Atlanta Braves catcher Evan Gattis entered the 2014 season in an unenviable position. When former franchise icon and potential Hall of Famer Brian McCann departed for $85 million in New York, Gattis was handed a starting position and huge shoes to fill.
Through the first month of the season, Gattis has done just that. Buoyed by raw, unfiltered power, Atlanta's 27-year-old replacement for McCann has crushed National League pitching and helped the Braves win 17 of 24 games in April.
When dissecting and analyzing the strengths and weakness of baseball players, all-around ability is where to start. With Gattis, that distinction is unnecessary.
In fact, it's a waste of time. When watching Gattis' game, don't expect to see amazing defensive ability, baserunning acumen, plate discipline or a future .330 hitter. Those traits may describe transcendent catchers like Yadier Molina, Ivan Rodriguez, Joe Mauer and Mike Piazza, but they don't accurately represent why Gattis is an impact player for the Braves.
Evan Gattis worth 1.0 WAR, was worth 0.9 last year— Ben Duronio (@Ben_Duronio) April 27, 2014
To understand how and why Gattis is making McCann's departure a moot point for Braves fans, look to power. Right now, no catcher in baseball displays more of it than Gattis. In fact, few hitters in all of baseball—regardless of position or age or former prospect status—have matched the power display that Atlanta's right-handed slugger has featured since debuting last season.
Heading into play on April 28, Gattis owns a .959 OPS, 157 OPS+ and six home runs. While that early-season power surge is impressive, it's even more eye-opening when adding in last year's totals. Gattis' next plate appearance—likely Tuesday evening against Miami Marlins ace Jose Fernandez—will be the 450th of his young career.
Evan Gattis hit ball hard with wooden club.— Zachary D. Rymer (@zachrymer) April 22, 2014
With 27 career homers, Gattis ranks second all-time among catchers prior to reaching 450 career plate appearances, per Baseball-Reference (subscription required). Some names below him on that list: Lance Parrish, Yogi Berra and Jason Varitek. Those catching legends combined for 875 career home runs.
Comparing hitters by positional groups can be instructive, especially for catchers, middle infielders and center fielders. Yet, Gattis' power stands up to the elite sluggers in the game, regardless of position.
Since the start of the 2013 season, take a look at where Gattis ranks in ISO (isolated slugging percentage).
The names behind Gattis are almost more impressive than the five listed above him. For some added perspective, here are the next five ISO standouts, per Baseball-Reference: Giancarlo Stanton, Mike Trout, Troy Tulowitzki, Pedro Alvarez and Paul Goldschmidt.
Of course, ranking Gattis among league leaders in raw power or home runs from young catchers won't easily replace the nine standout seasons that McCann gave the Braves organization. From 2005-2013, the lefty-swinging star posted a 117 OPS+, hit 176 homers and made seven NL All-Star teams. Until Gattis matches or exceeds that type of production, the former teammates will be linked.
Although the sample size is small, Gattis has been a much, much more productive hitter this month. If this type of discrepancy continues, Braves fans will praise general manager Frank Wren for allocating over $80 million to young, ascending players rather than overpaying for the second-half of McCann's career.
As crazy as it may sound, Gattis is still refining his mental approach at the plate, specifically when facing two-strike counts. During his rookie campaign, Gattis posted an unsightly .125/.167/.263 slash line when the opposing pitcher reached two strikes against him. Hitting with two strikes is difficult for most hitters, but those struggles were significant.
Through 35 two-strike counts in 2014, Gattis has hit .206/.229/.559. While that improvement may not seem like much, an OPS jump from .429 to .787 is noteworthy.
According to David O'Brien of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the improved success stems from Gattis' hand placement. "It's really just taking my hands directly to the ball," Gattis said. "I was doing it even during spring training, though the results weren't there."
Will Evan Gattis adequately replace Brian McCann's production?
Right now, the results are there. For the grand sum of $520,250, the Braves are receiving star-caliber production. Meanwhile, the Yankees will need a typical McCann season to recoup value on a long-term investment.
Homegrown star players—especially on-field leaders like McCann—aren't easily replaced. It's too early to say that Gattis will be a consistent NL All-Star and leader like the catcher he shared a clubhouse with last season, but a 35-plus home run season can quickly make Braves fans forget about the consistent star who walked away over the winter.