The Collapse of Carlos Gonzalez

Carlos Gonzalez has been a very good hitter for quite a while now. Since 2009 (his first season in Colorado) through 2016, he was one of just 74 position players to accrue 4,000 plate appearances. Among those players, his 122 wRC+ ranked 26th.

As recently as last season, he was hitting the ball with authority, relative to his peers. In a February piece, Tony Blengino stated that his batted ball profile was one that “projects as a safely above average offensive ballplayer in any ballpark,” despite no longer being elite. That hasn’t been how Gonzalez’s season has played out, as he has looked like a shell of himself all season. Even in June, I was still hopeful. I said that I didn’t think Gonzalez had gone from “a .366 wOBA player to a .287 wOBA player overnight.”

The truth, unfortunately, has been worse. As we sit here today, Gonzalez has posted a .278 wOBA / 50 wRC+ for the season. His wOBA is ninth-worst among qualified players; his wRC+ is second-worst. The only qualified position player who has been worse by wRC+ is Royals shortstop Alcides Escobar, who is at least able to couple good defense and baserunning to bring himself back up to replacement level. Gonzalez has done no such thing. By WAR, he has been the worst player in the majors, qualified or not, and it isn’t remotely close:

Players With -1 WAR or Worse, 2017
Person Team WAR
Carlos Gonzalez Rockies -1.9
Albert Pujols Angels -1.2
Chris Herrmann Diamondbacks -1.1
Tim Anderson White Sox -1.0
Five players have -0.9 WAR.

This is certainly not what the Rockies, or anyone else, was expecting to see this season. Let’s investigate.

Carlos Gonzalez, Select Statcast Stats, 2015-2017
Season Total Batted Balls # 95+ mph EV % of Pitches 95+ mph EV Avg. Launch Angle Avg. xwOBA
2015 428 169 39.49 8.1 0.337
2016 456 189 41.45 8.6 0.344
2017 255 81 31.76 5.5 0.283
SOURCE: Baseball Savant

Certainly, we can see that Gonzalez is not hitting the ball as hard. His average launch angle has decreased, into a zone where you wouldn’t expect a hitter with below-average speed to be successful. The drop in average exit velocity is especially troubling. Just how bad is it? We need context. In order to find that context, I made a pool of every player who had similar batted-ball-event profiles to Gonzalez: at least 400 in 2015 and 2016, and at least 200 this season. From that pool of players, I wanted to see who had tallied these totals in consecutive seasons, with duplicate player entries allowed (in other words, Gonzalez from 2015 to 2016 was one entry, and Gonzalez from 2016 to 2017 was another entry). All told, I had 152 entries. Let’s take a look at the biggest year-to-year changes:

Biggest Year-to-Year Changes, Avg. Exit Velocity, 2015-2017
Year 1 Year 2
Player  Year BBE  Avg EV (mph)  BBE  Avg EV (mph)  Avg. EV (mph) Difference
Kole Calhoun 2015 472 85.9 2016 481 89.4 3.5
Eric Hosmer 2015 495 89.0 2016 477 91.7 2.7
Nick Markakis 2015 530 88.3 2016 507 90.6 2.3
Starlin Castro 2015 461 86.3 2016 465 88.4 2.1
Nelson Cruz 2015 427 92.4 2016 437 94.5 2.1
Gregory Polanco 2016 415 89.6 2017 262 86.4 -3.2
Dustin Pedroia 2016 564 88.5 2017 304 85.3 -3.2
Evan Longoria 2016 496 90.7 2017 364 87.3 -3.4
Albert Pujols 2016 524 91.5 2017 340 87.9 -3.6
Carlos Gonzalez 2016 456 90.1 2017 255 85.9 -4.2
SOURCE: Baseball Savant

Again, it’s not close.While this is not yet even three full years of data we’re looking at here, it’s still hard to discount the fact that Gonzalez has had the single-biggest year-over-year decline in average exit velocity.

For a hitter whose game was built around on-base percentage, this might not be a death knell. Gonzalez is not that player. His OPS has always been more SLG than OBP, and even with a high walk rate this season (for him), it hasn’t stemmed the tide. Looking through his FanGraphs player page, you don’t see anything that would refute this inability to drive the ball. His Soft% is at a career “high,” his HR/FB is at its lowest rate since his rookie season, and is significantly lower than most of his other seasons. He’s once again hitting more than 10 percent of his batted balls for infield pop ups. He’s swinging and making contact at the same percentages he always has, the ball just simply isn’t going anywhere once he does.

