We've heard that baseball story so many times: the headstrong kid with talent, who stubbornly refuses to do what will make him a great player. Some never learn. Some figure it out, and we chalk it up to maturity. Others take an approach counter to what any coach would recommend -- think Jeff Bagwell's batting stance, for instance -- but such strategies usually survive into the major leagues from an early age due to repeated success.
So what, then, to make of Carlos Gomez, a 6'3", 215 center fielder, the best in the National League? He's a power/speed threat on par with anyone in baseball, whose average and home run totals have skyrocketed. And it happened when he stopped listening to years of coaches insisting he hit the ball on the ground, and became the 30-plus home run hitter he says he always thought he could be.
"In 2011, I realized what I wanted to do, to make a change in my career," Gomez, reflecting calmly on his new stardom, his frequent smile punctuated by unruly dark hair, as we talked in front of his locker at Citizens Bank Park, prior to Friday's Brewers-Phillies game. "I want to do the thing that will help me."
His frame is more muscular than he was at 21, when he broke into the major leagues with the New York Mets. But he was never anything like rail-thin; it was always assumed that power would be a tool for Gomez just as speed was.
But oh, that speed. Gomez would win races along the warning track in Port St. Lucie the spring he was called up, besting a pretty fair runner in Jose Reyes. The Mets, and the Twins after Gomez was dealt to Minnesota as the centerpiece of the Johan Santana trade, wanted Carlos Gomez to do one thing, first and foremost: hit the ball on the ground.
It is understandable. Gomez stole 64 bases as a 19-year-old at Single-A, then improved his percentage at Double-A in 2006 to 41 stolen bases in 50 attempts. Getting Gomez on base, then, and letting him destroy teams with his legs made for a desirable goal. And if the power came with it, all the better.
It is the natural reaction from a player factory where prospects are evaluated and sorted. Here's a fast center fielder: we'll make him a leadoff hitter. There's a power-hitting first baseman: we'll try to get him to hit home runs. For teams who try to develop hundreds of players, a puzzle like Carlos Gomez doesn't come along very often: How do you allow him to develop in such a way that he converts his speed and power from tools to skills?
"I made it tough even for the manager," Gomez said of his mixture of skills. (That's even manifested itself this season: Ron Roenicke has batted him in every slot, 1-8, already this season.) "You say, 'That kid could be hitting leadoff'. The next day I hit two home runs, you say, 'You know, he could be my three-hole hitter.' And I understand in the past, I only hit six, seven, eight home runs, but I'm really fast. So they thought, the future was gonna be speed. Speed guy forever."
Nor did it help that the Mets rushed him through their system, giving him just 36 games above Double-A before bringing him to New York. And once the Twins acquired him for Santana, their franchise pitcher, sending him back to Triple-A served as an unpalatable public relations option.
"Everybody wants to come up to the big leagues," Gomez said, when asked if he'd have been better off with more developmental time. "But I think, at that time, I needed one more year in the minor leagues to realize, to think about what I was doing."
So instead, Gomez did his best to stay afloat, while the Twins urged him, as the Mets had, to become Juan Pierre, basically. The approach didn't allow Gomez's power to blossom much, nor did it really work. Gomez posted an O.P.S.+ of 72 from 2007-2010, hitting just 17 home runs in 1,420 plate appearances. He stole 77 bases over those four seasons, and played the elite center field defense that had been a calling card from his minor league days. But he was far from a viable starting player at bat.
So when Gomez returned from a fractured clavicle in September 2011 (sustained, it should be noted, on a highlight catch in center field), he decided, at age 25, that it was time to approach hitting the way he always saw himself: as a power hitter.
"You know, I'd been trying this for five years," Gomez said. "And it's not working. Put the ball in play, hitting ground balls for running, bunt, hitting the ball the other way, all the people wanted me to hit the ball on the ground." You could almost hear the echoes of his coaches as he relayed their advice. "And we made the decision, me and Dale [Sveum, then-Brewers hitting coach], that no, you're strong, we want you to drive the ball, hit the home run. So in September, after I come back from that injury, to my collarbone, I hit the ball good. I drove it."
It wasn't much of a sample size, but Gomez certainly did. His 2011 batting line when he returned from injury: .220/.270/.378. Over his final 13 games of 2011: .270/.333/.636, with two home runs and two doubles in 25 plate appearances.
