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One Big Question: Was Marwin Gonzalez’s weak contact in 2020 a fluke?

A bounce back at the plate would be a big addition for the Red Sox.

Minnesota Twins v Chicago Cubs Photo by Nuccio DiNuzzo/Getty Images

Welcome to the annual Over The Monster One Big Question season preview series. Over the next 40(ish) days, we will be running through every player on the 40-man roster and identifying a key question for them pertaining to the coming season. This should run us up to the start of the season, at least as it is scheduled now. We will go through the roster in alphabetical order. For the most part, these will run Monday through Friday every week running up to the week before Opening Day, though expect some weekend posts mixed in as well as the 40-man is expected to continue to be altered before the start of the season. You can catch up with every post by following this link. Today we take a look at Marwin Gonzalez.

The Question: Can Marwin Gonzalez get his hard contact back?

As of this writing here on Monday morning, the Marwin Gonzalez signing has been reported and known about for a couple of weeks but has yet to be made official. There is, however, no reason to think it won’t actually get done, so we’re fine putting out his season preview before it’s official.

And the Gonzalez addition does figure to be an important one for this team that has been preaching versatility all winter. With Gonzalez as well as Enrique Hernández added this offseason, Boston looks much more able and likely to roll with a three-man bench, which in turn gives them some extra room on the roster for a 14-man pitching staff. Nominally, Gonzalez figures to be a bench player, but just like Brock Holt in his heyday with the club, Gonzalez will play more than your typical bench player.

If we’re being honest, the most interesting question for Gonzalez this season is how much and where he will play. I don’t really have a good answer for that because I’m not sure the team has an exact plan of how they would like to run things. That said, my opinion is that the best version of this team includes Gonzalez playing second base with Hernández in center field. How often that will actually happen, though, remains to be seen.

That said, even for all of the talk about versatility, it doesn’t really matter much if Gonzalez isn’t hitting, which was the case last season. It was a brutal 2020 for the former Twin and Astro, as he finished the year with 199 plate appearances and a 66 wRC+, meaning he was 34 percent worse than the league-average hitter. If he repeats that, it doesn’t matter how many positions he plays because he won’t be worthy of getting more than a handful of plate appearances here and there. However, prior to that he was roughly a league-average bat, with a 93 wRC+ in 2019 and a 104 mark in 2018. He was also a star-level hitter in 2017, but that was both four years ago and also the year in which the Astros sign-stealing scheme was in full swing.

The Red Sox won’t be looking for that star-level hitter — they’ll take it, but it would be shocking — but a league-average bat who can play all over the place is extremely valuable, and that’s what Boston is hoping for. And if you’re looking for reasons to toss 2020 to the side, you’re in luck. As we and everyone else have talked about all winter, 2020 was such an anomaly it’s hard to know what to do with the numbers. Between the relatively tiny sample sizes along with the human aspects of playing in front of no fans in the midst of a once-in-a-century pandemic, it was simply not a normal season.

But if you want to nail it down a bit more specifically for Gonzalez, it’s pretty clear that we should be looking at how well he’s hitting the baseball above all else. In terms of his plate discipline, he didn’t really look any different in that down 2020 campaign. The utility man walked actually a bit more than usual and struck out right at his career norms. He did swing a bit less than he did in 2019, but compared to the rest of his career it was more or less in line.

Instead, it came down to what he did when he made contact with the baseball. It stands out immediately when you look at his line, as Gonzalez produced a batting average on balls in play of just .241, compared to a career of .306, and a .109 Isolated Power, about 50 points lower than what he’d put up in recent seasons. Again, there are sample size issues abound here and some noise certainly plays into those numbers, specifically the BABIP, but he also just struggled to hit the ball with authority.

To that end, according to Statcast data from Baseball Savant, Gonzalez was in the top 30 percent of baseball in terms of how often he hit the ball hard (defined by at least 95 mph) in both 2018 and 2019. Last season, however, he fell in the bottom half of the league. Similarly, he barreled up the ball at a lower rate than he had dating back to 2016. And looking at the numbers against individual pitch types, there is a bit of a dip everywhere, but they are more slight against fastballs and offspeed pitches. It is really breaking balls against which Gonzalez saw the steepest decline compared to 2019, falling from 91 mph to 86 this past summer.

And if we look at this from another angle and look at where in the zone his quality of contact dipped the most, that point is supported. You can see that zone plot below, with 2019 being compared to 2020.

2019; via Baseball Savant
2020; via Baseball Savant

As you can see there, the bottom of the zone is stark in terms of difference, with about a 10 mph drop on both bottom corners. It’s worth the reminder here that Gonzalez is a switch hitter, so both of those corners are down and in depending on which side he is hitting from, and of course breaking pitches often end up down and in when the batter has the platoon advantage. In 2019, he was able to go down and get those and put good wood on them. That was not the case last year, and it hurt the overall output.

Gonzalez doesn’t need to be the best hitter in the Red Sox lineup, or really anything close. Boston, for all of its faults, still has a strong core in the top half of the lineup. What they need below is solid production and avoiding black holes rather than more elite production. That’s exactly what Gonzalez had been for most of his career prior to last summer, where again the small sample size and other factors certainly played a role. But if you’re looking for a sign that we can put those 2020 numbers to bed and expect Gonzalez to be a league-average contributor, look to see how his swing and quality of contact looks against those breaking balls down in the zone.