As Thomas Harding of MLB.com pointed out on Tuesday, "CarGo" has jolted upward. He now ranks second in the voting among NL outfielders.
Maybe that's Rockies fans stuffing the ballot box. Or maybe people across the country are giving CarGo some props. It wouldn't surprise me if it were the latter, as CarGo isn't putting on a show just for the people of Colorado this year. For once, Gonzalez is hitting the cover off the ball no matter where the Rockies are playing.
And it's no accident.
If you're not up to speed with CarGo in 2013, you need to know that the knock on him before this year was that he could only hit at Coors Field—a place where many hitters have gone to thrive, and many pitchers have gone to die.
Hence the criticism. At home, he was an elite hitter. But on the road away from the thin air and expansive gaps of Coors Field, he was decidedly "meh."
Not this year. CarGo's home/road splits have leveled out to an astonishing degree, as he boasts a .937 OPS on the road to go with an oh-so-CarGo .976 OPS at home. He's become a drastically better hitter away from Coors Field.
How exactly does one do that?
It's simple, really. One becomes a better hitter on the road by becoming a better hitter, period.
Gonzalez was never the most patient hitter before 2013. He's still not the most patient hitter, if we're being honest. He is, however, more patient than he was—and sometimes that's good enough.
Here's a quick glance at some key patience numbers from Baseball-Reference.com:
CarGo is still hacking away as often as he did between 2009 and 2012, but he's seeing a few more pitches this year and taking a few more walks.
This is not totally out of the blue. CarGo's pitches/PA bottomed out at 3.57 in 2010 but rose to 3.66 in 2011 and 3.79 in 2012. Likewise, his walk rate also rose from 6.3 percent in 2010, to 8.9 in 2011 and 9.7 in 2012. It's right there again this year.
One of the downsides to increased patience is that it can mean more strikeouts. Gonzalez can vouch for that, as his strikeout rate this year is a career-high 26.5 percent. The trade-off, however, is that he's improved the sort of contact he's making.
|2013||20.2|| 37.2 ||42.6||9.5|| 23.2|
*Link goes to FanGraphs.
You'll notice the small drop-off in line drives, which is good because line drives tend to have awesome results.
But the key is that Gonzalez has traded in some ground balls for fly balls, and the fly balls that he's been hitting have been of the "good" variety. You can tell by the decreased infield-fly ball percentage and the increased home run per fly ball rate.
He's putting a charge into his fly balls.
Gonzalez, however, is doing more than being patient at the plate. There's a much more tangible explanation for him making better contact—his greatly improved performance against left-handers.
Albeit begrudgingly, Madison Bumgarner can tell you all about it:
Drives like that one used to be few and far between for CarGo against southpaws. They've become much more common this year, and I have another table to prove it:
|Span||LD% vs. L||GB% vs. L||FB% vs. L||IFFB% vs. L||HR/FB vs. L|
|2013||26.2|| 35.7 ||38.1||9.4||21.9|
*Both links go to FanGraphs.
The trend here is similar to the one we discussed above, except that the decrease in ground balls has meant an increase in line drives and hard-hit fly balls. That's a good combination.
I should note that Gonzalez is striking out more often against left-handers, just as he is overall this season. But that doesn't matter because of, well, this:
|Span||AVG vs. L||ISO vs. L|
For the record, ISO is isolated power. It's basically a slugging percentage that ignores singles and focuses only on extra-base hits, making it a truer measure of a hitter's power.
So what we have here, then, are more hits, more power and more super-fun-happy times against lefties this season than Gonzalez is used to.
And no, these numbers don't exist because CarGo is punishing lefties only at home. His OPS against southpaws at home is .751. His OPS against southpaws away from home is 1.078. He's actually been more productive against left-handers on the road than he has been against right-handers at home.
Let's see...what else is there...
Oh, right. Power.
Gonzalez has always had power. He just has a lot more of it this year, as his ISO is hovering above .300 for the first time in his career. He's already hit as many homers as he hit last year, and he has a decent chance to drop 40 bombs, which would be a first in his career.
The thing that's changed is sort of surprising. Most hitters naturally have more power on their pull side, but Gonzalez is just now beginning to tap into his.
Between 2009 and 2012, CarGo didn't post a single ISO higher than .480 on balls hit to right field. This year, he has a staggering .640 ISO on balls hit to right field. Of his 22 homers, 13 have gone out to his pull side.
But to his credit, Gonzalez isn't sacrificing production to other fields in 2013. His OPS is above 1.000 on balls to left field and center field, which is more or less where he was in 2012, according to FanGraphs.
Why the extra pull power this year?
Well, one pitch that can be easy to pull is the curveball. Curves are hard to hit, but they're slow enough for a batter to get ahead of them if he picks it up early enough.
Gonzalez used to have a devil of a time hitting curveballs. He's not this year, and we have fancy stats that prove it.
FanGraphs keeps track of linear weights that can show how a batter performs against different types of pitches. By Baseball Info Solutions' reckoning, CarGo had never generated more than 5.1 runs above average against curveballs, and last year he was actually a below-average performer against curveballs.
This year, Gonzalez has already generated 5.9 runs above average against curveballs. Amazingly, only two hitters in the league are doing better.
Basically, rather than doing this,
CarGo is doing this:
Oh, sorry, Mad-Bum. I swear I'm not picking on you. And to be fair, that one was a hanger.
Lest the thought cross your mind, an excess of hangers is not to thank for Gonzalez's improvement against curveballs in 2013. He's picking them up better than he was last year, as TexasLeaguers.com can illustrate.
In 2012, CarGo swung at 53.4 percent of the curveballs he saw and whiffed at 23.3 percent of them. This year, he's swung at 50 percent and missed 20 percent. That means he's putting a higher percentage of curveballs in play.
The curveballs that he has hit this year have been hit well and in a specific direction to boot. Behold the following spray chart:
There's your extra pull power. Some of it, anyway.
And that, my friends, is about all there is. We set out to get to the bottom of how Gonzalez has made himself a better hitter on the road, and the short version is that he didn't just flip a switch.
What CarGo has done is to remake himself. He was already a quality hitter, but he had weaknesses that showed up away from Coors Field, where the playing field for hitters is much more level. He has addressed these shortcomings, and he might have his best offensive season yet as a result.
Back in March, I put together my list of the top 100 players in baseball today. Gonzalez only made the cut at No. 61 in large part due to my issues with his home/road splits. That didn't sit well with his fans, some of whom—heck, maybe most of whom—let me know about it in the comments section.
They ought to be happier next year. If Gonzalez keeps this up, I'll have no choice but to recognize him as something he was only masquerading as before—one of the game's very best hitters.
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