$80M Man Carlos Gonzalez's Rockies Are Finally Great, and He's No Longer a Star

Zachary D. Rymer@zachrymerMLB Lead WriterJuly 28, 2017

DENVER, CO - JUNE 06:  Carlos Gonzalez #5 of the Colorado Rockies circles the bases after hitting a 2 RBI home run in the third inning against the Cleveland Indians at Coors Field on June 6, 2017 in Denver, Colorado.  (Photo by Matthew Stockman/Getty Images)
Matthew Stockman/Getty Images

Carlos Gonzalez and the Colorado Rockies have traded places. 

It used to be that Gonzalez was excellent and the Rockies were not. He fought through frequent injuries to make three All-Star teams and win three Gold Gloves and two Silver Sluggers between 2010 and 2016. The Rockies, meanwhile, averaged 72 wins per season.

Now in 2017, the Rockies are excellent, and Gonzalez is not.

Despite occasional stumbles, the 2017 Rockies have been about as impervious to death as your standard-issue horror-movie villain. Their 58-45 record gives them a firm hold on the National League's second wild card. So if all goes well, they'll soon be playing in their first postseason since 2009.

But of the parameters covered by that "if," none looms as large as the CarGo conundrum.

Over the previous seven years, a normal season for Gonzalez featured an .888 OPS and 26 home runs. He has just a .642 OPS and six home runs through 84 games this year. Adjust his offense for Coors Field, and he's one of the three worst hitters in Major League Baseball.

Simply noting that much is doing the 31-year-old a kindness. In wins above replacement at Baseball Reference (minus-1.3) and FanGraphs (minus-1.7), Gonzalez rates as the worst player in MLB.

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Or, you could just hear it from him.

"I know what it feels like to be the best player in the game and the worst player in the game. Right now, I feel like I'm the worst player in the game," Gonzalez said in early July, per Thomas Harding of MLB.com.

DENVER, CO - JULY 22:  Carlos Gonzalez #5 of the Colorado Rockies is restrained from going to the mound by home plate umpire Chad Fairchild in the sixth inning against the Pittsburgh Pirates at Coors Field on July 22, 2017 in Denver, Colorado.  (Photo by
Matthew Stockman/Getty Images

Through it all, the Rockies have stood by Gonzalez anyway.

That's because he's remained a healthy part of an outfield that's been beaten up a lot. It's also because he's earning $20 million in the final year of his seven-year, $80 million contract, making him the most expensive player on a team that only has a $128 million payroll.

But above all, it's because the Rockies believe in him.

Here's what manager Bud Black told Tony DeMarco of FanRag in mid-July:

"He’s frustrated, but he’s a good Rockie. He’s working hard, and it’s going to turn at some point. I wish I could tell you when. It hasn’t been difficult at all to handle him. He’s been a pro. He’s a team guy. He’s a very unselfish player. He’s doing everything he can. The preparation is outstanding. Nothing he’s tried has panned out, but believe me, it’s coming."

Black's prophecy, if you will, is starting to come true.

The entire Rockies offense has turned on the jets, going from a .758 OPS before the All-Star break to a .930 OPS after it. Gonzalez has recently joined the fun by hitting .357 over his last seven games.

There is precedent for him to turn a mini streak into a mega streak. Take 2015, for example. He had a .657 OPS and four homers through May. He had a .961 OPS and 36 homers afterward.

However, the streak Gonzalez is on now doesn't look like a launching pad for something like that.

Seven games isn't a telling sample size, and he has just a .464 slugging percentage to go with his .357 batting average. He's been hitting, but not raking.

So it goes. While many of Gonzalez's beneath-the-surface stats—strikeout rate, walk rate and plate discipline—suggest he's fine, the quality of his contact tells a different story.

Baseball Savant has his average exit velocity at just 86.4 miles per hour, his lowest on record. But that's just since 2015. FanGraphs has hard-hit rates for his entire career and shows his 28.1 percent figure to be his worst since his rookie season in 2008.

Worse, his hard contact was front-loaded:

This raises suspicion of whether he's playing through an injury.

He went on the disabled list in June with a strained right shoulder. Perhaps he'd already been dealing with that for a while and is still feeling the effects.

Or, Gonzalez's attention might not be 100 percent on baseball.

He's from Venezuela, where all is not well. Though he told ESPN's Jerry Crasnick that his goal is to "stay locked in" despite the crisis back home, it would be understandable if that's been easier said than done. He isn't an automaton. He's a human being.

Or, maybe this is just him aging out of his stardom at the wrong time.

It's hard to know—objectively, and without doubt—when a player is past his prime. But the game offers clues. And there are some whoppers in Gonzalez's case file.

Per Baseball Savant, he's seeing more fastballs while the rest of the league sees fewer, with the increase happening both at Coors Field and elsewhere. He's been powerless against it, slugging a career-worst .328 against fastballs.

Gonzalez can still mash fastballs in spots where he can get his arms extended, such as down the middle (.650 SLUG%) or on the outside corner (.600 SLUG%). But as this Baseball Savant heatmap reveals, that's not where pitchers are aiming:

Image courtesy of BaseballSavant.MLB.com.

Between its fluidity and sheer power, Gonzalez's swing has always been a thing of beauty. But due to its length and loopiness, it needs top-of-the-charts bat speed to work. 

The high fastball percentage that pitchers are feeding Gonzalez indicates they don't think he has the bat speed anymore. Same goes for the steady diet of high-and-tight hard stuff, as it's no secret that he's struggling to get around on it.

In any other season, the thought of seeing CarGo in the playoffs again would be a happy one.

He owned his first and only taste of October when the Rockies played the Philadelphia Phillies in the 2009 National League Division Series, albeit in a losing cause. He had 10 hits in 17 at-bats, including two doubles and a homer.

This season is different. Before the Rockies can even begin to hope Gonzalez still has some of that magic left, they first need him to snap out of it and help a postseason push that could use his help.

It's hurt them enough that he's already made them wait this long. Based on what's in the tea leaves, though, they should be bracing for even more pain.


Data courtesy of Baseball ReferenceFanGraphs and Baseball Savant. Contract and payroll information courtesy of Cot's Baseball Contracts.

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