Don’t Completely Forget About Carlos Gonzalez

Carlos Gonzalez picked the worst of times to produce one of the worst seasons of his career in 2017, recording just an 84 wRC+ in his final season with Colorado and an overall value beneath replacement level (-0.2 WAR). Gonzalez slashed .262/.339/.423 as a right fielder who played his home games a mile above sea level. Not great.

That poor chapter complete, Gonzalez is now entering his age-32 season and experiencing first hand a historically cold free-agent market.

Once viewed as a franchise cornerstone with an aesthetically pleasing swing, Gonzalez’s poor season probably saved some team from making a multi-year mistake this winter, a point made by Dave Cameron when ranking Gonzalez as the game’s No. 33 free agent.

Wrote Dave:

He’ll probably take a one-year deal to try to put up better numbers before trying his luck in free agency again, and he feels like exactly the kind of guy Dayton Moore might sign to show that he’s not giving up after his best players leave.

Gonzalez entered the offseason projected by the crowd to receive a two-year, $22-million pact while Dave foresaw a one-year, $13 million deal. At this point, Gonzalez — one of many unsigned Scott Boras clients — might just be hoping he receives a major league contract offer.

Before Paul Swydan left us to become a small-business owner and open his own bookstore in West Acton, Mass., he wrote about Gonzalez’s dreadful 2017 campaign. This past August, Paul detailed how Gonzalez was making some of the weakest contact of his career — and certainly since Statcast’s doppler radar has been watching.

Paul published the referenced piece on Aug. 7. And wouldn’t you know it? Gonzalez began to show some life from that point through the remainder of the season. I’ve updated the chart of Statcast data Paul created for that post:

Carlos Gonzalez by the (Statcast) Numbers
Season Total Batted Balls # 95+ mph EV % of Pitches 95+ mph EV Avg. Launch Angle Avg. xwOBA
2015 428 169 39.5 8.1 0.337
2016 456 189 41.5 8.6 0.344
Thru Aug. 6 255 81 31.8 5.5 0.283
Aug 7-Oct 1 102 51 50.0 7.7 0.346
2017 total 357 132 36.9 6.1 0.302

Prefer a visual complement to those numbers? Here are some relevant metrics from our site. Note the decreasing swing rate and increasing fly-ball rate.

And a graph of rolling exit velocities for Gonzalez from Baseball Savant:

From Aug. 7 to the close of the season, CarGo resembled a more vintage version of himself. He posted an expected wOBA of .346, in line with his 2015-16 performance

Over the last 30 days of the season, the outfielder’s expected wOBA jumped to .399. He was the ninth-most valuable position player across all baseball in September, slashing .370/.477/.753 and producing 1.3 WAR.

CarGo’s late-season flourish could be the result of a number of things, including a matter of arbitrary endpoints and small-sample data. But it could also be the product of hitter addressing a timing issue in his swing or, say, overcoming an injury. For instance, we watched Andrew McCutchen struggle with his swing for all of 2016 and early in 2017 before figuring it out.

Gonzalez has always had a noisy, complicated swing. Rockies manager Bud Black suggested to the Denver Post in May that the swing wasn’t at its best while also sounding an optimistic note.

“With CarGo, the leg kick is his timing mechanism,” manager Bud Black said. “When he’s off, he’s going to be out way out front on breaking balls and behind on the fastball.

“But I see that gap narrowing, where he’s becoming on time for both pitches. You’ll know he’s back when he’s on top of fastballs and his hands are sitting back enough to handle the off-speed pitch.”

Perhaps it took him awhile to get back on track and his decline will be more gradual and less cliff-like. Gonzalez posted a .431 expected wOBA against fastballs in September. He posted a .295 expected wOBA against fastballs from April through July. Perhaps that should alleviate concerns that Gonzalez did not lose bat speed and that he retains the ability to hit hard stuff in this age of increasing velocity.

He stopped chasing out of the zone late in the season and reduced his overall swing rate — and it’s not as if the raw power went away. He was still capable of reaching the third deck at Coors Field last season; he just happened to do it with a ball that hooked foul. It was that kind of season for Gonzalez.

The days of Carlos Gonzalez, major-league star, are likely finished. The days of Carlos Gonzalez, above-average regular, might be finished, too. He probably should never again face a left-handed pitcher after posting a 26 wRC+ against lefties last season with walk and strikeout rate of 3.6% and 30.7%, respectively. He owns just an 81 wRC+ his career against lefties. Only Rougned Odor and Max Kepler were worse against left-handed pitching last season.

But on a one-year deal, on a prove-you-are-not-cooked contract, he might have value in occupying the strong side of a platoon at a corner-outfield spot. I would guess he can be had on a one-year deal and, at this point, for something less than the $13 million Cameron predicted for Gonzalez.

FanGraphs projects a modest bounce-back, a 101 wRC+ and a .257/.322/.454 slash line. That’s not very inspiring. But if Gonzalez really figured something out at the end of last season, then he might very well beat the projection.

There’s going to be value to be found in free agency in February, more than ever in the institution’s history, and Gonzalez could be part of that value for some club. Can he be a two-win player again as he was, on average, from 2013 to -17, a stretch that included an awful 2014 campaign? Maybe, maybe not. But it’s likely he won’t even have to do that to provide value on the eventual contract he does sign.

A Cleveland native, FanGraphs writer Travis Sawchik is the author of the New York Times bestselling book, Big Data Baseball. He also contributes to The Athletic Cleveland, and has written for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, among other outlets. Follow him on Twitter @Travis_Sawchik.

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6 years ago

The big reason for the slump and the turnaround for Cargo this year was sleep issues according to him. Once he got that sorted out he came back to life.

Jetsy Extrano
6 years ago
Reply to  bombguy85

At least it wasn’t spider dreams. Hate those.

6 years ago
Reply to  bombguy85

I’m not taking issue with that report specifically, but-

Bad, 1990s style GMing has often been about taking some small sample size cherry picking, mixing it with some ‘best shape of his life’ narrative, and projecting over-confident scenarios – particularly for known players with names and reputations.

The ‘maybe Cargo started mashing after his soft contact was pointing out’ theory suggested by the author, or the ‘maybe he is now mashing because his eyesight improved’ in the USA article- both strike me as potentially cliched examples of narrative-driven cherry picking.

Cargo probably just isn’t much good anymore, his baserunning and defensive values indicate that he has lost alot of his physical ability, and worse hitting would line up perfectly with his overall decline and age.

Justin Cmember
6 years ago
Reply to  bombguy85

“It’s amazing what sleep can do for you,’’ Gonzalez said. “Like the doctor told me, “When you’re 20 years old, you can go to sleep at 4 in the morning, wake up in the morning, and still kick ass. When you reach 30 years old, things change.”

I can confirm this is true.