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Kelvin Gutierrez, Destroyer of Worms

He’s strong but hits way too many grounders

Kansas City Royals third baseman Kelvin Gutierrez (19) at bat during the game against the Detroit Tigers at Kauffman Stadium.
Kansas City Royals third baseman Kelvin Gutierrez (19) at bat during the game against the Detroit Tigers at Kauffman Stadium.
Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

Kelvin Gutierrez is a big dude. Listed at 6’2” and 220 lbs, Gutierrez has the kind of muscular fluidity that only professional athletes of his size have, and possesses those traits on the field and at the plate. As a result, you might infer that Gutierrez is capable of hitting the ball very, very hard.

You would be correct in that assumption, by the way. Gutierrez’s max exit velocity in his big league career is 111.9 MPH, which ranks 179th among the 513 players who have accrued at least 140 plate appearances since 2019. His average exit velocity is even more impressive—in the same set of players, Gutierrez’s average EV is 90.5 MPH and ranks 99th, right alongside noted baseball crushers Carlos Santana, Mookie Betts, Paul Goldschmidt, and Eric Hosmer.

But peruse the Statcast leaderboards and you’ll quickly see that Gutierrez sticks out in another way: his average launch angle, which is at -1.7 degrees. That launch angle is not only the third-lowest among all of those 513 players, but it is one of only three that is negative at all.

Why is this a problem? Well, independent of launch angle, let’s take a look at Gutierrez’s peers when it comes to max EV, average EV, and hard hit %. We’ll sort by wOBA, or Weighted On Base Average, which essentially weights on base percentage by giving extra base hits more value. The results aren’t super pretty.

Kelvin Gutierrez and his Exit Velocity Peers

Name PA EV maxEV LA GB% HardHit% AVG SLG wOBA
Name PA EV maxEV LA GB% HardHit% AVG SLG wOBA
Freddie Freeman 1174 90.7 112 15 37.0% 45.9% .294 .553 .396
Trevor Story 1120 90.4 111.8 18 38.2% 43.2% .286 .522 .367
Rhys Hoskins 1113 90.2 111.5 22.6 30.6% 41.5% .238 .470 .355
Eugenio Suarez 1110 88.8 112.3 17.5 36.6% 39.5% .235 .512 .349
Trent Grisham 589 88.8 111.9 15 39.3% 39.3% .258 .458 .349
Ramon Laureano 908 89.2 112.1 13.4 38.7% 39.5% .264 .481 .347
Christian Walker 927 90.5 112.4 14.2 42.0% 47.6% .257 .456 .335
Francisco Lindor 1115 90.5 113.5 12.2 43.3% 41.0% .264 .458 .329
Tom Murphy 388 90.4 111.7 19.4 35.3% 42.6% .244 .487 .326
Bobby Dalbec 242 90.2 111.6 16.4 36.2% 40.9% .227 .464 .326
Hunter Renfroe 794 90.2 114.7 18.1 38.1% 39.9% .215 .467 .313
Kelvin Gutierrez 144 90.5 111.9 -1.7 68.4% 40.0% .246 .313 .266
Franchy Cordero 164 90.4 118.6 3.6 50.5% 40.2% .203 .331 .265

While this is not a definitive ranking of Gutierrez’s peers, it is a decent cross section of the types of players who hit the ball about as hard and about as often as Gutierrez does. Up at the top are Freddie Freeman and Trevor Story, two excellent hitters who mash taters more than your grandma on Thanksgiving Day. Even near the bottom are guys like Hunter Renfroe, who’s a league average hitter.

At the bottom, way below everyone else, you’ll see an old friend in Franchy Cordero as well as Gutierrez. And you can clearly see why they’re outfielders: they are extreme worm burners. In fact, no one hits ground balls more than Gutierrez—no one.

This is a problem because it doesn’t really matter how hard you hit a ground ball because a ground ball is a ground ball. Here’s one example from 2019. See how this grounder barely squeaked by the third baseman.

You know how hard Gutierrez hit that ball? A whopping 101.9 MPH! But because he sent it straight into the dirt, all that velocity was nearly for naught. And, as you might expect, ground balls are the least effective way of getting on base—even less so than bunts, say the 2021 league batting splits.

2021 League Batted Ball Data

Batted Ball Type BA SLG ISO
Batted Ball Type BA SLG ISO
Ground Balls .231 .255 .024
Bunts .374 .374 .000
Fly Balls .221 .673 .452
Line Drives .634 .899 .265

This isn’t rocket science. The Launch Angle Revolution (TM) happened precisely because teams realized that, hey, you don’t hit home runs on the ground. Line drives and fly balls are the optimal way to hit the baseball, which has been true forever.

Furthermore, the fix for Gutierrez is rather simple: hit more balls in the air! Gutierrez isn’t a Nicky Lopez type who is limited by the size of his frame; again, Gutierrez is a big boi. He is absolutely powerful enough to make strong contact, and moreover he is already doing so, just seemingly with the intention of turning worms into an endangered species along the way.

Of course, while the fix may be simple in theory, it is not guaranteed to go well in practice. That’s because helping Gutierrez to elevate the ball means changing his swing, which means changing his swing path, which means changing his approach, which means changing the fundamentals of what allowed him to get to the big leagues.

Still, Gutierrez is going to go nowhere in his big league career if he just hits ground balls. The Royals, and Gutierrez, have nothing to lose by overhauling his swing. This isn’t an Eric Hosmer or Andrew Benintendi situation where a swing change would be endangering an already productive hitter—Gutierrez is a replacement level player right now, and a replacement level player he will continue to be unless he elevates the dang ball.