By Rob Rains
MEMPHIS – It was Cardinals pitching coach Mike Maddux who coined the phrase “elite adjusters” when he was discussing the way major-league players needed to overcome challenges if they wanted to find success on the field.
Maddux would be proud of the way that Nolan Gorman, the top prospect in the Cardinals’ organization, has done exactly that this season.
If there is one word that sums up Gorman’s year, it would be “adjusting.”
Gorman’s year began in early February with the news that the position he thought he would be playing in the major leagues for the Cardinals in the future, third base, the place where he had played for as long as he could remember, suddenly was occupied in St. Louis by Nolan Arenado, a perennial All-Star and Gold Glove winner.
So Gorman adjusted. Almost overnight, he started learning how to play second base. Seven months later, the reviews have been positive.
Of all of the opinions about how his season has gone defensively, Gorman’s own view is perhaps the most relevant as he has come to enjoy the position.
“It’s kind of just become normal for me,” Gorman said. “The best thing I did was go down to spring training early with (Jose) Oquendo and learn as much as I could before any games started happening. He got me pretty comfortable with it right away. It’s been good.
“I think the biggest difference is that at second you are in every play. At third base you’ve got a couple situations where you are in the play but at second you are in every play. You’ve got to stay ready the whole game and know where to be on cut plays, relays, bunts, different stuff like that, so I think that was the biggest adjustment, knowing where to be on every play.
“If there is a play I am confused about I will come in and talk with the coaches about it or guys who have played there for a longer time.”
Defensive statistics, especially at the minor league level, don’t always serve as an accurate measure of performance but in Gorman’s case, they do reflect the progress that he has made at his new position.
In 16 games at second base in Double A Springfield, where Gorman began the season, he made four errors. In 38 games since being promoted to Triple A Memphis on June 28, Gorman has committed only one error at his new position in 164 total chances. He has played only nine games at third in Triple A, illustrating the organization’s commitment to him playing second base.
Gorman also has been able to learn about the defensive shifts which the Redbirds use on a routine basis, also getting him ready for how all of those plays work when he moves up to the major leagues.
“It’s something we’ve done for a while now, it’s just part of the game,” said Gorman, who has shifted from third base into more of a normal second base position in the past. “Most guys are athletic enough to be able to make adjustments like that.”
Gorman’s defensive education will continue after the end of the regular season, when Gorman, 21, will be one of the players the Cardinals will be sending to the Arizona Fall League, the first time he will be able to play as a professional in front of his family and friends in the Phoenix area, where he grew up.
Playing in the Fall League also will allow Gorman to continue his offensive development, where he also had to make adjustments this season.
First, he had to adjust to hitting Double A pitching for the first time, after missing out on playing games in 2020 because of the canceled minor-league season. Then he had to learn how to handle the difference in pitching he was seeing at the Triple A level, making those adjustments as the same time he was concentrating on learning his new defensive position – while also being one of the youngest players at each level.
“The pitching is better at every level you go to,” said Gorman. “There’s a lot of adjusting that needs to happen. You’ve got to be able to learn how to do it quickly and be as consistent as possible from level to level.
“The first or second week of the season Tyger Pederson, who is the hitting coach at Springfield and who was my hitting coach at Palm Beach in 2019, told me that the ‘biggest thing for you this year is going to be your mental game and staying strong.’ That conversation got me into a good place of staying level-headed and being able to stay consistent as much as my game will let me.”
Gary LaRocque, the Cardinals’ director of player development, has a goal for every player in the organization – he wants them to get to the level of whatever league they are in, then surpass that level at some point during the season.
A look at Gorman’s offensive success shows he has done exactly that this year.
In May, Gorman hit .274 with three home runs at Springfield, then in June, posted a .301 average with eight homers.
In July, his first month at Triple A, Gorman hit just .245. With one game left in August, he has a .316 average. He hit 11 homers at Springfield in 43 games and has hit 10 in 52 games at Memphis.
“You are going to struggle sometimes but as long as you are mentally strong enough to go out every day and trust what you have and know your ability, you’re in a good spot,” Gorman said. “You have to go into every day with confidence.”
What Gorman says has helped him mentally this year is being able to reach out to veterans on the Cardinals when he has questions. Players such as Paul Goldschmidt and Paul DeJong have become valuable resources for Gorman.
“They’ve been great,” Gorman said. “They have been willing to talk to me about whatever questions I have. I’ve been fortunate to talk to them quite a bit.”
Gorman also has sought out major-league players on opposing teams who have found themselves back in Triple A, either on rehab assignments or because of struggles at the higher level. Two of those recent conversations have been with Daniel Vogelbach and David Dahl.
“It’s kind of cool to be able to talk to those guys,” Gorman said. “I like to pick the brains of other people.”
The player that Gorman probably confides in the most is his childhood friend, Matthew Liberatore. When they were growing up, they dreamed of the day they would be playing pro baseball as professionals, perhaps on the same team.
Those dreams came true this season, and the two have been rooming together in a rented house in Memphis.
“I will cook, he cleans sometimes,” Gorman said. “It’s kind of a mutual thing. I think our house is pretty clean for two guys. We’ve done a pretty good job. It’s a nice house, we don’t want to keep it dirty.
“We’re pretty similar. We will go home and pick each other’s brains about the game. We talked about doing that for a long time. It’s been a good time.”
Having the stability of being with someone he has known almost all his life has helped make all of Gorman’s adjustments easier.
What’s the next adjustment he needs to make?
“I think it’s just consistency and being able to go out and repeat everything every day,” Gorman said. “As far as hitting goes, it’s having an approach and plan every day and sticking to that and not trying to make little adjustments all the time if one thing goes wrong during the game – being able to trust what I have and go in with a simple approach every day and not make the game harder than it already is.”
There was a time, not that long ago, when Gorman struggled to do that.
“In 2019 I remember late in the season in the Florida State League I was kind of scrambling a little bit,” Gorman said. “I was looking up different big leaguers to try to emulate their swing or their stance or something.
“Now it’s just ‘my swing’, and I know what I want to do. It’s just a matter of trusting in what I have.”
Follow Rob Rains on Twitter @RobRains
Photos courtesy of Memphis Redbirds