With a relatively weak free agent class, at least in terms of star power, there is more chatter than usual about potential trades this winter. And one constant name that surfaces in trade speculation is Adrian Gonzalez, the Padres star first baseman. With two years remaining on an unbelievably team friendly contract (he’s owed just $10.25 million over both years), and coming off a +6.3 win season at age 27, it’s easy to understand why he’d be so highly coveted.
However, I think there are reasons for interested buyers to beware of a potential regression from Gonzalez in 2010 that could eliminate a decent chunk of his value. When you look at his 2009 performance in relation to his prior years, you’ll notice that most of the numbers are fairly stable.
Even though he hit 40 home runs for the first time, his total number of extra base hits didn’t change from 2008 – four doubles just went over the wall, and he ended up squeezing out an extra base from a fifth double that became a triple. That’s not really the definition of a large power surge.
Instead, the huge change came here.
Gonzalez drew 45 more walks than he did in 2008 while striking out 23 fewer times. This naturally caused his on base percentage to shoot up 40 points, which translated into a .402 wOBA, a remarkably impressive figure considering his home park. However, while the willingness to take first base when it was offered was noble, I have to wonder whether it was a case of an improving eye or Gonzalez just being issued a lot of unofficial intentional walks.
After being thrown strikes about 62 percent of the time in the previous three years, that rate plummeted to 56 percent last year. Were pitchers more intimidated by Gonzalez than in previous years, or did the Padres line-up simply lower the cost of issuing Gonzalez a walk to the point where pitchers simply changed their strategy? After all, the two guys who spent most of the season hitting directly behind Gonzalez were Kevin Kouzmanoff (.312 wOBA) and Chase Headley (.328 wOBA). The rest of their line-up was even worse.
With a bad offense around Gonzalez, the value of a walk by their best player was diminished, as San Diego just didn’t have enough good hitters to consistently drive him home. So, pitchers responded by reducing the amount of strikes that Gonzalez saw, and in turn, his walk rate went through the roof.
That does not seem to be a scenario that would likely be repeated if Gonzalez was traded to a better offensive club. While it’s encouraging that Gonzalez was still able to produce while being pitched around, we’d have to expect that he’s going to be thrown more strikes in 2010 if he’s traded to a club that has some real hitters behind him. It’s possible that he’ll take those additional strikes and drive them into the alleys for extra base hits, but that’s projecting him to do something he hasn’t done before.
Gonzalez is a very good player, but if a team trades for him and hopes for another 119 walk season, I think they may be in for a bit of a surprise. Gonzalez’s improvement looks like a mixture of improved plate discipline and inferior teammates, and only one of those things will go with him if he’s traded.
Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.