As an organization, the Padres have famously struggled to develop young talent. As a small-market team that can't afford to populate their roster with pricy free agents, the Padres have been glaringly inadequate in developing useful regulars - let alone stars. Using Fangraphs' Wins Above Replacement metric - where a solid MLB regular is worth roughly 2 WAR over the course of a season - the Padres have produced roughly one MLB-quality hitter under age 25 every two-to-three seasons. Jedd Gyorko is the most recent inductee into this exclusive club - only 8 since 1994 - and he's done it in about ¾ of a season.
Billed as a polished college talent with a smooth stroke and mature hitting approach, the Pads selected Gyorko in the 2nd round of the 2010 draft, hoping his bat could make up for his lack of flashy physical tools or a clear MLB position. In addition to swinging the bat well at every level , Gyorko played a solid 3rd base and handled the transition to the keystone admirably despite relatively few reps at the professional level. Coming into 2013, Jedd had nothing left to prove against minor league competition.
Not everyone was convinced that the West Virginia product would make a solid MLB regular. Though scouts were impressed by Gyorko's ability to play an adequate 3rd base, this could almost be seen as a backhanded compliment in that he is often described as a guy who does not look like a professional athlete - call this the "he moves pretty good for a big guy" effect. When the Padres announced that they would groom him as a potential 2nd basemen in the midst of Chase Headley's breakout 2012 the general response ranged from "well... maybe?" to #YOLO. If the scouting twitterverse had sound effects you would probably be able to hear Professor Parks pensively sucking air through his teeth.
As the Padres opening-day 2nd baseman, Gyorko was the first Padre making his MLB debut in an opening day start since Josh Barfield in 2006. Despite an up-and-down opening month, Budbot continued to show confidence in him long past the point when Bruce Bochy would have benched him in favor of Geoff Blum. Gyorko rewarded this faith by absolutely destroying opposing pitchers for the next 34 games - posting elite OPS scores of .907 and .924 in May and June. In an injury we can only speculate as part of the Padres rookie hazing process, Gyorko hit the DL with a groin strain. Perhaps he returned too soon or pitchers started to figure him out, because Jedd swung the bat like David Wells, going only 5-for-50 without drawing a single walk or extra base hit. The Mountaineer recovered notably in the last two months, bringing his batting average back to respectable levels and taking 20 of his 43 hits for extra bases. His defense has been rated as at least adequate by scouts and advanced metrics alike. Though some are still skeptical about his ability to stay at the keystone long-term, Jedd has done a good job making the routine plays and he shows above average instincts in the field, helping to make up for some of his physical limitations.
Proving that he reads blogs, Gyorko has markedly improved his walk rate in the season's penultimate month. Despite walking about half as often as he did in the minors, it's difficult to say that Gyorko needs to improve his patience. Jedd sees an abnormally high 3.86 pitches per plate appearance. He essentially sees as many pitches as Chase Headley, but has only 30 walks on the season to show for it, all while sporting a predictably high strikeout rate. He's still getting to the deep counts he saw in the minors, but he's being aggressive on pitches he would have walked on as a minor leaguer. Perhaps this is the result of Budbot playing him in the middle of the order and showing confidence in his bat.
What Does This Mean?
Gyorko's rookie year has been a mixed bag. On the one hand he has been producing a lot of runs and driving the ball with authority - hitting more home runs than any Padre under the age of 25 since Adrian Gonzalez. But this is not the kind of season anyone has been expecting from him. As a prospect, Gyorko was pegged as a guy with a smooth stroke, but not enough strength or aggressiveness to peak at higher than 20 home runs. Instead Jedd has knocked 20 dingers as a rookie, in about ¾ of a season, playing half his games at Petco Park.
Though he's hit for considerable power in the bigs, Jedd has traded this power for decreased batting average and walk rate. Baseball America Ranked Gyorko as the best hitter for average in the entire Padres farm system prior to 2013. Marc Hulet of Fangraphs predicted that he would end up a maxing around 15-20 home runs as well. Prospect guru John Sickels seemed to toe this line as well when evaluating Padres farmhands. It's worth noting that all of these evaluations were made AFTER he hit 30 bombs in 126 games in 2012, albeit they were hit in the offense-friendly Texas and Pacific Coast Leagues. Kind of like how pulling a lot of girls in seedy bars in Williamsburg doesn't necessarily carry over to San Diego.
So what's the deal? Is Jedd Gyorko closer to Jeff Cirillo or Jeff Kent? More to the point, why couldn't he hit a lot of home runs? A lot of scouts didn't count on him hitting for power in the big leagues, largely due to the fact that he doesn't look like a big league power hitter. Though his swing is smooth and efficient, his batspeed is average and he doesn't have the same leverages that big, long-limbed prototypical sluggers enjoy. Gyorko's physique is thick and stubby a la Sean Burroughs. Though not traditional for a power hitter, Jedd's body type helps him generate considerable power on mistake pitches, particularly on the inner half. His hips have width akin to a heavyweight fighter and his lower half is almost Greg Vaughn-esque. This allows him to generate tremendous torque while keeping his swing much shorter than someone like Carlos Quentin or Nick Hundley. Here he hits the ball almost 400 feet with hardly any wasted travel in his swing:
This ability to hit for power has clearly changed Gyorko's approach at the plate, and that change largely started when he reached the upper minors. He's been approaching at-bats with a much more aggressive mindset than expected, swinging at more than 50% of the pitches he sees. Though he's had marked success in early counts, his relatively short, balanced swing allows him to drive pitches in almost any count or situation. Look at this swing he puts on an 0-2 fastball.
Unfortunately, it gets worse for him as the counts get deeper, hitting just .139 after a 2-2 count. The bat control that was expected from him just has not been there yet, as he's whiffing on 13.3% of the pitches he sees. Combined with his Venable-esque chase % on pitches out of the zone, it looks like he's having some trouble with pitch recognition, specifically sliders. PITCHf/x rates him almost 5 runs below average on the slider. Being aggressive early helps Gyorko avoid 2-strike counts where pitchers can finish him off with breaking balls, but sooner or later he's going to have to get better at laying off those sliders out of the zone. Doing so will cut down on the stikeouts, but it's also critical in improving his walk rate and taking his game to the next level. Many players improve on this with reps, and given his production and positional value its safe to say that Gyorko will get plenty of time to refine his game. Fixing this weakness could knock down a lot of dominoes in the Jedd Gyorko package - perhaps bridging the gap between a "useful" 2nd baseman and a star.