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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©2013 John Adams
Bobby Valentine Has Got to Go
The Red Sox have had their fair share of woes this season, and now that it’s gone public that the players had a meeting with the front office in order to air grievances about manager Bobby Valentine, there’s another one to add on the pile. The players, it seems, feel as if Valentine doesn’t have their collective backs, a feeling exacerbated by his leaving Jon Lester in for a 4 inning, 11 run disaster of a start late last month in Toronto. The Red Sox front office, however, stands behind Valentine as their man, purportedly due to his strategic savvy. But how much effect does a manager really have on his team?
The media narrative of a manager as some kind of general locked in a battle of wits with the opposing manager is a tremendous exaggeration; for the most part, the only way a manager is going to make a significant impact on his team is in a distinctly negative fashion. Very rarely will a manager like Earl Weaver take the stage and effectively utilize platoons and defensive shifts to the team’s advantage, most managers don’t do much more than setting lineups, making pitching changes to a bullpen where the relievers have hard roles and occasionally pulling a shift on a lefty pull hitter. In that manner, Valentine hasn’t hurt the Red Sox, but I also imagine that most managers not named Ron Washington would avoid screwing that up; the Sox have a strong order and a solid, deep bullpen, two things that are unlikely to be done wrong barring a manager that knows almost nothing of baseball. A good portion of managers don’t even make the defensive shifts or call pitches, those tend to be handled by the bench coach and pitching coach, respectively, though there are some catchers that call pitches instead.
You may be wondering that, if managers do so little, what is their actual job? And it’s much simpler than people tend to want to admit: managers are meant to keep their players happy, that’s it. Terry Francona was good at this, Bobby Valentine is not. A team that gets along works as one cohesive unit and will avoid throwing any one member under the bus, even if getting along won’t make them play better. When there is such a tremendous breakdown of communication that the players are almost unified in their dislike of the manager, the manager has completely failed at his job and has totally lost control, and therefore the front office has no business continuing his employment. Rarely a team will come together where everyone hates each other but has incredible success in spite of that, akin to the Yankees teams of the mid to late 1970s. But, should it fail and the team plays less than spectacularly, expect the season to turn into a whirling maelstrom of distraction and drama, much as this one has.
To take this back specifically to Valentine, it’s worth mentioning that he was so regarded as a caustic, unapproachable manager that he was more or less exiled from the MLB after his stint with the Mets, forced to take a job in Japan, where managers are expected to take critical attitudes towards players that they don’t think are giving their all. Valentine’s manner of criticism, using the Youkilis incident from earlier this year, seems to be less about lighting a fire under an underachieving player and seems to be more about saving his own skin. Hence, the Red Sox players aren’t being divas, primadonnas, or whatever negative adjective one wishes to assign to them, they’re merely trying to protect themselves from a manager who has no qualms with openly trashing them in the media and putting a magnifying glass on their disappointing performance in order to take the magnifying glass off of his job. He has no concern for his players’ well-being, and as such they should have none for his.
So, should Valentine get fired? Almost certainly, when the manager has failed at keeping his team together, there’s no reason behind him keeping his job other than to spite the players. But will he get fired? Most likely not, since the front office, including Larry Lucchino, team president and general manager in all but name, seems to have cast their lots with him. He’ll continue being the manager until the fire starts creeping towards the front office guys, and just as quick as they sided with him, they’ll turn him into the villain. But until then, they’ll keep alienating the players in order to prove their point.
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