The Dodgers are off to a 9-4 start, despite plenty of roadblocks on the way. Clayton Kershaw has pitched just once and likely won’t be back until well into May. A.J. Ellis is out with knee surgery. Brian Wilson has had elbow trouble. The Yasiel Puig saga never seems to end, on or off the field. Matt Kemp has three homers, but only one hit otherwise. Maybe the success is because five of those wins have come against Arizona, who seem to be worse than anyone expected, but it’s also because Zack Greinke & Hyun-Jin Ryu & Dan Haren have been great, the bullpen has been effective, Dee Gordon has been shockingly useful so far… and because Adrian Gonzalez has been surprisingly powerful.
Gonzalez is currently riding a nine-game hitting streak. He’s had at least one extra base hit in each of the last eight games and homered four games in a row, both one shy of tying team records. He’s tied for second in the bigs in homers with five — and hit at least one additional ball, arguably two, that might have made it out of most parks that aren’t Petco — and he’s tied for first in ISO with Jose Bautista at .400. (His .427 wOBA is nice as well, and No. 16 in baseball, but hard to get too excited about when Chase Utley is still rolling along at .607.) He’s raising hopes that at 31 (he’ll be 32 in May), it’s not too late for the Dodgers to get the elite hitter that San Diego and Boston saw between 2006-11, rather than the merely above-average second-level first baseman that the Red Sox and Dodgers saw in 2012-13.
Obviously — and this shouldn’t need to be stipulated at this point but probably still does — this has happened in 56 plate appearances. Anything can happen in the first half of April. Charlie Blackmon still has a better wOBA than Gonzalez, and so does Gordon, and Jason Kubel, and Michael Morse. Freddie Freeman looks great, but I imagine we can all agree that he isn’t hitting .442/.519/.814 over the length of an entire season. The first few weeks of every season are always fraught with flukes and small sample size hilarity and adjustments that haven’t yet been made. Most of them can be safely ignored.
And yet, Gonzalez’ start demands investigation because of the unusual way in which he’s doing this. Yes, he’s showing better power than he has in years. Yes, he’s been a valuable contributor to a good Dodgers start. But he’s also doing it in an extremely un-Gonzalez way: he’s being challenged more, he’s swinging at more, and he’s missing more.
He’s swinging at more pitches:
Other than a dip in 2009, Gonzalez has had a relatively consistent swing percentage for years, swinging at between 47 and 51 percent of pitches. This year, that’s up to nearly 57 percent, despite the MLB average being down ever so slightly, from 46.4 percent to 45.6 percent. 2014’s early season Gonzalez is much more of a hacker than we’ve seen him be before.
Interestingly enough, it’s not because he’s suddenly lost all plate discipline. Gonzalez’ O-Swing% — the percentage of balls he swings at outside the strike zone — has actually dropped two percentage points. But inside the zone, his Z-Swing% is 78.5 percent, well over both last year’s 72.3 and his career 72.0. He’s swinging at more strikes. Of course, he’s also seeing more strikes…
He’s being challenged more:
For the first time since 2006, his first full season in the bigs, pitchers are throwing Gonzalez strikes more often than not. Maybe, intuitively, that makes a certain amount of sense. In 2006, Gonzalez was a twice-traded prospect with a career line of .229/.272/.401 in parts of two seasons with Texas, having yet to give pitchers a reason to fear him. Over the last two seasons, he’s been a perfectly valuable hitter, with back-to-back .346 wOBA, but nothing like the monster he’d been previously. Maybe, in 2011, no one wanted to throw a strike to a guy who had just hit 30 or more homers four times in a row. So far in 2014, that hasn’t been the case. He’s seeing more hittable pitches. Across the sport, zone percentage is down eight percent compared to what it was 10 years ago, though up slightly so far from 2013.
But with all the extra strikes and Gonzalez offerings…
He’s missing more pitches:
All of baseball is striking out more than ever, so perhaps this isn’t entirely surprising, but the magnitude of the increase is. All of a sudden, Gonzalez is swinging-and-missing more than twice what he was two years ago, and while there’s some amount of “he’s swinging more” baked into that, it’s a gap that jumps right off the page.
It’s at this point that maybe you’re wondering about the logic of looking at this on April 14, and it’s true, to an extent: small sample sizes do apply here. You can’t look at a .400 ISO with any degree of expectancy that it will continue. That goes the same for things like batting average — as recently as last Wednesday, Gonzalez was under .200 — or BABIP or OBP and on and on. But do remember, swing rates are among the metrics that have the most validity in the least number of appearances, as this 2011 study that you absolutely should read in its entirety states. Swing percentage can be considered somewhat useful at 50 plate appearances, and contact rate at approximately 70. It’s not something you’re going to absolutely, certainly rely on continuing, but it’s not something to be completely tossed aside either, like, say, Scott Feldman’s 0.44 ERA
So this represents something of a dichotomy for what the 2014 Gonzalez will be. He’s connecting less, which is not great, but he’s crushing more when he does, which is a step forward. But there’s also this: evidence that Gonzalez’ approach really has changed. Prior to 2011, Gonzalez had serious shoulder surgery, and while it didn’t prevent him from having a career 2011, he’s been pretty open about how it has affected him since. (Jeff Sullivan had a wonderful look into this last fall.)
Yesterday, Gonzalez talked about his shoulder and how it feels, in the Los Angeles Times:
Gonzalez’s home run totals have declined in recent years, something the left-handed-hitting first baseman attributed to an operation on his right shoulder leading up to the 2011 season. Gonzalez experienced something similar to what Matt Kemp described last season in the wake of a similar procedure: His shoulder felt tight and his range of motion limited.
Now, more than three years removed from the surgery, Gonzalez said of his shoulder, “It’s looser.”
His expanded mobility has allowed him to follow through on his swing the way he did when he was considered a home run threat.
“My finish is coming back,” Gonzalez said. “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.
Players are usually the worst sources of information about how they’re feeling, since they’re wired to work through pain, never admit weakness, and try to keep going. (Often to their own detriment.) So encouraging, perhaps, for Dodger fans is that if an after-effect of Gonzalez’ shoulder surgery was a huge limitation on his power to the opposite field, to the point that only two of his 22 2013 homers went to left or even left-center, he’s already matched that this year. He took Ryan Vogelsong to left field in Dodger Stadium on April 5 and Wade Miley in Arizona on Saturday, and a third was just left of dead center:
Gonzalez won’t have a .400 ISO all season long, but nor is he likely to have a .265 BABIP, either. Maybe he ends up at the same season he always does, but just through a different direction. Either way, for the first time since arriving in Los Angeles, the Dodgers are seeing something different than the Gonzalez who they were happy to have as a comfortably above-average player. The new Gonzalez is swinging more and hiting less, but harder. The old Gonzalez never had more than six straight games with an extra-base hit; the new Gonzalez will go for nine Tuesday night in San Francisco. Maybe it’s an early season blip, or maybe it really is another reinvention of a great player. Either way, after two seasons of eerily consistent production — check the nearly identical slash lines — this bashing-homers, pitch-whiffing Gonzalez, whatever he really is, is suddenly more interesting.