The Return of a Different Adrian Gonzalez

I find that writing goes in phases, and they can be unpredictable. I don’t know when it’s going to be a good writing week. I don’t know when it’s going to be a bad writing week. And I don’t know what I’m next going to find interesting. For example, I feel like I spent a good year or two zoning in on pitch-framing, which I thought was just the coolest thing. And my current fascination appears to be player adjustments. That’s good, because players are always adjusting, and it’s bad, because adjustments can be complicated. But I feel like there should be more attention paid to what’s going on underneath, even when the surface numbers seem stable. What’s driving a player’s success or failure? What’s driving his stability?

Adjustment analysis comes in different flavors. Some are more convincing than others. Some are more subtle than others. There are PITCHf/x adjustment analyses. There are mechanical adjustment analyses. And there are just plain ordinary statistical adjustment analyses. Many times, people will argue it’s just an observation of sample-size noise. Definitely, some of the time, that’s true. Other times, the adjustments are real, even if fleeting. And sometimes they’re so significant they just about slap you in the head. You want a story of a player who made an adjustment and kept himself around the top of his game? Embrace the case of Adrian Gonzalez, who is what he was, yet at the same time very much isn’t.

I know this isn’t the first time this has been written about. I know that because I wrote about it a couple years ago. I know it because the adjustment goes back a ways, and it’s been discussed in several blogs and newspapers. Gonzalez has spoken openly about it. It has to do in some part with aging, and in some part with shoulder surgery. Gonzalez was honest with himself, not stubborn, and he needed to find a way to remain successful.

Some of you might not remember this, but when Gonzalez was in his traditional prime, he was one of the game’s most productive hitters to the opposite field. That approach allowed him to be an MVP-candidate hitter as a lefty in Petco Park, and then Gonzalez’s same left-field skill made him out to look like a good bet in Boston. It’s not that Gonzalez couldn’t pull the ball; it’s that he preferred to stay back, to drive the ball the other way because he knew that he could. Many of the best hitters are able to punish the ball to all fields.

Yet Gonzalez required surgery on his shoulder. For that reason, and possibly others, he found that he was missing a little strength. Some balls that used to go out to left- and left-center were dying in front of the wall, and Gonzalez wasn’t sure if the strength would come back. So he had a choice: keep trying to hit the same way, or change it up. The following plot of Gonzalez’s career captures when the approach changed, and what’s happened as a consequence.

Included, you see overall wRC+, opposite-field wRC+, and combined pull/center wRC+.

gonzalez-wrc+

After 2012, the productivity to the opposite field dropped off a cliff. Maybe that doesn’t resemble an actual cliff, but it would at least qualify as a technical climb. Meanwhile, Gonzalez has become more productive in other directions, and if you follow the bold red line, you see that Gonzalez is approaching an overall 150 wRC+ on the season. His actual mark at this writing is 141, which puts him just above Jose Bautista. This would be about tied for Gonzalez’s third-best wRC+ ever. Though he’s older, and different, he’s having a season that would fit right into his peak.

To put it differently, between 2002 – 2012, Gonzalez ranked fourth out of 575 in wRC+ to the opposite field. His combined mark over that span was 216. Over the past three years, Gonzalez comes in at 90, ranking 123rd out of 186. Obviously, that’s a huge drop-off. Yet, overall, pre-2013, Gonzalez had a wRC+ of 133. In the years since, he’s at 130, which is essentially the same, and this year has been better than the previous two.

There are subtle adjustments, and there are massive adjustments, and this is a big one, even though observing it on the fly would be tricky. Unless you’re particularly skilled, you wouldn’t be able to see that Gonzalez has changed the way he bats, but his tweak has completely altered his profile. When he was still productive the other way, Gonzalez had an average opposite-field wRC+ that was 71 points higher than his combined pull/center wRC+. The last three years, Gonzalez has an average opposite-field wRC+ that’s 95 points lower than his combined pull/center wRC+.

This isn’t a sample-size thing. This isn’t statistical volatility. Gonzalez found he couldn’t drive the ball as well the other way, so he shifted his focus toward hitting for power to right-center. There, he can still hit the ball out, with fewer lazy flies in front of the track. As a side effect, now Gonzalez has different weaknesses from before, but he’s compensated with different strengths, and obviously, the stable wRC+ suggests pitching to him hasn’t gotten easy. Gonzalez isn’t terrible to left. He can still hit the occasional vintage home run. He just knows where his current strengths are. By adapting, he’s kept his bat borderline-elite, longer than some people figured.

For the sake of having some images, here’s Gonzalez from 2011:

gonzalez-2011

And, from this year:

gonzalez-2015

You see more lean in the second picture. Though I think the angles are slightly different, up top Gonzalez looks more straight. In truth, though, I don’t think this is so much a mechanical thing as it is a planning thing. Gonzalez’s swings are similar. It’s just that, now, he’s swinging while thinking about right-center, instead of left. That means he has to hit the ball in a different place, but he’s clearly skilled enough to do it.

This is an effect of diminished strength. That’s not a positive. Some people might suggest hitters on the decline get pull-happy because they know they’re almost toast. Because it’s the last place they can hit the ball hard. Gonzalez knows he isn’t as skilled as he used to be, but you can’t get too negative when he’s hitting the ball as well as he is. Of course he’s closer to retirement than he was in his 20s. But how much closer would he be had he never had the willingness to adjust? Adrian Gonzalez changed his approach and kept himself terrific. That’s as much a sign of excellence as anything.

We hoped you liked reading The Return of a Different Adrian Gonzalez by Jeff Sullivan!

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Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.

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We should all be so lucky as to lose our strength like that.

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“It doesn’t HAVE to be that way…”

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