Editor’s note: The first in this week’s series about great Astros underdogs stories. This is a reprint
Evan Gattis: A fundamental part of a championship core. A masher of baseballs. Always real. A true Astro.
Chances are, 2018 was his last season as an Astro. He will be missed.
A True Astro
Evan Gattis is a true Astro because the Astros are humble. The Astros core are men who, more than most players, had to overcome. Whether it be the extreme poverty of Carlos Correa’s childhood in Velasquez, Puerto Rico, similar privation plus an extremely diminutive stature in the case of Jose Altuve, or the overcoming of stuttering in the case of George Springer, the spirit of the Astros springs from deep desire born of a joy that has known the depths.
And Evan Gattis has known the depths. A stellar high school prospect, Gattis bypassed the MLB amateur draft in 2004 and accepted a scholarship to play catcher at Texas A&M.
But baseball is a game of failure. Even the greatest hitters get out far more often than they hit safely. It is an especially tough game for any man for whom the thought of failure causes deep anxiety. And that was Evan. Tough lumberjack on the outside, it turns out he was waging an inner battle with anxiety and depression on the inside, exacerbated by the divorce of his parents. He quit baseball before his season at A&M began, succumbed to drug addiction, and spent a month in a rehab facility. His baseball dream seemed over before it began, as he embarked upon a life of wandering, working variously at pizza delivery, as a ski lift operator, janitor, and at one point getting committed to a psychiatric facility for his old nemeses, depression and anxiety.
Upon release, Evan went on a search for a spiritual teacher that took him to Taos, New Mexico, and later California.
Perhaps the wise ones counseled him to find his true Self, and so he returned to his first love, baseball. He first played again at UT Permian Basin and showed enough promise to get drafted in 2010 by the Atlanta Braves, with whom he made his big league debut in 2013. He was traded to the Astros in 2015, just in time to help them reach their first playoff series in 10 years.
For Gattis, success in baseball was more than the fulfillment of a dream, it was redemption. It was his pathway to sanity and the way to slay his personal demons. Evan’s life came to a stark crossroads; overcome the anxiety that held back his career and his dream, or succumb to that anxiety and a lifetime of despair. Like so many other Astros, he overcame.
Evan has made it.
The Astros paid a high price to acquire Gattis; top prospects pitcher Mike Foltynewicz and third baseman Rio Ruiz. Foltynewicz has since become one of baseball’s top pitchers. In his first five games as an Astro, Gattis went over 20 at bats without a hit. Now it wasn’t just Gattis, but the fans who were having anxiety attacks. But eventually he broke out, and on April 26th he had his first multi-RBI game as an Astro with this characteristic, ninth inning, game-winning double against the Oakland A’s. (about 40 seconds in)
Cave Man...Cave Bat...Crush Ball
I think it was this hit that started the love affair between Astros fans and Evan Gattis. Here we have the whole package. Raw power, primitive strength, a violent, lumberjack swing, a wild man beard, and what kind of sissy needs batting gloves anyway? As TV color man Geoff Blum so aptly put it: “Cave man...cave bat...crush ball.” That’s the Evan Gattis formula we’ve come to know and love.
This was the line on Gattis in 2015: .246/.285/.463. He had 27 home runs, 88 RBI and a 103 wRC+ in 604 PA’s, mostly at DH. Here’s his best dinger of 2015.
Here are his 2015 homers:
Even more intriguing than Gattis’ 27 home runs was his 11 triples, 2nd in MLB in 2015. Here’s what a cave man running to third looks like.
Evan had his best year as an Astro in 2016, producing a slash line of .251/.319/.508 with a 121 wRC+ mostly playing catcher. His 32 home runs in only 499 PA’s and 2.6 WAR were tops in his career. Unfortunately it was in service of the only Astros team in his tenure that did not make the playoffs.
Here’s his best 2016 highlights.
2017-2018. Years of Disappointment
It would have seemed that Evan Gattis was poised for greatness in 2017. But two personnel changes that helped make the Astros champions limited the opportunities for Evan. Carlos Beltran was acquired to take the bulk of the DH responsibilities, and Brian McCann was acquired to handle most of the catching.
So despite having near All Star-like numbers in 2016, Gattis only had 325 PA’s in 2017, with only 12 home runs and a 106 wRC+.
He did make a sizable contribution in the playoffs, hitting .267 with five hits and a 130 wRC+. And that includes this tie breaking home run against the Yankees in the ALCS that proved to be the decisive hit in the decisive game of the only AL championship in Astros history.
With Beltran retired in 2018, Gattis was poised to claim greatness as the Astros’ sole DH. But this, his contract year, proved disappointing, as Gattis, like most of his team mates, produced below career average.
Actually, in a way, 2018 was two seasons for Evan. For the whole year he hit a rather anemic .226/.284/.452 with a 99 wRC+. He had exactly 0.0 WAR. But for six glorious weeks in 2018, from about May 22- July 7th, the White Bear came out of hibernation. El Oso Blanco roared, his inner beast liberated, slashing .293/.343/.636 with 14 of his 25 home runs, probably the hottest stretch of his career. On June 12th and 13th he had back to back 5 RBI games with 3 home runs. On June 15th he added 4 more RBI on a grand slam en route to AL player of the week. Watch the Bear in his natural habitat.
And yet, if on the whole 2018 had been a successful season for Evan, I would probably not be writing this tribute. What went wrong? Clearly DH is a problem position for the Astros. Gattis’ 99 wRC+ in 2018, almost exclusively at DH, was far below the league average 112.
But as a catcher, in 866 AB’s, Gattis has a career 133 wRC+, which, if he had done that this year, would have made him baseball’s leading hitting catcher. But his defense has been deemed so bad at catcher or any other position, that his highest value is considered DH, even though he is merely a slightly below league average hitter there over his career in 1290 AB’s. (96 wRC+)
So Gattis’ career has been limited by this inexplicable conundrum. Where he can best hit, he cannot adequately play defense, but when he doesn’t play defensively, he doesn’t hit as well. Perhaps this is why Gattis, from early on, has always wanted to play catcher. But for the Astros, still in contention for a World Title, it is imperative to find better production at the only position Evan Gattis can play, DH.
A Beloved Astro
Yet despite his shortcomings, Evan Gattis will always hold a special place in Houston Astros lore. A strong, lumberjack, bear of a man, it turns out that Gattis, far from a cave man, is really a gentle giant, a sensitive, inquiring, and sometimes troubled man who loves to use his large body to smash baseballs, as if by doing so he can take revenge on life.
For any baseball fan who has ever struggled with his own mental health, or overcome drugs, or ever felt confused, or looked for meaning and direction in his or her life, then Evan Gattis is your baseball patron saint. For such people, and that just might be a lot of us, Evan is the most relatable Astro, the struggling everyman who made good. It seems he could have ended up being, maybe, just maybe, that guy you see under the bridge on I 10 or I 45. But, with talent and a little luck, he persisted and overcame. And when he leaves Houston he will receive the same sincere and honest love from thousands of well-wishing fans that he gave to those fans with every straightforward, caveman swing of his mighty bat.
Evan, you will be missed. And when you return to Minute Maid Park, I will be there, standing in ovation with everyone else.