A bit more than five years of age separate the two men who in 2015 covered Minute Maid Park's spacious center field for the Houston Astros. Five years is an insignificant age difference for colleagues of most professions, and it is even less meaningful in dog years. But in baseball, five years is the difference between approaching one's years of peak performance and approaching one's years of gradual decline.
The younger of the pair, Jake Marisnick, broke camp as the everyday center fielder for the 2015 Astros. He started hot, batting .379/.422/.621 in April before falling completely apart at the plate in subsequent months. Despite providing negative value with the bat throughout the season, Marisnick remained on the big league roster due to his elite-level defense.
Prior to the mid-season trade deadline, the Astros supplanted Marisnick with Carlos Gomez, late of the Milwaukee Brewers. Gomez, a former multi-time All-Star, struggled through a myriad of nagging injuries, but still contributed clutch postseason performances that helped the club reach the American League Divsion Series for the first time since 2005.
Since both players project to be mainstays on the 2016 Houston Astros, it is apt to compare them. And in doing so, one finds a startling number of similarities, to the point where Marisnick appears a clone of Gomez from five years ago.
Obvious physical similarities
First there are the obvious similarities. Both Gomez and Marinick are right-handed center fielders. Both are predominantly identified as two of the best defensive center fielders in the Major Leagues. Marisnick stands six foot four inches and two hundred twenty-five pounds, per Fangraphs. Gomez is six foot three inches and...two hundred twenty-five pounds.
But it goes deeper.
Early developmental history
Gomez and Marisnick may have been cut from the same mold, but their early baseball backgrounds are dissimilar. Marisnick was a third-round draft pick by the Toronto Blue Jays in 2009 after graduating from Riverside Poly High School in Riverside, California. Gomez is the only listed major leaguer who has ever attended Ana FA Jimenez High School in Santiago, Dominican Republic. He eventually signed with the New York Mets as an amateur free agent in 2002.
At the time of their entering the ranks of pro baseball players, both men were considered to be excellent defensive center field prospects with intriguing batting upside. For Gomez, the bat took time to develop, and it appeared that his immediate defensive prowess led to aggressive promotions before the stick was ready for the major leagues. This in turn fed a perception that teams quickly became frustrated with the "toolsy" outfielder who couldn't hit. By the time he turned 24, he was involved in two major trades.
First, Gomez was the key piece returning to the Minnesota Twins in the deal that sent Cy-Young Award winner Johan Santana to New York. Gomez went straight to the major leagues and struggled mightily at the plate for two seasons. Then in 2010 he was sent to the Brewers for average shortstop J.J. Hardy, an indication of Gomez' drop in value due to the non-development of his bat. The Brewers were then patient with the 24-year-old center fielder, and their patience eventually paid off. From 2012 to 2014, Gomez batted .277/.336/.483 (123 wRC+) with 66 home runs and 111 stolen bases. Then in 2015, as a major part of their rebuilding effort, the Brewers traded Gomez to the Astros in return for multiple prospects, including at least three who have been featured on Top 100 prospects lists. Though his 2015 season was derailed due to injuries (.255/.314/.409, 96 wRC+, with 12 HR and 17 SB), most experts agree that if healthy in 2016, he should return to a level approaching his peak, or near enough to still make him an above-average center fielder. Marisnick, meanwhile, is still working towards his own break-out, which may or may not ever happen.
Marisnick reached AA with the Blue Jays before being included in the massive twelve-player deal with the Marlins that sent five established major leaguers to Toronto. Like Gomez, Marisnick was aggressively promoted to the big leagues due to his immediate impact as a defender in center field, and like Gomez, things did not fare well at the plate. He never managed to bat even .200 for the fish, though they limited him to fewer than 170 plate appearances.
And so he became a component in another trade, this one sending him to Houston in return for starting pitcher Jarred Cosart. As noted, with Houston Marisnick's batting has been a mixed bag, mostly negative, though he provides excellent defensive and base-running value that has made him overall a useful player, though not an impact one.
Despite both players' woes in making contact, their near-elite speed and flashes of power made their early careers tantalizing with upside.
A statistical comparison between the two players' early years reveals shockingly parallel paths throughout their early 20's:
At similar ages and levels, Gomez and Marisnick mirrored each other in Batting Average, speed, and power. Marisnick showed slightly more power and on-base skills in the lower minor leagues than Gomez, but Gomez surpassed him in batting in the upper.
