Last Thursday, the Boston Red Sox rallied back from a 3-0 deficit against the Minnesota Twins to tie things up in the eighth inning on a three-run double from Alex Verdugo. Although Verdugo’s at bat got the bulk of the attention (despite the Red Sox eventually losing), I’d like to look at the batter before Verdugo in that inning.
That would be Marwin Gonzalez, who entered the game as a pinch hitter for Enrique Hernández. Gonzalez faced Hansel Robles with two outs and the air quickly escaping from his team’s rally. It was not an ideal situation considering how much Gonzalez had struggled with the bat through the first few weeks of the season. However, he worked a walk, setting up Verdugo for the clutch knock minutes later.
Gonzalez has spent the bulk of his career in such a supporting role. Thanks to his ability to play all over the field, he’s been a Ben Zobrist-like player since he made his MLB debut for the Houston Astros in 2012. Although he hasn’t reached the heights of Zobrist, who made three All-Star teams, Gonzalez has had plenty of high points of his own, particularly his 2017 season when he produced a wRC+ of 144 and hit 23 home runs. Even if that campaign falls under a bit of suspicion given the Astros’ sign stealing saga, Gonzalez produced seasons with a wRC+ of more than 100 three other times. Unfortunately, those days seems to be receding into the rearview mirror.
After his final season in Houston in 2018 (104 wRC+), Gonzalez inked a deal with the Minnesota Twins before the the 2019 campaign, but he fell below league average as a hitter that year, although not by all that much (93 wRC+). The bottom really fell out in 2020 when he posted a 66 wRC+, meaning he was 34 percent below league average as a hitter. As his offensive performance got worse, his hard hit rate fell as well, as he posted a 44 percent hard hit rate in 2019 only to watch it fall to a 38.4 percent level in 2020, according to Baseball Savant.
If we use FanGraphs’ estimation, things look even worse (41.2 percent in 2019 to 26.1 percent in 2020). To be fair, some of those lower numbers are more in line with Gonzalez’s career average, but the slip in hard contact is still there. Despite Gonzalez’s struggles, the Red Sox took a chance on him this past offseason, hoping he could bounce back and help them fill some of the gaps on the roster.
Gonzalez has done just that, appearing at first base, second base, third base, shortstop and left field already this season. Along the way, his offense has steadily improved and is now hovering around league average (96 wRC+) despite a still middling hard hit rate (36.1 percent according to Baseball Savant and 33.3 percent according to FanGraphs). Using Baseball Savant’s number, Gonzalez is in the 31th percentile in hard hit rate and the 33rd percentile in average exit velocity this season. Such so-so performance has taken its toll on two-thirds of Gonzalez’s slash line, as he is batting just .209 and slugging just .279.
Despite those marks, Gonzalez has not been an entire loss for the Red Sox. While FanGraphs has him at -0.1 wins above replacement, Baseball Reference has him at 0.2. Those are pretty minor differences and really just paint a picture of an average player at this point in the season, but as he showed in that at-bat last Thursday, Gonzalez has some magic left on offense and it is built entirely on his plate discipline.
Even while two parts of Gonzalez’s OPS are in woeful territory, he has excelled when it comes to getting on base, producing an OBP of .356. He has boosted that number to such solid heights despite his low batting average because of how often he is taking a free pass to first base. Gonzalez currently has a walk rate of 13.6 percent, which places him in the 80th percentile in MLB, according to Baseball Savant.
He’s getting some help from the pitchers he is facing, with a career-low 39.4 percent of pitches landing in the zone against him, according to FanGraphs. But Gonzalez deserves props for laying off of the non-strike offerings he’s getting, as evidenced by another career low for the Red Sox utility player, who has swung at only 27 percent of pitches outside the zone. He’s also swinging less often overall, allowing pitchers to miss the plate and help him out rather than swinging through offerings with an aggressive approach.
In addition to his patience at the plate, Gonzalez has been solid enough in the field. He may have negative defensive value, according to FanGraphs, but he’s only committed one error in 14 games played while switching positions all the time. I mean, could a bad fielder make this play?
Marwin Gonzalez can play some D— Boston Strong (@BostonStrong_34) April 19, 2021
Maybe they could and one highlight reel play doesn’t make Gonzalez a Gold Glove candidate, but being able to make a sliding play like that in the middle infield one day and play the outfield the next without too much of a noticeable drop in performance isn’t something to ignore.
Gonzalez still has to start hitting better to be more than a utility player for the Red Sox and there are some signs that he’s getting there, especially as he hit his first home run over the weekend and has a 137 wRC+ in his last 20 plate appearances. It’s highly unlikely he’ll produce at that level for long stretches during this season, but thanks to his patience at the plate, he doesn’t really have to do so.