WASHINGTON — The first day of Nolan Gorman’s All-Star break began at an airport before sunrise, included four flights, two stops at the Dallas airport, and several dozen swings in a Baton Rouge, Louisiana, batting cage. It ended in Phoenix with a keener feel at the plate and a new bat model on the lathe.
By the time Gorman’s first flight took off, his teammate Lars Nootbaar had just finished taking at least 150 swings at a cage south of Los Angeles.
With four days between games, he was going to put the fix in break.
“When I didn’t start the season the way I wanted to,” Nootbaar said, “the only way around it is to work through it.”
The Cardinals’ young left-handed hitters went in different directions during their midseason break, but they sought to reach the same destination: greater production. And they took plenty of swings to get there. Manager Oliver Marmol took note of the early returns while the team was in Toronto, made it part of his lineup for the team’s first game in Washington, and six innings later saw affirmation of all their work.
Gorman and Nootbaar hit back-to-back home runs in the sixth inning to turn a tight game into a textbook win, 6-2, against the Nationals at their park on Friday night.
Gorman’s two-run shot and Nootbaar’s blue dart after Washington flubbed a popup backed starter Miles Mikolas. Like Adam Wainwright before him, Mikolas (8-8) rebounded from a “clunker” in Cincinnati with the Cardinals’ second consecutive quality start and, not coincidentally, their second consecutive win by a starter. For Gorman, a rookie, the home run was his second in as many games, his second since trying out a tailor-made bat that is form-fitted to his body movements and swing. And he doesn’t even have that bat yet.
He’s swinging a close approximation while it’s made.
The shift and the swings that followed began with a question: Why wait?
Gorman had intended to visit the Baseball Performance Lab in Baton Rouge immediately after the season. He’d seen how teammates Paul Goldschmidt and Nolan Arenado had emerged from their offseason visit with custom-crafted bats — both have a counterbalance “puck” at the base of the handle — and remarkable performance. As the break approached, he rescheduled and made the trip the morning after the Cardinals’ final first-half game.
“Just kind of got to thinking about it more and being in the middle of the season, not the offseason, my swing is definitely fresh,” Gorman said. “There’s no time off. I’ve been hitting awhile. Good time to see what’s best for it.”
Connecting through Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport, Gorman had a pit stop in Baton Rouge between flying from St. Louis to his home in Phoenix. He got to the lab, which is right across the street from bat manufacturer Marucci’s headquarters, at around 10:30 a.m. He immediately went through some “horsepower” tests to measure his explosiveness and the biomechanics of his frame and swing. He brought one of his “gamer” bats with him and, suited up with tracking technology, took several swings with it in a cage, all under the scrutiny of cutting-edge bat crafting.
The collected data were used to determine the ideal Balance Point Index (BPI) for Gorman’s body type and swing — what best generates the most bat speed.
Gorman had test-driven a counterbalance bat like Goldschmidt and Arenado use, and the tests showed that he should use something slightly different. His ideal bat was longer and lighter. A bat he used earlier was 33 ounces. The one shipped to him in Toronto — which is closer to the new model he will be getting — is 31.6 ounces.
“The longer the bat, the better kind of flatter swing I had,” Gorman said. “And then the lighter the bat, my body just moved better from the ground up. I was able to stabilize the bat better. I feel like it’s something I get through (the strike zone) really fast.”
While Gorman was getting his swing digitally dissected, Nootbaar was exhausting his.
The Cardinals’ second-year outfielder had a seat on Nolan Arenado’s charter flight back to Los Angeles before the All-Star Game. It departed St. Louis and landed Sunday evening, and right away Nootbaar drove to Arenado’s batting cage and hit. The next morning, he hit. Then he went to the Home Run Derby at Dodger Stadium, saw teammate Albert Pujols hit, saw Juan Soto win, and then returned to Orange County for his own round of batting practice. Nootbaar took Wednesday off to surf, but before jumping on a flight back toward St. Louis on Thursday of the break he, yep, hit.
“It was a break,” he said. “But it wasn’t much of a break.”
Asked how many swings he took, Nootbaar paused to count.
“Man, I mean, 800 plus, probably,” he said. “I’m just thinking 150, 200 a session and four or five sessions.”
The same hitting instructor who lived with Nootbaar at last year’s Arizona Fall League flew down to join in him in Orange County, California, for the break. Nootbaar worked with John Soterpulos and his colleague Andrew Aydt at Driveline to correct what had gone awry in his swing.
Nootbaar was pulling away from pitches, negating the hard contact the Cardinals saw against fastballs and wanted to utilize this season against elevated velocity. Marmol said late Friday night that Nootbaar was rotating out of his power swing and not driving through pitches. His back shoulder drifted as if to create the launch angle he was missing. His batting average slumped at .200 when the break arrived, his slugging percentage at .366. He had struck out in 30% of his big-league at-bats.
“There were times I was off time for the fastball and off time for the off-speed pitch,” Nootbaar said. “I was late on the heater. It was not a very good place to be.”
All of the hitting coaches — his two from Driveline and Cardinals hitting coach Jeff Albert — helped him recalibrate, balance his shoulders, and restore his swing.
He went three-for-six with two walks and five times on base in the Cardinals’ two-game series at Toronto. That same series, Gorman reported early to the Rogers Centre on Wednesday for early batting practice with Albert and specific drills to adjust his swing to how opponents had adjusted to him. After seeing some of Gorman’s work, Marmol remarked that he saw an upshift coming for the rookie — and Gorman homered a few hours later.
The swings both younger hitters showed in practice and recent games spurred Marmol to stack them together in Friday’s lineup, at Nos. 6 and 7, right after Pujols.
Batting sixth, Gorman drilled a pitch to center field or over the wall in each of his first three at-bats. All three times, the ball left his bat at 99.1 mph or faster — swift enough to easily be considered hard contact. The home run, pulled to right field, left his bat at 100.1 mph and traveled an estimated 374 feet. Gorman had three of the top four farthest hit balls of the game, for either team. Nootbaar’s homer was the fourth, traveling a game-high 401 feet. It left his bat at 105.4 mph, the fourth-hardest of any hit in the game.
“That ball was scorched,” Marmol said.
Nootbaar’s homer gave the Cardinals a five-run lead, and the Nationals answered only with a sacrifice fly. Gorman’s gave any interested team more of the same data points to enhance their interest. As the Cardinals search for starting pitching, several teams have expressed interest in Gorman, who began the season as one of the top power prospects in the minors. Gorman said it was “not too big of a deal for me” to see his name mentioned in trade reports. Part of the business he said. But there is something new to scout about him.
Those new Marucci bats are set to arrive as early as next week.
The longer, lighter custom-made bats could be waiting for him when the team returns to St. Louis and starts a home stand Tuesday against the Cubs and Yankees. The success already caught up with him on the road.
“I am looking forward to getting those bats,” Gorman nodded.