The two players' minor league walk and strikeout, as well as major league contact rates, are all within a couple of percentage points of each other as well.
When Gomez reached his first full Major League season in 2008 with the Twins, he played much like Marisnick did during 2015. Gomez' defense was elite (+12 Defensive Runs Saved as a center fielder), but he batted only .258/.296/.360, for a 74 wRC+, making him over 25% worse than the average major league hitter that season. Subsequent seasons (2009 through his age 25 season in 2011) were much the same.
In 2008, Gomez displayed the ability to hit the ball to all fields, but was noticeably a pull hitter when it came to extra base hits.
In 2015, Marisnick displayed the same tendencies - most of his extra base hits are to the pull side of the field, but he does a good job of using all fields in his approach, which should prevent defensive shifting from having too much impact.
Looking at Gomez' strike zone distribution tells a similar story. In 2008, pitchers pounded Gomez low and away and up and in. No shock there - it's the standard way to attack most hitters, especially young ones that haven't faced major league-quality breaking pitches much. Predictably, Gomez whiffed a lot on those down-and-away pitches, a full 50% of which were sliders and curve balls.
In the sense that pitchers are pounding low and away, the approach of opponents against Marisnick mirrors that of 'young Gomez'.
But in comparing the zones of Gomez' and Marisnick's early careers, the first major difference appears. In 2008, Gomez was relatively effective at turning on inside pitches, whereas Marisnick has been more effective at reaching for and connecting with the low-and-away stuff. Marisnick still whiffs often at those pitches, but he also has put many of them into the opposite field for a base hit. If this is a skill rather than a fluke of small-sample statistics, it will serve Marisnick well. On the other hand, it looks as if pitchers could find success by dealing brush-back pitches on a regular basis, as he has so far had little success against them.
Finally, with the very recent advent of detailed batted ball data, we can compare the speed of the ball when struck by either player. Because of the newness of this data, Gomez' early batted ball exit velocities are not available. The chart below though, comparing Gomez's and Marisnick's 2015 seasons, show that they have similar batted ball speed.
Only 3 mph separated Gomez' average batted ball velocity with Marisnick's, and it's fair to wonder if some of that separation is due to their difference in ages and physical development. Their line drive / fly ball velocities were even closer, at 91.7 and 90 mph, respectively. Marisnick managed a max of 111 mph in 2015, and Gomez reached 112.
So how can Marisnick become "Good Gomez"?
Gomez' success in catching up with up-and-in pitches earlier in his career drove an apparent approach change for opposing pitchers. While pitchers do not now avoid that quadrant, they throw it with a lower frequency, preferring to continue attacking him down and away. While this is still the most effective location for getting Gomez out, it also reduces the guesswork on his part as to where a pitcher is going to go with his out pitch. A good two-strike approach can be adopted if you know where a pitcher is going to try to get you out.
If Marisnick can improve over 2015 in attacking inside pitches, it would give pitchers fewer options with their out pitches. Currently, Marisnick doesn't know whether he'll see a high fastball with two strikes or a hard slider away, and this limits his ability to anticipate and adjust. Correcting this would help in lowering his performance-limiting strikeout problem, as his K-rate stands at almost 30% for his ML career, compared to Gomez' 23%.
Strikeouts are the major difference between the two center fielders, and it seems likely that this could be factor that turns Marisnick into either a productive batter like Gomez or a non-productive one like Brandon Barnes. But Marisnick's strikeout rates during his minor league career were no worse than Gomez', so the possibility still exists that he can improve in that arena.
Given Jake Marisnick's combination of defense, speed, and intriguing power, he should receive plenty of opportunities to grow into a player that resembles Carlos Gomez in his non-injured prime. Whether he will or not is one of the cosmic mysteries of player development. But Astros fans should be encouraged that with no more than a small step forward in plate discipline, Marisnick could take a giant leap from his ho-hum 2015 production into a dynamic center fielder who gives pitchers fits when standing at the plate. As one of the youngest players on the 2016 Astros roster, Marisnick should continue to develop as a backup center fielder this season, receiving perhaps 300 plate appearances, hitting between 5 and 10 home runs and stealing between 15 and 20 bases. With any sign of improvement during the season, he could easily become the long-term answer in center field once Gomez departs for free agency following this season. And maybe All Star appearances will be in his future, too.