Earlier today we talked a bit about the bottom portion of the lineup and how the Red Sox could be well-served to bring up another bat and go to a more traditional four-man bench. I do certainly believe that can be a real solution to the problem the Red Sox have with not really having a full lineup right now. But if we’re being honest, the real solution to this issue, or at least the easiest one, is simply having the player perform to their talent level on a more consistent basis. Among the players that needs to step up their game is Marwin Gonzalez.
Now, we should be fair here and acknowledge that even with the relative lack of offense Gonzalez has been able to provide value. When he signed, the big selling point here was that he could play all over the place, and he’s done just that. As of this writing on Monday morning, the only positions he has not played are center field, catcher, and pitcher. And it’s not just that he has played all over the place, but he’s played well. The defensive metrics don’t all necessarily agree with my assessment, but based on my own eye test he’s been better at all of these positions than I expected. Being able to do that, especially with their current three-man bench, is no small thing.
But we’re not here to talk about the defense. Instead, it’s his production at the plate (or lack thereof) that is more concerning than the defense is exciting. Gonzalez just hasn’t been able to provide a whole lot at the plate this year, hitting just .189/.315/.284 for a 77 wRC+. In other words, he has been 23 percent worse than the league-average hitter. There are some good things in there, specifically with his impressive 11 percent walk rate. It’s also worth noting his .232 batting average on balls in play pretty much has to come up at some point, so there are reasons to believe he should and will be better than this.
On the other hand, the utter lack of power to this point in the year has been disappointing. Through 23 games and 89 plate appearances, he has just one home run under his belt and only four doubles to throw on top of that. All told, he has an .095 Isolated Power (SLG - AVG), a number that is higher than that of only 26 players in baseball among the 182 with at least 80 plate appearances this year. In this era of baseball where pitchers’ stuff is just so good that home runs are taking priority at the plate for quick offense, the lack of power being shown by someone like Gonzalez is concerning.
Of course, this also isn’t totally coming out of nowhere. Gonzalez has never really been a huge power hitter outside of his breakout 2017 (and the requisite skepticism given what happened with the Astros that year), and last year in particular was a rough trend in the wrong direction. He finished 2020 with a .109 ISO, again one of the lower marks in the league. Prior to that, he’d been sitting in the .150-.160 range most seasons. Last season’s downturn was different from this season’s, however. In 2020, it was that Gonzalez was just not making hard contact, with his hard-hit rate (per FanGraphs) coming in at a dismal 26 percent.
This year, he’s still not exactly crushing the ball but he’s certainly hitting the ball with more authority than he did in 2020. Again according to FanGraphs, his hard-hit rate is up to 35 percent. Again, that’s not some sort of world-beating mark but it is up nine percentage points from last year. Despite the increase, his Isolated Power is down 14 points. Certainly some of that is small sample size noise and the new baseball and all of that. But beyond all of that, the biggest concern with Gonzalez is that he is hitting everything into the ground.
Right now, Gonzalez is sitting with a 58 percent ground ball rate, per Baseball Savant. For a little additional context, that is a whopping 17 percentage point increase from last season, a 12 percentage point increase from his career average, and a 13 percentage point increase from the league-average mark. In today’s age of launch angle — which, again, is at least partially a response to the utter dominance of pitching in the modern era — and shifting, these ground balls are not going to work. It’s not the only reason why Gonzalez’s overall numbers are down, but it’s certainly part of the equation.
So the question becomes how does he bounce out of it and what has been the biggest issue here. Although the actual answer is something close to “He’s hitting everything on the ground, end of point,” there are a few more specifics to keep in mind. For one thing, he’s hitting an awful lot of non-fastballs into the ground. Against both breaking balls and offspeed pitches (again per Baseball Savant) his average launch angle is five degrees or lower. There are issues with average launch angle — balls on either extreme can skew that number, particularly in small samples like this — but it shows a guy who is struggling to launch the ball.
I’d also like to point to some of the areas in the zone where Gonzalez is having some issues getting the ball up in the air. Again, sample size issues exist here, but below you can see the average launch angles for different areas of the zone, comparing 2021 with 2020. These charts are from Baseball Savant.
To me, the most striking part of this image is right down the middle of the zone looking at horizontal thirds. Pitches that come in belt-high are supposed to be punished and driven into the outfield for extra bases. That hasn’t been the case early on this year, as he is rolling these pitches over and letting pitchers get away from their mistakes.
If we want to expand a little bit further, another part of the issue here may be that Gonzalez just isn’t being aggressive enough. By Baseball Savant’s measures, his swing rate has been the lowest it’s ever been over his career, and the biggest drop has been on pitches in the zone. His current swing rate on pitches in the zone is 57.5 percent, and he’s never finished a season with that rate sitting below 60 percent. The effect of letting strikes go by is that you fall behind, and then have to come with a more defensive swing. Theoretically, that could in turn result in some of these ground balls on pitches that should be hitter’s pitches.
At the end of the day, the Red Sox don’t need Gonzalez to be a world-beater at the plate, or even an All-Star. What they need is a guy who can provide something resembling league-average offense, and preferably with a reasonable amount of pop. His typical ISO range around .160 would probably be enough to do some damage with the core of the lineup hopefully on base in front of him. But he’s not really all that close to this mark right now, and if he’s going to get there the first step has to be figuring out a way to drive the ball in the air with authority a bit more.