Evan Gattis Takes Unusual Path Toward Big Leagues
In more than a quarter-century in professional baseball, Braves general manager Frank Wren admits he has never seen a player develop along the same path as Evan Gattis.
"It's so rare for players to leave the game and come back," Wren said. "The closest thing to that timing is when the Mormon players go on their mission."
Yet leaving the game is exactly what Gattis did during his early 20s, the age when most players make their greatest developmental strides. Instead, the would-be Division I catcher set out on the road less traveled, embarking upon a personal mission to find himself that somehow landed him where many expected him to be all along.
"I'm comfortable with everything that's happened," said Gattis, who has emerged as the top slugger in the Atlanta organization after three seasons in the minors. "But I also know I'm fortunate to be here."
|Roads Less Traveled
|Not every prospect takes a conventional route to the majors. Here are some other NL East prospects who, like Evan Gattis, had detours on the Road to the Show:
• Chris Hatcher, rhp, Marlins: Hatcher reached the majors as a defense-first catcher in 2010, but the Marlins persuaded him to switch to the mound in 2011 thanks to a .211 career batting average. Hatcher reached the majors as a pitcher each of the next two seasons.
• Jake deGrom, rhp, Mets: DeGrom began pitching as a Stetson junior in 2010, turning himself into the Mets' ninth-round pick that June. He had Tommy John surgery a few months after signing, but he returned in top form in 2012, notching a 4.8 K-BB ratio as a starter and touting a 93-95 mph fastball with plus sinking action and an occasionally plus low-80s slider.
• Chris Garcia, rhp, Nationals: Garcia was a highly touted South Carolina catcher recruit whom the Yankees drafted as a pitcher in 2004. He had Tommy John surgery twice but finally got healthy in 2012 with the Nationals. Not only did he rack up 21 minor league saves, but he also reached the majors and was on Washington's Division Series roster.
• Darin Ruf, 1b/of, Phillies: He hit 27 home runs in four years with the older, more potent metal bats at Creighton, then hit 29 in his first two-plus seasons as a pro. Then 2012 happened, when he led the minors with 38 home runs and kept on hitting them.
Back in the early 2000s, Gattis' power impressed scouts in Texas during his time at Forney High prior to transferring to Bishop Lynch. College recruiters had significant interest in his abilities, which led to his committing to Texas A&M, beginning with the 2004-05 school year.
He never reached College Station, however. Gattis struggled with the possibility of letting other people down and also had a hard time handling his parents' divorce. Finding his escape by using alcohol and marijuana, he wound up in drug rehab at his mother's insistence before spending three months in Prescott, Ariz., at a halfway house.
During that time Gattis received an offer to resume his baseball career at Seminole State, a junior college in Oklahoma. Though initially excited about the chance, it also did not pan out.
"I got hurt my first year and wound up quitting the game during my second year," said Gattis, who battled a knee injury that forced him to redshirt as a freshman. "It was a hardcore program and it pushed me to quit. As it turns out, I was away from baseball for about four years."
On The Road
Gattis spent time roaming much of the western United States in pursuit of happiness. He followed the trails of some new-age advisers in between working odd jobs as ski resorts, golf courses and restaurants in Colorado, New Mexico and California. His final extended stint came in San Francisco before he decided to head back to Texas. During the drive home, he called his step-brother, Drew Kendrick, who was pitching at Texas-Permian Basin after transferring from New Mexico.
"I did a lot of things I always wanted to do, which included traveling and seeing a lot of places," Gattis said. "I wanted to explore and experience things I never got to do while I was playing ball growing up. I think I got a better perspective on life during that time.
"Then I wound up talking to my step-brother about playing ball again and going to college. Just like that, I was motivated to give the game everything I had."
Kendrick went to UTPB head coach Brian Rienke, who was familiar with Gattis from Rienke's short time as an assistant coach at Midland (Texas) JC. He then spent an afternoon talking with Gattis about the possibilities of playing with the Falcons and came away convinced the catcher deserved a shot.
"There was no hesitation on my part because I knew what he was in high school," Rienke said. "I knew most of the background, but not everything. We discussed the situation and I was glad to give him the opportunity. I told him, 'If you come back and give me one good year, I'll put your name out there and let some guys know that you're back in school.' He did the rest on the field."
'Dropped Off The Face Of The Earth'
In what proved to be his lone season with the D-II school, Gattis earned first-team all-Heartland Conference honors while hitting .403 in 57 games with 77 hits, 19 doubles, two triples, 12 home runs and 62 RBIs. He also walked 35 times, including 11 intentionally.
True to his word, Rienke contacted numerous area scouts but found the interest tepid at best. Most considered the 23-year-old Gattis too old to get excited about, while others questioned his makeup and drive. One of the few who followed up on the lead was Atlanta area scout Gerald Turner.
"I had seen Evan play in high school and then he just dropped off the face of the earth," Turner said. "But I knew the tools he had as a youngster. He has some of the strongest hands I've ever seen. His arm is a solid 60, and his power is at least 70. And that's what he showed me at UTPB, even though he was out of shape at around 270 (pounds)."
Turner, who also was the signing scout for outfielder Matt Lipka and shortstop Andrelton Simmons in 2010, persuaded the Braves to draft Gattis in the 23rd round with the 704th overall pick. Gattis responded by hitting .288/.339/.387 in 60 games at Rookie-level Danville in his pro debut before opening the 2011 slate in extending spring training. He joined Class A Rome in early May and worked his way into the starting lineup a month later. In 88 games, Gattis won the South Atlantic League batting title with a .322 average while adding 22 home runs and 71 RBIs.
In 2012, he began at high Class A Lynchburg prior to an early-season promotion to Double-A Mississippi. He wound up missing nearly two months after suffering a wrist injury while putting his bag in the overhead compartment on the team bus, yet managed to hit a combined .305/.389/.607 with 18 homers and 67 RBIs in 74 games.
More success has followed this winter while playing with Zulia in the Venezuelan League. Tabbed "El Oso Blanco" ("the White Bear") by the locals, Gattis batted .280/.503/.842 with nine homers and 29 RBIs in his first 41 games while spending most of his time in left field.
The corner outfield position in Atlanta has emulated a game of musical chairs, which is expected to continue with Martin Prado moving to third base this spring. Wren says the 26-year-old Gattis will be in big league camp as a non-roster invitee and will be given the opportunity to show what he is capable of doing against major league pitching. His righthanded bat would complement key lefthanded hitters Freddie Freeman, Jason Heyward and Brian McCann.
"Evan's the kind of guy you want to see make it," Rienke said. "When he was here, he was hiding in plain sight. It's a pretty impressive story. And when he takes that final step, it's going to be worth every minute of it."