Braves: From janitor to World Series champion, the beginning and end of the Evan Gattis story

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There are the inspirational rags-to-riches stories, and then there’s the adventure of Evan Gattis, whose tale maybe didn’t quite reach the highest of peaks, but is one that ranks high on the list in terms of baseball’s most unique. The fact that he even played in the majors was an accomplishment alone. There were plans to play college ball at Texas A&M that were ruined and a knee injury that caused him to quit the game altogether, but Gattis gave baseball another try in 2010 and worked his way up to the Show as a 26-year-old rookie — more than a decade after he was named a top prospect as a high school kid from Texas. For two consecutive seasons (2013-14), Gattis was the Braves’ most exciting success story, and for four more years, he was a fan favorite in Houston. However, during a 755 is Real podcast episode with David O’Brien on Tuesday, Gattis said he’s done playing professionally. Today we remember his story…

The fact that Gattis never starred at Texas A&M and became a prized no. 1 draft pick wasn’t for lack of skill. In 2004, the Dallas native was a well-known prospect traveling through Texas with his travel-ball band, featuring teammates Clayton Kershaw and Austin Jackson. Gattis’ size and strength went hand in hand with his lumbering build, though without flashy tools or an ability to pitch, his draft stock was that of a potential 7th or 8th rounder. With a scholarship in hand to play first base at Rice, Gattis instead shot big and accepted a scholarship to catch for the Aggies of Texas A&M. However, problems at home and substance abuse quickly derailed a potential superstar in the making.

In an all-inclusive USA Today profile piece written back in 2013 (by Bob Nightengale), Gattis shared that he had often considered suicide during those trying times:

“I was in a mental hospital. I couldn’t sleep for an entire week, and I knew something was wrong with me. So I got admitted. I was so depressed, all I could think about was killing myself. I wanted to kill myself for a long time.” — Evan Gattis (2013)

 

According to Gattis, he started drinking heavily and smoking pot during his senior year in high school, and instead of playing baseball at A&M, he was admitted to a recovery center for rehab. After several months in a halfway house, Gattis gave baseball another shot, playing at Seminole State Junior College in Oklahoma, though he only lasted half a season before quitting the team and dropping out of school altogether. Then, the array of odd and interesting jobs commenced.

Gattis was a ski lift operator and pizza cook; a housekeeper, a machinery operator; and later even a golf cart attendant and janitor. And those were just a few of the many jobs, according to Gattis; as the once-upon-a-time sought after prospect and college baseball player was working through his drug addiction and chronic depression. However, by 2010 things began to drastically improve. 

Gattis joined the baseball team — with his brother — at the University of Texas-Permian Basin, where the game almost instantly came back to life for him. After nearly four years off from baseball, Gattis was slugging home runs and driving the ball just like he did before his life took a downward spiral. He was back and had become a legitimate catching prospect entering the 2010 MLB Draft. And fortunately, the Braves weren’t concerned about Gattis’ age (23-years-old) and three picks before 2018’s star reliever Blake Treinen was taken by the Marlins (Treinen didn’t sign), Atlanta picked Gattis with the 704th overall pick — the 19th selection of the 23rd round. 

As if the man was finally due for some consistent positivity, pro ball came easy for Gattis. His first two seasons in the Braves minor league system (2010-11) consisted of a .288 AVG in Danville and a .322 AVG  — with 22 home runs — in Rome (in just 88 games!), respectively. Gattis only got in 74 games in 2012, but he rose to Double-A Mississippi, ending the year with 18 homers and a .995 OPS (.305 AVG) overall. Entering the 2013 campaign, Braves Country knew all about this 26-year-old catcher lighting up the minors… and Gattis’ big day was just around the corner. 

In what must have been the most exhilarating experience of his life (as well as the best bat flip ever for a first HR), Gattis homered in his second career big-league at-bat off the Phillies’ Roy Halladay in the 4th inning of an April 3rd game at Turner Field. The seasoned rookie wound up 1-for-4 with a homer and a strikeout in his first-ever major league game, batting 8th in the Braves’ lineup behind third baseman Juan Francisco. Gattis was a little piece of improbable joy for a Braves team that won its division as well as 96 games in 2013 (at the time, the most wins in the last nine years), and the bare-handed slugger finished the year with a respectable .243 AVG and 21 home runs in 105 games, split almost evenly between catcher (where he threw out 33% of would-be base stealers) and left field. Gattis finished 7th in the ’13 NL Rookie of the Year vote (and last in the majors in at-bats involving batting gloves).