That was enough for Gomez, who came to spring training in 2012 determined to implement a new, power-centric approach. He didn't intend to just swing from his heels. Just as he had for years, dutifully following coaching advice without results, he intended to follow a program, but to do it his way.
Sveum was gone, hired by the Chicago Cubs as manager. New hitting coach Johnny Narron, fortunately for Gomez, strongly supported Gomez's new power initiative.
"I met Carlos for the first time, and he came to me, and he expressed some things that he felt he needed from me, as a hitter," Narron said prior to Friday's game as we sat and chatted in a media room just off of the main clubhouse. "We discussed it, I took a look at his swing, we came up with a plan, and implemented it.
"He's a big, strong man, very athletic, great bat speed. And why can't he hit for power? One of the things that we stress here is line drive power. And Carlos understands that, and one of the things he does is work diligently. So we really worked on a good bat path for him, we set up a routine for him last year, we called it a progression drill. And it encompasses being on time, it encompasses staying square on the ball, staying back on off-speed pitches and executing a good swing on the ball."
And a grateful Gomez happily threw himself into creating a new attack, working at becoming the kind of hitter he believed he was meant to be.
"He embraced that, he worked extremely hard," Narron said. "Last year, that started to show results of his hard work during last year. And we pretty much just carried over again into this year."
The hard work has, too. Gomez described a daily ritual of hitting, first lefty pitching, then righty pitching, constant drills and evaluation from Narron to make sure his swing is where it needs to be, and even a regular ritual where coaches throw him pitches from only 17 feet away, forcing him to recognize pitches more quickly, and making the task of doing so from 60 feet, six inches feel like slow motion.
All this work made Gomez's 2012 seem like a breakout season. Gomez started strong, faltered in May and June, but hit five home runs each in July, August and September. His .809 O.P.S. in the second half dwarfed anything he'd done in his career. Combine that kind of hitting with Gomez's speed, still the plus-plus tool that earned the singular focus of his previous organizations, and his remarkable defense in center field, and that made Gomez a valuable player.
Accordingly, the Brewers rewarded Gomez this March, as he entered his final season before free agency, with a three-year contract extension paying him $24 million from 2014-2016. The Brewers were counting on Gomez retaining some of his gains from 2012 to make him worth that contract.
But Gomez's 2013, so far, makes 2012 seem less like his new talent level, and merely a step on his climb. Gomez has been much better in 2013 so far. Entering Friday's game, his season line of .326/.368/.589 was good for an O.P.S.+ of 155. He's stolen 10 bases in 12 attempts. And he's hit 10 home runs, while his 27 extra base hits have already exceeded his single-season total of extra base hits in 2009, 2010 or 2011.
Gomez never walked much, and that hasn't changed in 2012 or 2013. But Gomez isn't hesitating to attack pitches within the strike zone. He's swinging at a greater percentage of strikes than ever before, and he's crushing many of those pitches.
"Carlos is like any hitter," Narron observed. "The more they swing at strikes, the better their swing's gonna be."
The combination of offensive prowess, speed on the bases, and elite defense that Gomez admitted had always come pretty easily to him means that so far, he's been as valuable as any everyday player in the National League. It is fair to wonder how much Gomez would have made after a year like this in free agency this winter. But Gomez had an interesting take on what he'll be worth on the open market.
"We're gonna find out this in 2016," he said with a wide smile. "I'm real happy with the deal that I signed... I secured the future for my family. They're so poor. And I set up my family. I know I could have been a free agent after this year, and made ridiculous money. But I'm gonna still make good money. And this way, I have three more years to be successful, continue to prove myself, and build. And when I'm finished, I'll only be 30 years old. So I still can take another good, big bite [at] the apple."
Rest assured, he won't be proving himself by trying to hit the ball the other way, or laying down 50 bunts a season. Gomez has no regrets about the lost seasons to an approach that clearly doesn't fit him the way his path forward with Narron does.
"I always expected myself to be a three-hole hitter," Gomez said. "30-plus home runs. That's how I saw myself... But all the people wanted [was] to take advantage of was my speed. I mean, better late than never.
"But now I'm 27, and I can play another ten years, and be really successful, and have really good numbers."