While Gonzalez has been around for a long time, he’s only his age-31 season. This has all been unexpected, but the numbers don’t bear out any bad luck or that a change is imminent. If anything, it’s only getting worse:

As you’re looking at this, note that it starts with the 2015, the 2016 season starts at batted ball event 429, and 2017 starts at batted ball event 884. You can see that Gonzalez has established, a new, much lower baseline this season, and it’s one that obviously isn’t tenable for him. He’s now a corner outfielder with little range, little speed and little power. That is not the profile of a starter.

This hasn’t been Carlos Gonzalez’s best season. (Photo: Jennifer Linnea Photography)

The good news is that the Rockies don’t have to endure this. Colorado has long been an organization that prides itself on loyalty, but the team has plenty of options. There is an option on the roster in Raimel Tapia. The rookie has posted a perfectly acceptable 94 wRC+ in a fun-to-watch debut season. Is he .368 BABIP sustainable? In the long run, probably not! Even for a player of his profile, it’s still hard to sustain such a high BABIP. But as we have learned from Dan Szymborski, in-season results can be a lot stickier than season-to-season results, so it wouldn’t be a big surprise if Tapia kept this up for the rest of the season.

There are other options as well. Ian Desmond has been once again slowed by a calf injury, but he will likely be back at some point this month. There’s also Ryan McMahon. As Justin Vibber pointed out last week over at RotoGraphs, McMahon has basically been the minors’ best hitter this year. He posted a 150 wRC+ in Double-A and he currently has a 162 wRC+ in Triple-A. He’s certainly ready as a hitter. He is a third baseman by trade, but he’s never going to play that position in Colorado, and as such has spent time this season at first base, second base and designated hitter. Something tells me that flexibility will translate the outfield. If they don’t like any of those options, they could also trade for Jay Bruce or some other corner outfielder of good repute who comes on the market in the next two-three weeks.

There’s also nothing wrong with relying on multiple solutions. The Rockies are carrying 13 pitchers, as they have for most of the season. But as you can see on our handy pitcher usage tables, low man in the bullpen Zac Rosscup has thrown just 0.1 innings and just nine pitches in the past week. This is not a roster position that is being used wisely. The Rockies bullpen now lines up very well — two of Scott Oberg, Carlos Estevez, Antonio Senzatela and Chris Rusin for low-leverage/multiple-inning outings, Mike Dunn and Jake McGee for lefties, and Greg Holland, Pat Neshek and Adam Ottavino for high-leverage situations. Instead of carrying Rosscup or any other eighth reliever for those “just in case” situations that the team has fewer of now that they’re actually good, they’d be better served carrying another position player who can help compensate for Gonzalez’s shortcomings.

Expecting the Rockies to suddenly and permanently bench Carlos Gonzalez doesn’t jive with what we’ve seen from manager Bud Black and the organization throughout the season. Gonzalez has started each of the past six games, and 14 of the last 15. He’s not going to go to never playing again overnight. But it’s time for the Rockies to start cutting into his playing time. Whether it’s Raimel Tapia, Ian Desmond, Ryan McMahon or someone else (maybe David Dahl will have a miraculous recovery from his season-long injury woes), it’s clear that Gonzalez should not be an everyday starter for at least the remainder of this season, if not for the rest of his career.

We hoped you liked reading The Collapse of Carlos Gonzalez by Paul Swydan!

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Paul Swydan used to be the managing editor of The Hardball Times, a writer and editor for FanGraphs and a writer for Boston.com and The Boston Globe. Now, he owns The Silver Unicorn Bookstore, an independent bookstore in Acton, Mass. Follow him on Twitter @Swydan. Follow the store @SilUnicornActon.

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Sleepy
Member
Sleepy

During his eight-plus years with the Rockies, he has a 98 wRC+ away from Coors.

“Carlos Gonzalez” is Venezuelan for “Dante Bichette.”

sadtrombone
Member
sadtrombone

I would be curious to see Bichette’s home/road splits for park adjusted offensive stats. He had one really good year of hitting (wRC+ of 133) but mostly he was a league-average hitter. I’d guess that after park adjustments, he probably wasn’t that much different on the road than at home.

Cool Lester Smooth
Member
Cool Lester Smooth

During Bichette’s career, the average NL hitter put up a .259/.327/.399 line.

Bichette’s away line was .269/.306/.424, which comes out to a wOBA right around the .321 average NL wOBA for those years…which means that park factors were pretty spot-on!

sadtrombone
Member
sadtrombone

So basically, Bichette was about average on the road, and since his line was about average overall, he was about average at home. So unless I’m missing something (which I might, I’m tired) it sounds like CarGo and Bichette aren’t really comparable.