Physically gifted, Gomez’s mental strides help him reach potential
Instead of getting to be the player he wanted to be, Carlos Gomez has spent the majority of his career trying to be what everyone else thought he should be.
It just wasn’t working.
"For five years, all the coaches and managers I have, they tell me, ‘Hit the ball on the ground and run,’ " Gomez said. "They don’t realize I’m 6-3, (218) pounds and I’m strong. I’m going to start swinging the bat free and put everything together."
Finally, Gomez found a team and a manager willing to let him be his aggressive self. The Brewers were rewarded for their patience and faith in the center fielder by watching Gomez turn potential into production last season.
The 28-year-old made the All-Star Game for the first time in his career and became the first Brewers player to win a Gold Glove since 1982. After years of carrying the weight of massive expectations, Gomez can finally lay claim to being one of the best center fielders in the game.
"It didn’t come overnight," Gomez said. "It took hard work for a long time."
Hitting .284 with 24 home runs, 27 doubles, 10 triples and 73 RBI with 40 stolen bases, Gomez was a dangerous offensive player in 2013, but his defense may have been more impressive. According to The Fielding Bible, he set a single-season record for a center fielder by saving 38 runs on defense, the most since they began tracking the metric in 2003.
Gomez was also credited with five home-run-saving catches, the most by any player since that statistic began being kept 10 years ago.
Put the offensive breakout together with his usual elite-level play in the field and it is easy to see why Gomez was one of the most valuable players in baseball last season. BaseballReference.com had Gomez’ Wins Above Replacement (WAR) at 8.4, only trailing Mike Trout (9.2) and tied with Clayton Kershaw for second best in the game.
"I’m confident that I can continue to make progress," Gomez said. "I had the time in the off-season to look at it, my weaknesses, watching a lot of video to try and get better. That’s what it’s all about — being consistent, concentrating and being honest about yourself and what you can do to get better."
Signed as an international free agent out of the Dominican Republic by the New York Mets in 2002, Gomez quickly became one of the top prospects in baseball. The tools left scouts drooling — he was the five-tool player everyone looks for.
The Mets wanted Gomez to change his aggressive, all-out approach at the plate to hit the ball on the ground in order to use his speed to rack up infield hits. Traded to Minnesota in 2008 as a centerpiece of the Johan Santana deal, Gomez was asked to do the same thing with the Twins.
That theory might work for someone like Juan Pierre or Billy Hamilton, but Gomez was never going to succeed playing that way. That wasn’t the type of player Carlos Gomez Sr. had in mind when he was courting a wife.
Carlos Sr. is said to have been quite the shortstop in the Dominican Republic, but his height held him back from chasing the professional dream.
"(This is) his dream, because he always wanted to be a professional baseball player, and he never got the opportunity," Gomez said. "He said, ‘I’m going to marry a big woman to have a big kid.’
"That’s what he said, that’s what he told me. My Mom, too. ‘You’re Dad was looking for me because I’m big.’ "
Gomez’ 5-foot-8 father did indeed find a woman taller than him, as his mother Belgika is said to be 5-foot-11. Of the couples’ three kids, Carlos Jr. is the only one that stands over six feet tall.
The father and son duo share a very close bond, as Carlos Sr. is often in the Brewers clubhouse getting to experience the professional life he dreamed of himself.
"I’m the one who’s a professional, I’m the one who’s an All-Star, and every time I get a hit, in the Dominican they call me ‘Carlos Gomez’s son,’" Gomez said. "People think my dad is the big deal when I’m the big deal.
"He always says, ‘When I was 21, I was better than you, blah, blah, blah. I say, ‘But I’m the one who’s a professional, almost eight years in the big leagues! You never made it.’ We always have that conversation. We have fun."
Gomez continues to carry a gracious attitude toward the Brewers for having faith in him, especially for giving him a three-year, $24 million contract before he broke out last season. The extension seemed to ease his mind, allowing Gomez to focus on just playing baseball.
Taking care of his family is something Gomez holds near to his heart and having stability allowed him to breathe a bit in that regard.
"It’s the mental part that allowed Carlos to have the year he had last year and the improvement that he’s going to have in the future," Brewers manager Ron Roenicke said. "He’s got the physical tools.
"Whether he swings hard at the plate, whether he tries to go the other way, all the extra thinking doesn’t seem to work. He needs to stay aggressive. He’s learning to zone pitches better at the plate. The improvement at the plate, for me, is definitely because he doesn’t swing at everything anymore.
"When I saw him in Minnesota early in his career, you threw him a fastball up here and he swung; you threw him a curveball in the dirt and he swung. He’s learned to take those pitches. The more he takes them and the more the zone becomes an area where he can hit, it gets scary for a pitcher because he’s really a good hitter in this area. He gets in trouble when he starts expanding it."
Roenicke and the Brewers have allowed him to take the aggressive approach he is most comfortable with, something other managers and teams tried to change. Allowing the outfielder to play freely has worked wonders for the franchise.
"It means everything," Gomez said. "If I don’t have that kind of manager, the team that we have, I’d probably never be the player that I am now. Ron gives me the green light to do the stuff that I want to do, then everything starts right away."
Being aggressive at the plate allowed Gomez to thrive, while a similar style of play on defense has allowed him to become elite in that aspect of his game. But that all-out way of playing center field comes with tremendous risk.
Gomez survived a couple of major injury scares suffered when crashing into outfield walls last season. The Brewers need him in the lineup every day, but Gomez knows he can’t completely change the way he goes about his business on defense.
"The experience is going to teach you how to play," Gomez said. "Every year you learn how to protect yourself and stay in the game. It’s better to give a double away than spend five or six days out of the lineup. I have all the games on tape and I am looking every day in the offseason, what I’m doing or what I’m not.
"I might make a small change (in my play). I’m not going to say I’m not going to be aggressive, because I’m always going to play like that. I think if you are a fan coming to watch a baseball game, you want to see a guy like me giving everything they have every single day.
"You have to be smart sometimes and control yourself to try and keep myself on the field."
Already a leader in Milwaukee’s clubhouse, Gomez’s joyous personality seems to have a major impact on those around him. He’s in a good spot in his career, and it shows.
"You have to enjoy it," Gomez said. "This is what you work for and see how everything comes. It’s not come easy for me, you know. It’s not come in one day. I have to work; it takes me like six years to be player that I be right now, it’s not a gift. I worked, day and night. Thinking. Working.
"It’s not easy to do. I prepare myself to be consistent, and I think that helped me get better; a better person, better player and better in everything, you know."
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