Adrian Gonzalez, BABIP, And The Coming Power Storm

Sometimes you buy something and it's exactly what you thought you were getting. Like, for example, this charming Red Sox garden gnome, supposing of course that you bought it. If you did, it would sit majestically outside in your front garden-type area until it was inevitably stolen and violated by drunken teenagers. So things can turn out well, but, other times, you buy something and it turns out completely differently than you thought it would. Take these two passenger seats from an MTA bus. Well, don't take them, because doing so would cost you $500, but as an example take them. So, now you bought your great new-to-you bus seats and upon arrival one sniff reminds you that you've just dropped five big ones on two giant fart sponges. Buyer beware indeed.

Another example of the second scenario which you'll be thankful to hear has nothing to do with farts, is Red Sox first baseman Adrian Gonzalez. Gonzalez had an odd first year in Boston. He was very productive and it's difficult to quarrel with his output, but the way in which he was productive wasn't particularly sustainable, a point which makes one wonder about the future of the Red Sox first baseman.

Before coming to Boston, Gonzalez had a career slash line of .284/.368/.507, but when you consider he accomplished the vast majority of that hitting in San Diego's Petco Park, a place where hitters egos go to die, you might think he was capable of more. Being traded to Boston was supposed to remove him from that hitter's graveyard and finally show the world the power of Adrian Gonzalez. Last season, his first in Boston, he hit .338/.410/.548. His batting average was up 54 points from his career average, his on-base percentage went up 42 points, and his slugging percentage jumped 41 points. So what is there to complain about?

Well, in a word, singles. Gonzalez hit more singles last year than he had in any previous season. The closest he got to last year's 138 before coming to Boston was 2010's 110. Singles are great, but the thing is you can hit lots of singles and your on-base and slugging percentage will both look great one year, but if they stop falling in the next year, everything falls apart. So was Gonzalez lucky or are all those singles evidence of a new skill?

When looking for the answer, Gonzalez's .380 BABIP last year jumps out at you and punches you in the face. There is a theory that says players have little to no control over their Batting Average on Balls In Play. The league average is around .300, so any given player's BABIP should be around .300. Higher and you're lucky, lower and you're unlucky. That, as we have come to know, is a bit simplistic. Some players do have the ability to post higher than normal BABIPs throughout their career.

There are different reasons why. For example, a player might hit more line drives, which fall in for hits at a higher percentage than do grounders or fly balls. That would boost their BABIP. Or maybe they are very fast and they can beat out ground balls most players would be thrown out on.

Gonzalez certainly isn't fast so we can throw that one out right now. But he has posted a high line drive rate over his career, so that could account for some of it. Still, Gonzalez's career BABIP before last season was .310 and he had never posted a BABIP above .340 in a single season. Further, Gonzalez's .380 BABIP was tied with Matt Kemp for the highest of any qualified player in baseball last season. It seems safe to say Gonzalez got lucky.

There is nothing wrong with luck, by the way. This is not a criticism of Gonzalez's 2011 season. That production happened, and the Red Sox were the beneficiaries of it. The question is, can he repeat that production again this season?

I believe the answer is yes.

Of course his BABIP is going to drop. A .380 BABIP over 700+ plate appearances is ridiculous, but there are reasons to believe that Gonzalez can make improvements elsewhere to off set a drop in BABIP. I believe last year Gonzalez turned himself into a more Wade Boggs-y type of hitter on purpose because of his shoulder. Anyone who has tried to hit a baseball before knows that if their shoulder isn't functioning properly the ball isn't going to go very far.

Is there any evidence to support that contention? First of all, despite his shoulder injury, Gonzalez managed to maintain his healthy above 20% line drive rate. What did jump was his ground ball rate, which went up 7% over his 2010 numbers, and that increase came at the expense of his fly ball rate. A higher percentage of ground balls go for hits than do fly balls, and that was certainly the case for Gonzalez last year. That jives with what Gonzalez told WEEI's Rob Bradford last September 23rd.

"My approach and my swing changed to more of a contact swing with my shoulder," he said. "That's been my swing more or less this year. The lower average, more power swing I had a couple of years back I haven't been able to find, but I still had the swing where I had the line drive up the middle the other way. I've hit it hard and low, which is what I've had, so that's what I've gone with and I've stuck with it."

So Gonzalez won't hit so many singles next year, but, if his shoulder isn't giving him problems, he'll make up for that by hitting for more extra base hits.

In his career spent mostly in San Diego, Gonzalez slugged .453. In his career on the road (i.e. away from Petco) he's slugged .569. That's power. I think Gonzalez is capable of putting up a non-BABIP assisted slugging percentage north of .550 in 2012. The batting average will almost surely drop, but that kind of power in the middle of the Red Sox lineup is the reason the Red Sox dealt three highly touted prospects for him and gave him that seven year $153 million extension. Last year the production was there, but it didn't arrive in the normal package. This year, the firework show is coming so grab some popcorn.

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