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When the Boston Red Sox brought Adrian Gonzalez from cavernous Petco Park in San Diego to the cozy confines of Fenway Park, the team had visions of record-setting performances from their new slugger.
Just not the record he set on Sunday.
Just when it seemed Gonzalez had perhaps turned a corner with a pair of three-hit games against the Baltimore Orioles, he set the record for Red Sox futility out of the clean-up spot with an 0-for-8 showing that included a three-pitch strikeout against Orioles first baseman Chris Davis. He represented the tying run.
With two more multi-hit games and a three-run double in Kansas City, giving him 11 hits in his last 32 at-bats, maybe Gonzalez has finally figured it out. Maybe I can stop worrying whether Will Middlebrooks can replace the production of Kevin Youkilis and Gonzalez. Maybe I can stop crying over Gonzalez’s failure to contribute to my fantasy team. But the question still stands (and hopefully I’m correct in putting it in the past tense): what was wrong with Adrian Gonzalez?
Every time I look up during one of Gonzalez’s at-bats, there already seems to be two strikes against him. Needless to say, that is not a position a hitter wants to be in if he wants to do any damage at the plate (unless it is the “self-inflicted” variety).
Of course, with his recent surge, Gonzalez is batting a mildly respectable .279, but with a noticeable lack of power. Through almost a fifth of the season, he has just 10 extra base hits, and only two home runs (merely one more than the famously floundering Albert Pujols). His slugging percentage is over .100 points lower than his career average (.393 compared to .510). His struggles are particularly puzzling considering Gonzalez is now healthy, having fully recovered from shoulder surgery which he has admitted affected his swing and power in 2011.
The power problem might originate with Gonzalez’s plate discipline. Looking into ESPN’s splits breaking down Gonzalez’s at-bats by count, two-strike counts account for nearly half of Gonzalez’s total at-bats (53 of 118), with just eight hits to show for it. On top of that, he’s only worked the count to three balls on 26 occasions. That includes five (hitless) at-bats with a 3-1 count; a small sample size, yes, but that’s exactly part of the problem.
According the advanced stats at FanGraphs, Gonzalez consistently swings at a higher percentage of pitches than the average major leaguer (51.6% vs. 45.1%). The discrepancy is about the same on pitches out of the zone (35% vs. 29.3% league average), and it probably isn’t a coincidence he’s on pace for his lowest walk rate since 2007.
Now, swinging at a higher percentage of pitches out of the strike zone isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Josh Hamilton is among the league leaders in that category, and he just swatted four home runs in a single game. But Gonzalez makes much more frequent contact with such pitches, connecting on 77.3% of pitches he swings at off the plate (compared to just 54.3% for Hamilton). At the same time, Gonzalez is swinging at 75.5% of pitches in the zone, which suggests he isn’t being selective looking for good pitches to hit, in turn leading to more weak ground outs and shallow fly-outs.
Between swinging at blatant balls and borderline strikes, Gonzalez is unsurprisingly struggling to drive the ball with any authority. Gonzalez only has home runs on 5.3% of his fly balls, not only drastically below his career average of 16.7%, but lower even than his rookie stint with the Texas Rangers in 2004. He is also hitting line drives – only the best way to get a hit, mind you – at his lowest rate in four years.
As mentioned, Gonzalez is starting to hit the ball a little better recently. In an excellent piece by the Boston Globe’s Peter Abraham, Gonzalez was adamant this is merely an early season phase he will swing himself out of (hopefully not literally, considering his plate discipline seems to be at least part of the problem). He admitted to “forcing it a little bit” now that he feels truly healthy and able to drive the ball, but insisted that his numbers would be right where he and Red Sox Nation expect them to be.
“The only thing I can say is that when the last day of the season comes, [his slugging percentage] is going to be over .500 and the on-base is going to around .400. You may not see it right now because it’s May 7. But I promise you when the season is over, the slugging will be over .500 and the on-base will be around .400. It is every year.”
We certainly hope so. But words are wind, and unless that wind is blowing out, there’s only one way to set the record straight.