Gattis’ final season in Atlanta (2014) was almost identical to the first one, though a slight decrease in defense was canceled out by a 20-point increase in AVG (.243 to .263) and a career-high 125 wRC+ — resulting in, once again, a 2.1-WAR season for the Braves. However, Gattis was used almost solely as a catcher during the ’14 season, where baserunners ran all over him. In 66 attempts, Gattis only threw out 13 of would-be base stealers that season (20%), a rate almost 10% below the league average that year. The excitement surrounding Gattis had begun to perhaps unfairly subside, as the Braves performed terribly as a team during the second half of the ’14 season, going just 27-40 down the stretch, which ultimately resulted in them losing the NL East to the Nationals (the Braves went from down only four games on August 11, to finish the season 17 games back from first-place). It was the beginning of the rebuild in Atlanta.

Then, in a rather surprising move, the Braves signed 37-year-old veteran catcher A.J. Pierzynski to a one-year, $2 million deal in late-December after the ’14 season. Roughly three weeks later, Gattis became the third consecutive key player traded by the Braves, joining outfielders Jason Heyward and Justin Upton. Atlanta’s surprise-star was headed to Houston in January of 2015, as the Astros sent back Mike Foltynewicz, Andrew Thurman, and Rio Ruiz in exchange. 

The Evan Gattis experience was over for Braves’ fans, and instead, an ugly 4-year rebuild was taking its place, though Gattis’ career wasn’t quite over yet.

As if his rise to become a productive major leaguer with the Braves wasn’t enough, Gattis parlayed an off-year in 2015 (his first with Houston) into a career-year the following season, totaling 3 WAR in 2016. The Astros were steadily climbing out of what felt like a decade-long rebuild, and Gattis had peaked at just the right time, slugging a career-high 32 homers and 72 RBI in 128 games. Fans in Houston were now receiving a first-hand view of The Lumberjack, and the very next season Gattis and the ‘Stros would go all the way and win the World Series (as illegitimate as we now know it was…). That 2017 season featured a concussion and wrist sprain for Gattis, causing him to only play in 84 games, but despite his ailments, he still managed to put forth what was probably his most complete season at the plate (he lowered his K rate by 10% from the previous season, while matching his career-best batting average). 

Regardless of how significant a role he played in that ’17 World Series, Gattis labored through addiction, depression, and unemployment, and just several years later became a world champion big leaguer. His life had featured so many different lows, but because of his incredible work ethic and determination, Gattis had reached a high many players are never able to experience.

Gattis was rich as well. After making $8.5 million in the last two seasons combined, the 31-year-old entered the 2018 season with a $6.7 million salary and a name that was recognized by the entire sport. However, the Astros had too many catchers and not enough open spots. With Brian McCann, Max Stassi, and Martin Maldonado all pushing Gattis out from behind the plate, Houston made him the team’s primary designated hitter. His power and knack for pulling a high-90s mph fastball were still dangerous, but Gattis’ ability to make contact took a substantial dip as he posted the lowest AVG (.226) of his 6-year career, as well as a career-low .284 OBP. Because of the defensive hit from being a DH — in terms of value — Gattis was worth less than replacement-level (-0.1 WAR) in ’18, despite playing in 128 games. Still, the Astros rolled on, again winning 100+ games, though this time losing to the eventual World Series champs — the Boston Red Sox — in the AL Championship Series. 

Entering his age-34 season and coming off the worst year of his career, the future was looking grim for Gattis in the winter before the 2019 season. With qualifying offers reaching $17.9 million, the Astros weren’t interested in another aging catcher, and though succeeding as a DH takes a special kind of player, Gattis’ performance in that role the previous season, while respectable, didn’t warrant any offers from other AL-only clubs. Gattis was without a job. Unemployed again… but this time, it wasn’t so bad — not after earning almost $17 million over the last six years playing baseball. 

This past October, reports surfaced that Gattis “didn’t have any desire to continue playing the game,” which brings us to his announcement on Tuesday’s podcast with O’Brien, that the former late-blooming Brave and Astro is officially hanging up his cleats. For once, Gattis is leaving the game on his terms, and for a player that accumulated a whopping 8.9 WAR during his run as a major leaguer, you’ll never find Gattis on any team leaderboards at Baseball-Reference or FanGraphs (except for maybe his team-high 11 triples in 2015 with the Astros!). But if you’re looking for an incredible story about a guy that perhaps took a little longer to find himself, both in life and in baseball, than Gattis is right there near the top. It’s stories like him that make baseball unlike any other sport. 

 

 

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