Adrian Gonzalez was one of the best power hitters in baseball once upon a time. And all of a sudden, it looks like he could be again.
The Los Angeles Dodgers have only played three games. That's not a lot of time to hit home runs, but Gonzalez has already hit five. The 32-year-old veteran first baseman slugged home runs in each of the Dodgers' first two games against the San Diego Padres, and concluded the series with three more as part of a 4-for-4 showing in Wednesday night's 7-4 victory.
Because dingers are fun to watch, we shall now turn to the video evidence. Here's the first, off Andrew Cashner in the first inning:
And the second, off a (presumably) mildly annoyed Cashner again in the third inning:
And the third, off (presumably) downright disgruntled Cashner once again in the fifth inning:
It was right around the time that third home run landed that Twitter was about as abuzz as Dodger Stadium itself, and rightfully so. As far as dinger rampages go, the dinger rampage Gonzalez is on is one for the books.
Seriously. According to the Elias Sports Bureau (by the way of ESPN Stats & Information), Gonzalez is the first player in Major League Baseball history with so many home runs in so few games:
Carving out a place in home run history is not a bad way to start a season. And though it's a lesser piece of history, Ace of MLB Stats noted on Twitter that Gonzalez is also the first player since 2006 to open a season with at least three hits in his team's first three games.
If Gonzalez continues on his current pace, he's going to finish the season with a .769 average, a 2.846 OPS and about 270 home runs. Here's guessing that he won't actually do that. Particularly not the 270 homers, as that would shatter the single-season record by about 200 and actually double Gonzalez's current career total of 267.
But with Gonzalez swinging such a powerful bat early on, one can't help but wonder: Might he be on his way to a throwback season?
Let's take a second to go back in time.
During his heyday with the Padres between 2007 and 2010, Gonzalez was one of the most consistent power producers in the game. He averaged 34 home runs in that four-year window and was particularly well-known for his opposite-field power. According to FanGraphs, no other batter hit more opposite-field homers between 2007 and 2010 than Gonzalez's 56.
So when the Padres traded him to the Boston Red Sox after the 2010 season, it's no wonder everyone immediately started fantasizing about one of the game's great power hitters getting even better. Surely, a lefty swinger with his oppo power would clear the Green Monster early and often.
There was just one problem: Gonzalez had surgery on his right shoulder between 2010 and 2011.
|Adrian Gonzalez's HRs: 2007-2012|
That ended up sapping his power. Rather than upward of 40 or 50 home runs, he hit only 27 in his first season with the Red Sox. The following year, he hit only 18. And in 2013, he began the season with only two home runs in April.
It was around then that Gonzalez's power looked like it had gone from circling the drain to gone forever. Eno Sarris of FanGraphs argued as much, and even the man himself seemed resigned to his fate, admitting to Bill Shaikin of the Los Angeles Times that his power was "not the same."
However, Gonzalez did end up finishing 2013 with 20 home runs over the final five months of the season. And early in 2014, he was saying his shoulder was feeling stronger and, in turn, was singing a different tune about his power.
"My finish is coming back," he told Dylan Hernandez of the Los Angeles Times. "It's something that's more mechanical than physical. If I can have a high finish and long finish like that, the ball will have more carry."
Gonzalez made good on that proclamation. He hit 12 home runs in his first 46 games of 2014 and finished the year with 27. When he added one more in the postseason, he officially had his best power-hitting season since his final year in San Diego.
The point of all this: Gonzalez's early-season power bonanza isn't coming totally out of left field. His old power seemed to be long gone for a while there, but what's happened so far in 2015 is really just the latest stop on its comeback tour.
If there's a catch, it's that a certain aspect of Gonzalez's old power hasn't tagged along for the ride. His old opposite-field power has remained firmly in the past. He had only two home runs to left field in 2013, and only four last year. And of his five homers this year, all five have been to right field.
But the silver lining is that this, too, is a continuation of a theme. As these isolated power figures—that's basically slugging percentage minus singles—from FanGraphs can show, Gonzalez used the 2014 season to make up for his lost oppo power with a huge increase in pull power:
Now, when you see an increase in pull power like that, one fear that comes to mind is that the guy in question might be selling out for pull power. Hitters who try to crush everything to their pull sides have been known to watch their consistency suffer, after all.
But this didn't happen with Gonzalez in 2014, as he hit a respectable .276 with a .335 OBP. And if his torrid start is any indication, continuing his pattern of increased pull power won't hurt his other numbers this year. In going 10 for his first 13, he hasn't forced a thing.
In light of that, a vintage season, or at least something like it, might actually be possible for Gonzalez. It's asking a wee bit too much for him to see his hot start through to the 40-homer high he reached in 2009, but his hot start and the path he's on in general make him a solid bet to land in the 30-35 range.
Surely, the Dodgers wouldn't mind. Though their lineup isn't exactly hurting for power, the middle of it did lose quite a bit of oomph when the club waved so-long to Matt Kemp and Hanley Ramirez over the winter. Gonzalez making up for their lost power would erase that concern from the board altogether.
To be sure, there's a lot of season left between now and the end of the year. That means there's a lot of time left for Gonzalez to sputter, maybe even crash and burn. Either way, we'd be laughing at the fact that we ever had this conversation.
But maybe not. He's not doing anything he hasn't done before, and nobody says things with good beginnings can't have good middles and ends.
Note: Stats courtesy of Baseball-Reference unless otherwise noted/linked.
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