Carlos Gonzalez is slumping. That isn’t news to you, unless you don’t really pay that much attention to the Colorado Rockies. Even then, it still might not be news to you. Gonzalez, who from 2010-2013 hit 108 homers (tied for 18th-best in the game), and posted a .245 ISO (ninth-best) and 103.4 Off (13th-best), is knee deep in a slump that seemingly has no end. If true, the question then becomes what do the Rockies do with him, because it might be impossible to trade him.
First, let’s see if we can figure out what exactly the issues are. Let’s begin with batted ball distance. Jeff Zimmerman has set up his handy batted ball distance search over at Baseball Heat Maps, and here we see that for the first five years of Gonzalez’s time with the Rockies, his was fairly consistent. He was right around 300 feet each season, with an overall average of 309.277′. Last year, that dropped quite a bit, down to 295.891′, and this season he is at 280.565. That’s nearly a 30 foot drop over the span of two seasons. Perhaps not predictive of how he will fare for the remainder of 2015, but it’s certainly not a great sign.
Another not-great sign is his Z-Contact%, or percentage of contact he makes within the strike zone. It is down to an all-time low of 78.7 percent, which is nearly 10% off his career average, and down 3%-4% from his last two seasons. He’s not taking as many pitches in the zone as he did when he was hitting well, but the same held true last year and he was still making contact at his normal clip. Now, he isn’t. But while you expect to see contact rate go down when a batter is chasing, that isn’t the case here. This lessened contact rate on balls in the zone could be a blip, but it could be troubling. Let’s look at some heat maps to see if we can find anything interesting. First, let’s look at 2010-2014:
Do you spy the differences? The middle of the zone and the inside of the zone (which is on the right) are basically unchanged. His percentages on balls inside and high as well as inside and low are actually up a bunch of percentage points, but those are also the two spots with the fewest balls to them. Nevertheless, in those six zones, he is hitting the same as he always has. In the three zones on the outer third of the plate however, we see a big drop off — from the top down, a difference of 22, 20 and six percent. Is his knee injury preventing him from extending to the outer half? It sure seems that way.
Toward the end of April, Gonzalez lamented that he wasn’t driving the ball the opposite way with the authority that he used to. This lack of plate coverage could be a reason why. If he’s not able to get to as many balls on the outer third, it stands to reason that the ones he does get to are not being hit the way he wants/needs to.
The scary thing is that pitchers haven’t really noticed yet. Gonzalez is seeing first-pitch strikes at a lower rate than all but five hitters, and his zone percentage overall is in line with his previous seasons. But Gonzalez just can’t get going. He’s hitting ground balls at a career-high rate, and his hard-hit percentage is a lowly 23%. His BABIP is trending down, his Spd is trending down, his defense is, well at the same low level it has been. And despite his consternation over going to the opposite field, it’s his pull percentage that is really down.
If you’re looking for a glimmer of hope, he has managed to get a hit in eight of his past 10 games, but he’s essentially been a singles hitter. His hot streak, if you can call it that, has amounted to a .250/.351/.375 line, good for a .328 wOBA and 91 wRC+. Not bad for a minimum wage player I suppose, but not what you expect out of a guy getting paid $16 million.
And therein lies the rub. As we’ve discussed previously, it’s very difficult for the Rockies to win when Gonzalez and Troy Tulowitzki aren’t producing, and with the Rockies’ offense melting before our very eyes, it appears 2015 won’t tell a different tale. Ideally, the team will be able to ship him off. But what are the odds of that? Who would want a broken down player who’s owed $37 million over the next two seasons, and also has a trade kicker? The game is awash in cash these days, but that’s a big gamble to take. We essentially have to go back to July of 2013 to find the last time Gonzalez was great, and the further we move away from that point in time, the less likely it is that he’ll snap back together and be the player we remember.
For roughly half a decade, Carlos Gonzalez was one of the most productive hitters in the game. Since then, he has been beset with multiple injuries, most notably to his left knee. The Rockies might have known they could expect little of him this season, the same way they knew they would get nothing out of Jhoulys Chacin. But where they were free to cut Chacin, they are not free to just cut Gonzalez. He makes too much money, and has been far more important to the team in general. But if this is the new normal for Gonzalez, you have to wonder if the Rockies should have taken what they could have gotten for him last winter and moved on. No matter who they replaced Gonzalez with, in the winter they had options. If Gonzalez keeps hitting .250 or worse, those options may have dried up. And for the thrifty Rockies, it could be what finally tips them headlong into a full rebuilding period.