What’s Wrong With Adrian Gonzalez?

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The Red Sox have had no shortage of issues this year, between the lackluster starting pitching, the obscene number of injuries to the outfield, among others. They’ve performed decently in spite of said problems, but one stands out to me as something that’s really been holding them back: what’s wrong with Adrian Gonzalez?

Now, Gonzalez hasn’t been outright terrible this year, just disappointing for a first baseman; his .272/.322/.405 average/on-base/slugging triple slash line puts him well in the bottom half of qualified first basement in MLB, though at least he’s been a bit better than the absolute dregs of the position. But, up until this year, Gonzalez was a .293/.375/.514 hitter over 8 major league seasons, so he’s clearly not been himself, for a multitude of reasons.

What stands out as most apparent – just from looking at his line for this year as opposed to his career – is his startling lack of power. Gonzalez has only hit 6 home runs this year and despite being on pace for the most doubles in his career, his slugging percentage is the lowest it’s been since a 16 game season as a 22-year-old. The percentage of fly balls he hits for home runs is abysmally low, at 6.6% compared to a 16.3% mark for his career. For the most part, an uncharacteristically low HR/FB$ means a guy’s getting bad luck as opposed to bad swings on the ball. If that is the case, then Gonzalez is due to snap out of it at some point and go back to mashing as he’s done for years, but there is certainly concern to be had about if he really is just having bad luck or if he’s just not the same Adrian Gonzalez.

Over the past three years, Gonzalez has had a worrying trend: He’s been swinging more and more at pitches out of the strike zone, and among the pitches he swings at, he’s been making more contact. On the surface, making more contact sounds like a good thing, because no one gets anywhere just by striking out, but in practice, making contact on outside pitches is bad news. Since it’s out of the zone, hitters tend to have to extend or pull in their arms just to hit the ball, so while they still have chances at driving the ball, it’s much less than getting a good full swing at a pitch in the zone. But the real concern doesn’t lie with the contact, though that does still drive down your numbers, it lies with the swinging. Swinging more at outside pitches means fewer walks, fewer hitter’s counts and less selectivity. Gonzalez used to be able to be a guy who would get ahead of a pitcher and then punish the poor sap because he had to throw a ball in the strike zone, but since his first year in Boston, and to a lesser extent his last in San Diego, Gonzalez just hasn’t been doing that as much.

In fact, Boston has been a weird departure from the norm for Gonzalez. He had an unquestionably great year in 2011, but still one that was way outside of his profile, and was built more on luck than skill – he hit .338/.410/.548, but his on base and slugging numbers were inflated by him getting a lot of hits, which was inflated by a .380 BABIP (Batting Average on Balls in Play, basically a hitter’s batting average with foul outs, home runs and strike outs removed. A hitter who has one season with a vastly inflated BABIP usually has to do with good luck with opposing defenses and getting lots of flukey hits). Despite last year having the line of a career year, he had fewer home runs than he had had since 2006 and had a lower walk percentage than he had had since 2007, implying that it was mostly unsustainable.

For Gonzalez, the doomsday scenario would be that his increasing swing rates and decreasing power and on-base skills is due to age-related decline. It’s not super likely, but it is possible, and it is by far and away the worst outcome – especially when he’s only 30 and at the beginning of a seven year contract worth an obscene amount of money. To be honest, it’s not very likely only because there’s a lack of good evidence for it other than the slightly negative value he’s had against fastballs this year. For his career, crushing fastballs has been his bread and butter. It can be a sign that he can’t catch up to fastballs too well anymore because of decreased bat speed. But it’s more likely that it’s just a blip caused by a small sample size, an extended slump, decreased bat speed because of a hitch in his swing, et cetera. If his swing percentage had taken an uptick this year alongside the negative value, it’d be more of a cause for concern – as in, his bat slowed down so he starts his swing earlier and swings at more bad pitches as a result – but as it is, there’s not too much to suggest that this is the case.

So, Gonzalez is most likely just going through an extended slump that’s fueled in part by his reduced selectivity and patience at the plate. Gonzalez is one of my favorite players, has been ever since he was a severely underrated first baseman on San Diego who got no credit because of the team getting no publicity. I’m really hoping that hitting coach Dave Magadan spends time in the batting cages with him, or at least making some kind of effort. Because even if the reduced production is due in part to bad luck, it certainly couldn’t hurt to see if Gonzalez is swinging a lot more because of pressing and trying to will his way out of a slump.

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