Not much was expected from Brandon Gomes when he arrived in the major leagues in May of 2011. He was just another unknown Triple-A arm getting his chance at the major leagues, and he probably wasn’t going to last very long anyway. But then Gomes pitched well and expectations changed. Gomes managed a 3.03 ERA in 10 May appearances before being sent back down and then pitched strongly from July to the end of the season after returning to the majors, and by the end of the year his numbers where very impressive. Overall, he went 2-1 with a 2.92 ERA, a 7.8 K/9, a 3.9 BB/9, and a 0.7 HR/9 in 40 appearances and 37 innings pitched. As the season progressed, fans grew to like him and Joe Maddon trusted him more and more, using him in more high-leverage spots including three times in the ALDS versus the Rangers. Gomes was expected to play a major role in the Rays’ 2012 bullpen as well. But following the season, Gomes underwent surgery on his lower back to fix an issue that was nagging him since the middle of the season, and once baseball resumed, he simply could never get back to 100%. Instead of being a player the Rays could rely on, Gomes was up-and-down all season and was ineffective in the major leagues, managing just a 5.09 ERA and a 15-12 strikeout to walk ratio in 15 appearances. How did Gomes’ injury manifest itself? To demonstrate that, let’s look at this chart comparing the movement on Gomes’ pitches between 2011 and 2012, with the data being courtesy of Brooks Baseball but the display being of my own creation.
The two charts look remarkably similar, with the lines indicating each pitches’ movement looking almost exactly the same between the red and teal lines in the both charts and the purple line on the right paralleling the blue line on the left. But looking at the key at the bottom tells us a few interesting things. First and foremost, Gomes used his fastball much more in 2011 compared to 2012, 59% to just 42% (between the “sinker” and “fastball”), and the difference was made up for by noticeable increase in the frequency he used his curveball and splitter. But while the curveball and splitter looked similar on the graph with pretty minimal differences in velocity, the differences between the fastballs from year to year were quite interesting. We said before that the fastball from 2011 and the sinker from 2012 looked nearly identical on the graph, but the key shows that the sinker was 1 MPH slower, which certainly didn’t do Gomes any favors against major league hitters. Since Gomes was injured, it made sense that his fastball velocity was down from where it had been previously. However, we see with his “fastball” from 2012 that Gomes actually was able to ratchet his fastball velocity back towards where it was in 2011. When he did so, though, the graph shows that he wasn’t able to get enough movement on it for it to be effective. Arm troubles often reduce pitchers’ velocity. For Gomes, though, the issue may have been more that he couldn’t exert as much leverage in his lower back to drive the ball down in the zone, forcing him to trade velocity instead in an effort to keep the ball down.
That’s nice to get a better idea of what Gomes’ back injury did to him in 2012, but does that have to do with his future performance? Well, one thing that has been concerning for Gomes the last two years is that his groundball rate has been just 33.1%. Gomes is just 5’11″, so he is never going to be a big groundball guy, but allowing that many flyballs puts Gomes at risk of allowing a lot of home runs. With Gomes’ back finally healthy, he may have a chance to finally begin to rectify that problem and get his groundball rate up into reasonable levels. Speaking about Gomes, Joe Maddon told Rooger Mooney of the Tampa Tribune that “It’s good to see that he’s healthy again.” But considering Gomes’ back was actually something that bothered him even during most of his major league time in 2011, Gomes is really getting set for his first healthy full season since joining the Rays organization via the Jason Bartlett trade in December of 2010, and if Gomes’ spring results mean anything at all, the results could be quite spectacular.
In 9 innings of work this spring for the Rays, Gomes has managed a 2.00 ERA, striking out 9 without walking a batter. Gomes almost certainly can’t be that good for a sustained stretch in the major leagues, but with his fastball getting back to its peak velocity around 92 MPH with also better downward movement to go along with his nice curveball and splitter, he has the ability to be a very valuable middle reliever for Joe Maddon and the Rays, especially given his ability to go multiple innings in appearances. Gomes is throwing the ball well right now and his confidence is at all-time high. But it’s not just confidence but also health that’s fueling Gomes, and pairing those with his already impressive arsenal will be a combination opposing hitters will quickly learn to loathe.