The Cardinals have been drafting, signing and straining to develop a franchise-cornerstone power hitter for a very long time.
Too long, actually.
I’m not talking about a prospect that comes equipped with blazing baserunning, or elite defense or a nifty batting average. Those are nice accessories to have, but here I’m referring to a pure, powerful, menacing hitter. A hitter who has a formidable presence, frightens pitchers and consistently generates excitement.
The type of hitter that compels you to stop what you’re doing to make sure you watch his at-bat.
I think Nolan Gorman is the dude.
Or he’s in the act of becoming that dude.
Gorman is looking like STL’s first home-grown power-hitting star in the making since rookie Albert Pujols in 2001.
The Cardinals have drafted and developed some very good hitters during the expansion era including Ted Simmons, Keith Hernandez, J.D. Drew, Ray Lankford, Matt Carpenter, and Andy Van Slyke. And if we want to give a share of credit for signing and developing Randy Arozarena, then he merits mention. Had the Cardinals not traded Arozarena to Tampa Bay, he would be more than just a quick reference here. As it turned out, manager Mike Shildt gave Arozarena only 23 plate appearances in 2019 … and then it was off to the Rays.
All of that aside, you’d have to go back to Pujols to see a homegrown Cardinal hit for this mighty kind of power. And Gorman is still learning. And if this season means anything, he’s learning quickly. Imagine what his power will do for the Cardinals and to their opponents when he gains even more experience.
I searched on Stathead to see how Gorman rates among the Cardinals’ major league hitters in his age group, 19 to 23 years old. (Post-expansion.)
Using OPS+ – and hitters that have at least 465 plate appearances, here are the top four:
— Albert Pujols, 165 OPS, age 21 through 23.
— Nolan Gorman, 130 OPS+, age 22 to 23.
— Keith Hernandez, 120 OPS+, age 20 through 23.
— Ted Simmons, 115 OPS+ age 19 through 23.
Of course, Gorman must have staying power. He’s having a remarkable, breakout 2023 season but there are 114 games remaining on the schedule.
Here’s the thing: Gorman continues to get better. And there is nothing flukish or hallucinatory about what he’s doing. His substantial improvement is directly connected to offseason changes made to his swing and approach. His plate discipline has grown to an impressive level, and it happened quickly. The 2022 rookie had the mind and determination to fix his flaws and become a more complete overall hitter, and that’s what we’re seeing now.
Through Sunday, here’s where Gorman ranked among qualifying National League hitters:
* 1st in slugging percentage, .640. As a rookie he slugged .420.
* 1st in OPS, at 1.032. As a rookie his OPS was .721.
* 1st in OPS+, 180. That means Nolan is 80 percent above league average offensively. As a rookie Gorman was seven points above average.
* 1st in park-and-league adjusted runs created, with a 178 wRC+. That makes him 78 percent above league average offensively – an increase of 71 points from his rookie season.
* 2nd in RBI, with 39.
* 3rd in homers, with 13. (He had 14 as a rookie.)
In the start to his Cardinal career, Gorman has hit a homer every 15.6 at bats. That’s terrific. But if we look at 2023 only he’s averaging one home run per 10.6 at-bats. That’s scary.
You may be wondering: what’s so different about Nolan Gorman in 2023? Rapid maturity, more MLB experience, more confidence, more patience and an upswing in plate discipline.
Let’s break it down into five parts:
1. As a 22-year-old rookie last season, Gorman struck out 33 percent of the time and had a walk rate of 9 percent. This season his walk rate is significantly improved, up to 12.4%, and he’s lowered his strikeout rate to 24.8 percent. Believe it or not, Gorman is in the 79th percentile of MLB hitters that do the best job of laying off the non-strikes. That’s very good. And his walk rate is in the 80th percentile – which is also very good, and kind of surprising. Gorman’s enhanced strike-zone judgment is a huge factor in his success.
2. That’s because, among other things, he’s reduced his “chase rate” on non-strikes. Last season he chased non-strikes 34.2% percent of the time. This year that’s down to 26%. He’s being more selective and it shows; Gorman is hunting for strikes and finding them.
3. According to Bill James Online, Gorman is swinging at strike-zone pitches at a rate of 66% in 2023. Last season he swung at 58% of the strikes served up to him. He’s been laying off the high pitches, going after fewer of them outside the strike zone and assaulting pitches that give him the best chance of doing serious damage. Last season, when Gorman swung at a pitch, he put it in play at a rate of 28%. That’s up to 36 percent this year.
4. Stormin’ Gorman’s percentage of barreling pitches is way up, placing him in the 94th percentile. Statcast has a category titled “meatball” which are pitches a hitter should punish. Last year Gorman swung at meatballs 87% of the time; that’s increased to 94% this season. And when Gorman connects, watch out. Gorman’s hard-hit rate is an excellent 50 percent, up seven points from 2022.
5. Unlike last season, Gorman is handling every category of pitches. The best example is fastballs. In 2022 he batted .194 and had a .348 slug on fastballs. This season: .329 average and .658 slug on heaters. On breaking pitches Gorman is hitting .272 with a .788 slug. And on offspeed stuff, he’s batting .269 with a .423 slug. That’s respectable, and pitchers are finding it more difficult to get Gorman out of rhythm by throwing slower pitches.
I may have slighted Gorman earlier in the column when I labeled him as a pure power hitter. Which is true. He definitely is that. But he’s developing into a more capable all-around player. I mentioned his high walk rate that’s fueled a .391 onbase percentage that’s 9th in the NL. His strike-zone judgment and increased pitch awareness have produced a .302 batting average that ranks 8th in the NL. Gorman’s defense has improved this season; Fielding Bible has him at one defensive run saved at second base.
Hey, Gorman is never going to be a speed horse on the bases, and that’s OK. His baserunning form is fantastic as he jogs around the bases after clubbing a picturesque home run. After so many years of waiting, the Cardinals evidently have the home-grown slugger they’ve been looking for.
Thanks for reading …
Bernie invites you to listen to his sports-talk show on 590 The Fan, KFNS-AM. It airs Monday through Thursday from 3-6 p.m. and Friday from 4-6 p.m. You can listen by streaming online or by downloading the show podcast at 590thefan.com or the 590 app.
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All stats used in my baseball columns are sourced from FanGraphs, Baseball Reference, Baseball Savant, Bill James Online and Baseball Prospectus.
For the last 35 years Bernie Miklasz has entertained, enlightened, and connected with generations of St. Louis sports fans.
While best known for his voice as the lead sports columnist at the Post-Dispatch for 26 years, Bernie has also written for The Athletic, Dallas Morning News and Baltimore News American. Bernie has hosted radio shows in St. Louis, Dallas, Baltimore and Washington D.C.
Bernie, his wife Kirsten and their cats reside in the Skinker-DeBaliviere neighborhood of St. Louis.