How Unlucky Has Carlos Gonzalez Been?

Carlos Gonzalez is showing the worst power he’s shown since he was a rookie. He’s healthy, maybe, but he’s not producing, not yet. He’s still only 29, and there are signs of life — mostly centered around the velocity on the balls leaving his bat. Maybe he’s not done.

Batted Ball velocity is probably close to stabilization. Jeff Zimmerman found that the correlation between April and May’s batted ball velocities was already reasonably high (r^2 of .34, stabilization point is around .5) at the very least. So, in small samples like these, it does look meaningful to look at CarGo’s speedometer.

It’s healthy. By Baseball Savant, he has the fifth-highest maximum exit velocity this year. His average exit velocity is 58th of 273, or in he top fifth. On fly balls and line drives, he’s up to 45th.

If it seems like these aren’t elite numbers, maybe they aren’t. But Gonzalez hasn’t been an elite slugger, maybe? He’s 21st in isolated slugging since 2011, and 11th in home runs per fly ball. That’s fairly elite. But the bar was lowered in 2014, when he would have been 28th in ISO and 24th in HR/FB, had he qualified. That sort of bar seems reachable with his current velocity.

Stephen Ray Brown created an expected weighted On Base Average using batted ball velocity and direction, and he posted it on the community blog just last week. You can read the whole post, but here’s an excerpt that explains his methodology quickly:

Basically, this tool uses information on the type, velocity, direction, and distance of a hitter’s batted balls to calculate an expected AVG, OBP, and SLG for him. It divides batted balls into buckets based on the type (GB, FB, LD, PU) and either the direction and velocity or the direction and the distance and calculates the resulting AVG and SLG for all batted balls that meet that criteria. If the velocity for the batted ball is not available for a ground ball, it only considers the direction it was hit. If it is not available for a fly ball or a line drive, it uses the distance and the direction. For all batted balls hit over 375 feet it uses distance and direction rather than velocity and direction. The reason for this is that I do not have information on the hangtime of batted balls, and in going through the data I found that fly balls and line drives that traveled over 375 feet but weren’t hit very hard were being severely underrated by the tool.

In that first update, Carlos Gonzalez was the least lucky player in baseball — his expected wOBA was almost one hundred points above his actual wOBA at the time.

That’s no longer true. In his most recent update, Gonzalez is now merely the eighth-unluckiest player in baseball (Robinson Cano is the least lucky, I’m sure you were wondering). Given the direction of his batted balls, and the velocity off his bat, Gonzalez should be slashing closer to .266/.337/.485, which looks a lot closer to his career .291/.349/.511 line than what he’s currently managing.

What happened between the first and second lists? Ground balls. Turns out, you can wallop pulled balls along the ground, they’ll show good direction and velocity, but their vertical angle means they’ll be squared up right at a defender. Tony Blengino has written about this some, recently, when he looked at excessive ground ball pullers:

That last point is key; the point of this exercise is to attempt to isolate the true cost of their excessive pulling on the ground. For these 10 players combined, it cost them 49 basis points of ground-ball contact score, 11 basis points of overall contact score, and 13 basis points of production/OPS+. That’s a very real cost. It varies somewhat significantly from player to player, based on variables such as their grounder rate, actual performance when hitting into shifts, etc.. It should be noted, however, that all 10 of these players performed worse on grounders than they “should have,” based on comparison of their actual to context-adjusted performance on ground balls.

Carlos Gonzalez isn’t a league leader in pulled ground balls, but, as you can see from his spray chart, he’s pretty much a pull hitter right now.

chart (55)

Stephen Ray Brown calculated Gonzalez’s ground ball pull ratio in the same manner as Blengino did. That 5.8 number leaves him outside of the top 10, but it also makes him a pull hitter. (Blengino recommended shifting any hitter with a pull ratio over five.) CarGo is becoming more of a pull hitter, too — his current overall opposite-field percentage is the lowest of his career. And pull hitters underperform their expected production on ground balls by 27%, found Blengino.

Perhaps that is because of the shift. And, yes, teams have started to shift Gonzalez. So his expected batting average on balls in play might not regress to his career number — .340 — since he hasn’t been shifted his whole career.

Then come the fly balls. Immune to the shift, and leaving Gonzalez’s bat at 87 mph, those balls aren’t going for the same results as they should. Gonzalez *should* be slashing .144/.144/.388 on those balls, and the actual numbers are .143/.143/.286. That’s not the source of CarGo’s sub-.400 slugging percentage.

It could be the line drives. Brown found that Gonzalez should be slugging 1.520 on those, and he’s only been slugging 1.167. Line drives are coming off his bat at 100 mph on average, so maybe they should be doing better. Then again, look at where the balls in play that are not ground balls and don’t have long hang times are going:

chart (54)

A fair amount of those were headed right into the area where you might shift your defenders.

Gonzalez is being shifted more. He’s hit into the shift in 30% of his plate appearances so far this year, up from 12% in 2012 and 2013. But before we blame the shift for his woes this year… his batting average on balls in play with the shift on this year is .304, and it’s .139 with no shift. His extra base hit percentage with the shift on this year is 8.7%, and it’s 2.8% with no shift.

There’s one last possibility. Could declining speed be robbing him of extra bases on these well-struck line drives? Gonzalez is attempting the fewest stolen bases per plate appearance this year, and his Bill James Four-Component Speed Score is the worst of his career. Look at his contact over 100 mph (from BaseballSavant), though, and it doesn’t look obvious that Gonzalez is turning doubles into singles. Most of the powerful contact that ended up in singles was to right field:


So. Gonzalez has been massively underperforming his ground balls and line drives based on velocity and direction, but he’s a ground-ball pull hitter, and those types of hitters generally underperform on ground balls and pulled line drives. He’s slower than usual this year, but it’s not obvious that he’s lost a ton of extra bases due to his speed. He’s been underperforming on his fly balls, but not enough to laugh away his current slugging percentage. The shift seems like it could be meaningful, but it can’t explain everything.

Carlos Gonzalez has been unlucky, slightly. That’s the best we can do, even with the fancier tools at our disposal.

With a phone full of pictures of pitchers' fingers, strange beers, and his two toddler sons, Eno Sarris can be found at the ballpark or a brewery most days. Read him here, writing about the A's or Giants at The Athletic, or about beer at October. Follow him on Twitter @enosarris if you can handle the sandwiches and inanity.

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One Mississippi
One Mississippi

“In that first update, Carlos Gonzalez was the least lucky player in baseball — his expected wOBA was almost one hundred points below his actual wOBA at the time”

*One hundred points above?