The Many (Mostly Unsuccessful) Faces of Brandon Gomes
By Robbie Knopf
The Tampa Bay Rays designated Brandon Gomes for assignment when they needed a 40-man roster spot after the Wil Myers trade. In a sense, though, it was only the latest time that the Rays had cut a version of Gomes to the curb. Since he broke into the big leagues in 2011, we’ve seen several different incarnations of Brandon Gomes, each of them achieving some success in the big leagues but falling apart before long.
Gomes made his major league debut for the Rays in May of 2011 and arrived to stay in July. Overall, he posted a 2.92 ERA in 40 appearances, although his mediocre 7.8 strikeouts per 9 innings and 3.9 walks per 9 suggested that his results might not have been good enough to last. Gomes was attacking hitters with 59% fastballs, 25% sliders, and 16% splitters. With his fastball command iffy, that was not a winning formula.
It can’t be a surprise that Gomes shifted to throw less fastballs and more secondary pitches in 2012 and 2013. On the whole, Gomes threw 44% fastballs, 35% sliders, and 21% split-fingers, but hitters continued to prey off his fastball, and his secondary pitches were not good enough to make up the difference.
Overall, he managed just a 5.84 ERA in 41 big league appearances across those two years, riding his breaking ball and splitter to a 10.7 K/9, but also allowing a 4.6 BB/9, and a 1.5 HR/9. It seemed like Gomes was a Quad-A reliever whose stuff would never be good enough to achieve consistent big league success.
We thought everything changed, however, when Brandon Gomes brought out his cutter in spring training of 2014. He was absolutely unhittable that spring, allowing not a single run on 2 hits in 11 innings and striking out 14 while walking just 3. His success was thanks to a completely different approach.
In Gomes’ major league time in the first two months of 2014, his cutter, which he had never thrown before, accounted for 53% of his pitches. His four-seamer’s frequency fell to just 24% while his splitter ended up at 19%, and his slider almost disappeared off the map entirely as he threw it just 4% of the time.
Gomes got off to a great start in the 2014 regular season as well, managing a 2.31 ERA and an 11-4 strikeout to walk ratio in his first 11.2 innings. But his strong results proved fleeting as he struck out just 3 and allowed 4 home runs in his next 10.1 IP, and the Rays saw enough to send him down to Durham.
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The issue with Gomes’ cutter was that it acted as his fastball but also prevented him from throwing his slider. While Gomes’ flawed fastball had always been his biggest problem, his new approach wound up being one step forward and a corresponding step back as he found a more effective fastball, but he no longer had a put-away secondary pitch. After his strikeouts per 9 slipped to just 2.6 in his final 10.1 innings, it became apparent that Gomes’ cutter was not going to lead to the results for which he was hoping.
Even down at the Triple-A level, where he has a 2.81 ERA in 128.1 career innings, Gomes failed to right the ship. In his first 29.1 innings with the Bulls, his ERA was just 4.60. When Gomes returned to the big leagues for good in September, though, his approach was entirely different and he performed well once again.
In 9 September innings and 10 innings pitched, Brandon Gomes delivered a 1.80 ERA, striking out nearly a batter per inning and not allowing a single home run. His 5 walks against 9 strikeouts was less appealing, but there was some reason to believe that he had made progress.
This time, Gomes had reduced his cutter to just 6% of his pitches and upped his fastball back to 47%. Most interesting, though, was the fact that he only increased his slider usage up to 18%, instead using his splitter more than ever at 29%. Gomes’ questionable fastball was back, but September inspired optimism that more splitters could help him be a solid middle reliever in spite of it. Of course, Gomes’ history in the big leagues was a major counterpoint against that, and the Rays were not sufficiently impressed to keep Gomes on their 40-man roster.
The Rays aren’t idiots and they were never going to believe that Brandon Gomes had truly broken through. Gomes may be a step above a Quad-A reliever–at least he has the stuff to keep getting chances–but the league has always adjusted to him no matter how he has attempted to improve.
Maybe this latest change by Gomes is the one that finally leads to a longer stretch of success, but he may need an entire year of dominance for a team to believe in him again. He is now out-of-options, and the Rays have run out of patience to see whether he will ever break through. Unfortunately for Brandon Gomes, he has become “the boy who cried wolf” of relief pitchers, and even if the wolf is finally there one of these times, people are unlikely to trust him because of his failures on many a previous occasion.