Is Adrian Gonzalez's low home run total reason to worry?
This winter, Adrian Gonzalez joined the Red Sox in one of Boston's biggest and most anticipated deals in recent memory. The club had coveted Gonzalez for several years, just waiting for the right opportunity to pry him away from the Padres and the offensive vacuum of Petco Park.
Since his arrival, Gonzalez has put up solid numbers. He's hitting .306 with a .368 on-base percentage. He's driven in 21 and scored 15 runs. But despite the production, one number stands out above all others.
Through his first 124 at-bats, Gonzalez has mustered only two home runs, putting him on pace for a measly 10 dingers this season. I think that the entire baseball world can agree that, barring injury, Adrian Gonzalez will finish 2011 with more than 10 homers. But for the time being, his lack of power is certainly worth noting.
It hasn't caused a panic yet, but ripples of alarm are spreading through Red Sox Nation. This isn't quite what fans expected from their new slugger. In 2010, Gonzalez averaged a home run for every 19 at-bats. The year before it was one in every 13.8. In 2008, one in every 17.1. Clearly, he's well off those numbers so far. And his slugging percentage of .460 is about 50 points lower than his norm.
The question is, how worried should we be?
The answer is not very. And here's why.
The Contact is There
Gonzalez is actually on pace to set a career high in contact rate. Granted, it's a small sample size so far, but he's putting more balls in play than usual, and that's a pretty clear indicator that he's seeing the ball well.
Gonzalez has put a ball in play in 75 percent of his plate appearances this season. If he maintains that rate it will be a personal best by a substantial margin.
His ability to make contact has involved some good luck and some bad luck. Good luck in that his batting average on balls in play (BABIP) is a career-best .353, indicating that he's living that time-honored baseball philosophy of "hitting 'em where they ain't".
Bad luck in that Gonzalez is getting on top of a lot of pitches, hitting ground balls at a much higher rate than normal.
Over time, the good luck and the bad luck will probably balance out. His fly ball rate will rise, giving him a better chance for homers, but his BABIP will probably decrease. Still, as long as he continues to make good contact, he should be in good shape.
The Extra-Base Hits are There
While Gonzalez hasn't been clearing the fences, he is on pace to shatter his career best in doubles. From 2006 through 2010, he averaged about 35 doubles per season has never hit more than 46. This year? His numbers project to 54 two-baggers.
Gonzalez isn't up there slapping singles; his hitting stroke is working, he's just not getting quite enough lift.
This topic wouldn't be up for debate if even a few of those doubles had gotten a little more air under them. And over time, that's exactly what's likely to happen.
Fenway's dimensions are more favorable to a left-handed batter than are Petco Park's. The 302-foot right-field line is particularly beneficial to Gonzalez. Rest assured that he'll take full advantage of it as the season progresses.
So far in 2011, 10.3 percent of Gonzalez's plate appearances have resulted in extra-base hits. That's actually up from 2010's 9.3 percent, and is his highest mark since 2007.
Even though he's hitting more ground balls than he typically does, Gonzalez is still producing extra-base hits. As he makes adjustments and starts connecting for more fly balls and line drives, results should get even better.
The difference between a double and a home run is fractions of an inch. Catch the ball just a hair too low on the barrel of the bat and it won't leave the yard. Based on Gonzalez's batting ratios this season, his swing is in good shape. He just needs to make minor adjustments to resume going deep.
How many home runs will Adrian Gonzalez hit in 2011?
Pitchers are Dealing
Speaking of adjustments, remember that Gonzalez is still settling into the AL East. It's a new division, a new league and whole new coast. Gonzalez is seeing new hurlers and playing in unfamiliar venues.
It hasn't hurt his overall production much, but he's clearly still getting comfortable. And with comfort comes power.
So far this season, 64 percent of the pitches Gonzalez has seen have gone for strikes. That the highest strike rate he's faced since 2005. And before you wonder if that's because he's going after too many pitches, know that only 12 percent of those strikes have been swings and misses.
That 12 percent is the lowest swinging strike percentage of his career.
In contrast, 26 percent of the strikes have been called. That's the highest percentage of his career. So either umpires are being especially generous to pitchers, or the pitchers themselves are locked in.
That also helps explain why his walk rate is down a bit.
Remember that we're talking about roughly one-fifth of one season. Making any real judgments from such a small sample size is a bad idea. But we can examine the indicators, and the takeaway here is that most of his peripheral stats suggest that Gonzalez is doing just fine.
His lack of power this April was probably due more to the adjustments he's had to make than anything else. And as the numbers suggest, he's been a victim of good pitching and probably a bit of bad luck to boot.
If he wasn't seeing the ball well, making good contact or drilling extra-base hits, then we might have more cause for concern. But the fact is that he seems to be very close to regaining his usual power stroke. And that will be a welcome sight for Sox fans everywhere.