What to make of Gattis' hot start with Braves?

What to make of Gattis' hot start with Braves?

Published Apr. 15, 2013 11:30 a.m. ET

The offering was well out of the strike zone, a 96-mph fastball on a 1-1 count from the Nationals' Stephen Strasburg. The right-hander ran it up toward Evan Gattis' shoulders, the kind of pitch that batters can embarrass themselves just trying to catch up to.

The Braves rookie rose out of his low crouch and planted his front foot. The 6-foot-4, 240 pounder took a wide cut upward and muscled the ball into left field for a two-run home run, his fourth of the season during Atlanta's 3-1 win Saturday in Washington, D.C.

"The guy is up there hacking, I threw one up at his neck and he tomahawks it out," Strasburg said. "You don't face a guy like that (every day). I don't really have any book to go off of."

Strasburg isn't alone.

The 26-year-old catcher, who before this season had never played above Double-A ball, is now hitting .324 with 10 RBI and a 1.120 OPS in 34 at-bats. He has as many home runs as the Royals and Rays and two more than the Marlins while playing in nine games.

Gattis is one of the best stories in the first month of the season, but the question is, what are we seeing? Is this the birth of a star or Chris Shelton circa 2006?

The truth is likely somewhere in the middle.

Seven years ago the Tigers' Shelton became the cautionary tale for out-of-nowhere starts. He was the first player in history to hit nine home runs in the first 13 games of the season and by the end of April, he had hit .326 with 10 homers and 19 extra-base hits.

But then he flamed out, hitting just one homer in May and his average dropped to the .270s by the end of June. He would finish with 16 home runs and the following year, didn't make the major-league roster. By 2011, he was out of baseball completely hitting just two home runs in 50 more games.

While Shelton's homers were a complete surprise — just once in seven professional seasons before that '06 tear had he hit more than 18 home runs with 21 in '03 — we know Gattis' power is real.

He hit 40 home runs the past two seasons split across the Gulf Coast League, Single-A Lynchburg and Double-A Mississippi and bashed 16 more playing for Aguilas del Zulia in the Venezuelan Winter League.

Also weighing in his favor is Gattis' approach at the plate. He's stuck out just seven times in 39 plate appearances (a 17.9 percent rate), drawing four walks and saw his discipline improve in each season before joining the Braves, going from an 18.2 strikeout rate in '10 to 14.1 in '11 and 13.6 in '12.

But it's impossible to expect Gattis to continue his current pace, — which one website projects would have him finishing with 54 home runs, 122 RBI and a .324 average — especially given the questions that Atlanta will face when six-time All-Star Brian McCann returns, which is expected to come later this week.

With veteran catcher Gerald Laird on the roster, can the Braves keep Gattis around? Can they afford not to with the way he's hitting? It's likely one of the reasons he was given a start at first base in the absence of Freddie Freeman, who is eligible to return from the disabled list on April 22. Gattis has 37 games at left field under his belt in the minors and as a backup at both first and catcher, he could prove a versatile and dangerous weapon.

But the Braves still aren't in a position to have to answer those questions, yet.

For now, Gattis has become a cult hero in the making in Atlanta, with the El Oso Blanco (The White Bear) nickname that followed him back from Venezuela, appearing on T-shirts which depict a bear sporting the Mohawk and feather of the franchise's old "screaming Indian" logo.

After being told of the design Gattis asked, "Is it strange that I want one?"

His backstory has been well-documented. A Texas A&M recruit, he would never play for the Aggies, instead he battled depression and spent 30 days in a drug rehab.

Gattis would be out of baseball for four years, working at a pizza parlor, as a ski-lift operator and as a janitor — his nametag for Jan-Pro Cleaning Systems in Dallas serves as his @bulldogbeing Twitter avatar — before returning to baseball at the University of Texas of the Permian Basin, where he hit .403 with 11 home runs in one season, catching the attention of the Braves, who drafted him in the 23rd round in '10.

Invited to spring training for the first time as a non-roster invite, he hit six homers to earn a spot on the roster.

As Gattis said of his winding path to the majors, "I haven’t really thought about it. It’s the only baseball career I’ve had."

He would waste little time making the most of it.

In his first career start, he dug in against the Phillies' Roy Halladay and took an 88-mph cutter from the two-time Cy Young winner and planted it to right field, all while his dad was being interviewed on-air by FOX Sports South's Tom Hart.

Oh, and the guy who caught his home run ball, Bryce Kammeyer, was wearing a Texas A&M hat.

“Did you think anything else was going to happen?” manager Fredi Gonzalez said. “It didn’t surprise me one bit.”

Time and the rigors of a long season will decide if Gattis is a star in the making or just the latest player to deliver a staggering and unexpected start.

But what’s undeniable is that his everyman quality, his fight from the bottom to a moment as one of baseball’s brightest starts, has made the Story of Evan Gattis simply captivating.  
"I don’t think there’s a person in Major League Baseball that’s not pulling for him," Braves pitcher Tim Hudson said. "I know we all are. His story’s pretty remarkable. He’s came through a lot."