into a more patient swinger in 1990, by his standards. His strikeout to walk ratio was approximately 3-to-1 and as a result, he raised his season batting average to. 276. His home run and RBI production remained constant.
However, injuries took their toll on Jackson's career so we can only speculate about what kind of ballplayer he may have become.
Snyder, in 1989, worked out 23 walks and struck out 134 times. He finished with a .215 batting average accompanied by 15 homers and 59 RBI. Two years earlier, Snyder batted .236 with 33 homers and 82 RBI in his first full Major League season. He walked 31 times and fanned 166 times during that season.
In 1993, his final season, Snyder raised his average to .266 for the Los Angeles Dodgers. Yet, he only managed 11 home runs and 56 RBI in 516 plate appearance. The low walk-high strikeout continued to plague him (47 walks and 147 strikeouts), though.
Injuries also shortened his career, but it's safe to assume that when he left baseball at the age of 32, Snyder would have likely continued in his struggle to distinguish good and bad pitches.
Soriano hasn't let a poor knowledge of the strikeout zone interfere with his offensive production. Over the course of a 10-year career and counting, he has averaged .282 with 36 home runs and 95 RBI each year. He's never struck out fewer than 102 times or walked more than 67 times in a single season during that span.
Oddly enough, the season in which Soriano joined this elite company, he also batted .300 with 39 homers and 102 RBI.
Patterson, at age 29, has yet to show any marked improvement in plate discipline. It's too early on in the careers of Francouer and Kouzmanoff to judge whether they'll master the strike zone, either.
However, all three enjoyed productive offensive seasons when their walk/strikeout ratio was at their highest, which is much higher than a manager would like to see.
Perhaps this means that by the time these players reached the Major League, their approach to hitting was already ingrained and they couldn't overcome the perceived "bad habits" that are viewed as obstacles that stand in the way of greater success.
It's too early to tell whether Gomez will follow the course of these players. Time is on his side but an informal glimpse into history tells us not to expect too much from Gomez. Yet, if he turns into another Soriano at the plate, Twins' fans won't have too much to gripe about.
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