Why Adrian Gonzalez's Demise Has Been Greatly Exaggerated

Zachary D. Rymer@zachrymerMLB Lead WriterFebruary 21, 2013

October 2, 2012; Los Angeles, CA, USA; Los Angeles Dodgers first baseman Adrian Gonzalez (23) hits a pop fly for an out in the second inning against the San Francisco Giants at Dodger Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports
Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

Adrian Gonzalez is going to be over the hill someday. It happens to all ballplayers, and it will keep happening until they're replaced by genetically engineered super-ballplayers (a man can dream...).

But Gonzalez isn't over the hill just yet. Contrary to what his disappointing 2012 season might suggest, the Los Angeles Dodgers first baseman still has life left in him.

For starters, let's be fair to Gonzalez. Without context—i.e. his track record, his big contract and the two hot-ticket teams he played for—his 2012 campaign wasn't that huge of a disaster. He hit .299, slugged 18 homers and drove in 108 while playing typically excellent defense at first base.

By Baseball-Reference.com's reckoning, there were only five first basemen in baseball with better WARs than Gonzalez in 2012. By FanGraphs' reckoning, only four everyday first basemen (Edwin Encarnacion and Nick Swisher don't count) had better WARs than Gonzalez.

Put context back into the equation and...well, yeah, the 2012 season was a disappointing one for Gonzalez. Between 2006 and 2011, only Albert Pujols and Miguel Cabrera compiled better fWARs than Gonzalez among first basemen. His track record and his $22 million-per-year contract say he's supposed to be an elite first baseman, not just a really good first baseman.

There's hope that the elite Gonzalez will make a comeback in 2013. One of the major keys will be for him to pick up right where he left off last season.

The first half of Gonzalez's 2012 season was one of the low points of his career, as he managed just a .283/.329/.416 slash line and six home runs. The drop in power was particularly concerning in light of how he finished the 2011 season with a .489 slugging percentage and 10 home runs after the break.

In a total of 683 plate appearances spanning the second half of 2011 and the first half of 2012, Gonzalez hit only 16 home runs. He hit 40 homers in 681 plate appearances back in 2009.

However, Gonzalez showed signs of life after the All-Star break in 2012, posting a .317/.361/.517 slash line with 12 home runs over 313 plate appearances spanning 73 games. Over a full season, production like that would have equated to a 27-homer year, which was exactly where Gonzalez was at in 2011.

Gonzalez should be able to get there again in 2013, but it's how he'll get there that's the interesting part. The usual expectations for how Gonzalez is going to go about his business have to be thrown out because, frankly, he's not the hitter he used to be.

Gonzalez's patience has gotten to be a much bigger question mark than it has any right to be. As this table will show, he's just not working the count and taking his walks like he used to. 

Year P/PA BB%
2009 3.94 17.5
2010 3.85 13.4
2011 3.83 10.3
2012 3.66 6.1

Gonzalez led the league in walks in 2009, and those helped him tack a .407 on-base percentage on to his modest .277 batting average. He was one of the toughest outs in baseball.

Not so much since then, and it's hard to call the decrease in his patience a fluke given the countdown-like progression of his walk percentages.

Not surprisingly, Gonzalez's decrease in patience has come hand in hand with less and less plate discipline. Via FanGraphs, here's a look at how far his O-Swing percentage (how many pitches outside the strike zone a batter swings at) has climbed since 2009.

Year O-Swing%
2009 23.1
2010 31.8
2011 35.5
2012 37.3

There were only 21 players in baseball who swung at more pitches outside the strike zone than Gonzalez in 2012. His reputation may say he's one of the most patient hitters with one of the best eyes in baseball, but the numbers say that he's devolved into a free swinger.

And now for the good news: As he's become more of a free swinger, Gonzalez has fortunately evolved into a decent bad-ball hitter.

When his O-Swing percentage first climbed over 30 percent in 2010, Gonzalez made contact with fewer than 65 percent of the balls he swung at. He made contact with about 75 percent of the bad balls he chased in 2012, and posted his lowest career swinging-strike percentage while he was at it. That helped him post his lowest strikeout rate since 2009.

The further good news is that Gonzalez isn't making contact in vain. He co-led MLB with Matt Kemp in BABIP in 2011, and he managed a .334 BABIP in 2012. He's been putting more balls in play than he was back in 2009, but he's still finding ways to hit it where they ain't. To this end, the new less patient Gonzalez is more of a left-handed Adrian Beltre than a left-handed Jeff Francoeur or Delmon Young.

Gonzalez's BABIP success in 2012 wasn't necessarily that lucky either. He had a 24.1 line-drive percentage, the highest of his career. The increase in line drives helped create a decrease in ground balls, which is good, and an increase in fly balls, which is also good.

What was bad was that Gonzalez's increased fly-ball percentage came with a decreased HR/FB rate. His HR/FB had been at 16.4 percent in both 2010 and 2011, but it decreased to 9.6 percent in 2012. Many of the fly balls he hit turned into outs. Others became mere doubles, and he ended the season with a career-high 47 of those.

The man himself has an explanation for this.

"That means most of my balls are topspun," Gonzalez told Dylan Hernandez of the Los Angeles Times last October. "So instead of going over the fence with backspin, they're topspinning into the gap. It means I'm pulling off the ball. It's definitely something I have to work on in the off-season."

The balls that weren't top-spinned into the gaps were popped up. Gonzalez had a 9.1 infield fly-ball percentage in 2012, by far the highest of his career and way above his career mark of 5.6 percent.

If Gonzalez figures out his swing, the result should be fewer pop-ups and topspin fly balls and more balls hit right on the button. He may not be able to go back to having a HR/FB rate over 20 percent like he did in 2008 and 2009, but something in the 15 to 17 range is attainable.

And as odd as it sounds, not getting to play at Fenway Park half the time may not equal death to Gonzalez's power numbers. Boston's home park was supposed to fit him perfectly because of his uncanny power to left field, but the numbers show that his power to left field actually declined over the last two seasons (which saw him play 282 games for Boston and 36 for the Dodgers).

Year SLUG to Left ISO* to Left
2009 .889 .548
2010 .871 .403
2011 .850 .350
2012 .707 .293

*Isolated Power

In 2011, Gonzalez's lone full season at Fenway Park, he had a higher slugging percentage and hit more home runs on the road than he did at Fenway. He did have a higher slugging percentage at Fenway in 2012, but it had more to do with increased doubles power than increased home run power. After hitting only 19 doubles in Boston in 2011, he hit 25 in Boston in 2012.

So provided Gonzalez fixes the issues that plagued his swing in 2012, he should have more home run power in 2013 regardless of the setting. Even if he continues his free-swinging ways, he'll be able to flirt with 30 home runs once again so long as he benefits from a HR/FB spike.

The projections like his chances. Dan Szymborski’s ZiPS projections, which can be found at FanGraphs, have Gonzalez finishing 2013 with a .286/.355/.476 slash line and 26 home runs. Bill James' projections are more generous, as they have Gonzalez finishing with a .303/.377/.502 line and 27 home runs.

The numbers differ slightly, but what they agree on is this: Gonzalez is better than he showed in 2012. It was a rough season, but he should turn it into nothing more than a bad memory with a return-to-form season in 2013.

If he doesn't, well, my guess is that the Dodgers will eat his entire contract and bring in somebody else who can give them 30 homers at first base.

Or they'll just pay to develop a genetically engineered super-ballplayer to man the position. With their resources, the possibilities are endless.


Note: Stats courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com and FanGraphs.


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