Carlos Gonzalez’s Improved Plate Discipline

It’s not often that a young player receives a seven-year deal for $80 million before he hits his arbitration years, but Carlos Gonzalez is receiving just that from the Colorado Rockies this week. In his first full big league season, he hit 34 home runs and 117 RBIs batting .336/.376/.598. Gonzalez has shown a brilliant combination of power and speed since his first pro season in A+ ball with the Diamondbacks in 2006, and has exceed expectations this past season. And much of that has to do with his improved plate discipline and performance against particular pitches as well as working the count better.

One of my favorite stats pages is the pitch type value tables, as it tells you not only whether a prolific hitter improved from one season to another, but against which pitch type. For Gonzalez, he has been hitting fastballs a lot better now since his move from the A’s to the Rockies, attaining a 1.67 wFB/C in 2010, which is fastball run value above average per 100 pitches (compared to a -1.66 wFB/C with the A’s in 2008). He has also dramatically improved his hitting against sliders and changeups, reaching a 1.01 wSL/C and 3.81 wCH/C.

Here’s a look at how Gonzalez has changed his swing behavior the past three seasons against the four main pitch types, fastballs, sliders, curveballs, and changeups:

For comparison’s sake, Gonzalez saw about 1353 fastballs, 369 sliders, 237 curveballs, and 272 changeups in 2010. According to his pitch type values, Gonzalez improved his hitting against fastballs, sliders, and changeups and some of that has come with being more aggressive with swinging at such pitches. Gonzalez was about average against curveballs in 2010, decreasing his swing percentage against such breaking balls.

Perhaps there is another reason besides slightly more aggressive swinging overall that allowed Gonzalez to hit very well across most pitch types in 2010. For instance, the opposing pitcher may have had to throw straight fastballs for strikes more often because of being behind in the count, great pitches for a power hitter to swing at. Here’s a look at how often Gonzalez found himself behind in the count vs. ahead in the count (percentage of all pitches seen):

Ahead in the count (more balls than strikes):
2008: 21.9%
2009: 24.4%
2010: 28.2%

Behind in the count (more strikes than balls):
2008: 29.6%
2009: 28.2%
2010: 27.6%

Two strikes:
2008: 26.1%
2009: 27.4%
2010: 24.9%

Though it’s a bit tougher to prove that getting ahead in the count was the major cause of Gonzalez’s improved hitting across the board, we can at least confirm that Gonzalez has found himself in more and more favorable situations in each of the past three seasons. For the first time, Gonzalez was ahead in the count more often than behind in the count in 2010 (almost equal at 28.2% vs. 27.6%).

Gonzalez’s strikeout rate improved slightly due to less two-strike situations, which also allowed him the opportunity to swing more often early in the count. At the tender age of 25, the hope is that Gonzalez continues to improve his count situations in order to take advantage of opposing pitchers. Like many free-swinging power hitters, Gonzalez drew less than 50 walks and struck out over 130 times last season. It’s critical for Gonzalez to continue adjusting to pitchers as they adjust to him, especially in a league with pitching rotations like that of the Giants and the Phillies. He’s shown the power in the bat and speed on the base paths to continue being one of the best offensive players in the National League, and progressive improvement in plate discipline will make him even more dangerous the next seven years.

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Albert Lyu (@thinkbluecrew, LinkedIn) is a graduate student at the Georgia Institute of Technology, but will always root for his beloved Northwestern Wildcats. Feel free to email him with any comments or suggestions.

28 Responses to “Carlos Gonzalez’s Improved Plate Discipline”

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  1. Norm says:

    Aren’t pitches flatter in Colorado? Wonder how those pitch value types look in home/road splits.

    He just seems like Alfonso Soriano that happened to have a BABIP in excess of 380. Which isn’t a bad thing, but I think he’s more the 280/330/500 type hitter.

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    • Danmay says:

      Over at Athletics Nation a member (elcroata) did a beautiful bit of research about this very topic. It’s not perfectly conclusive, but it seems to me that Carlos is a benifactor of pitch movement at Coors Field. I was shocked to see that fastballs appear to be the most affected by the air.

      (Sorry for no links, I still don’t know how to do that with Fangraphs. The post was called “Carlos Gonzalez, God on the Mountain” and it was written on 8/8/10.)

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    • discogerbil says:

      Curve balls need thicker air to get the most out of their spin and break downwards, so you could assume that sinkers have the same issues, however, sliders aren’t as much of a problem.

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  2. qudjy1 says:

    Its hard to think about a guy with improved plate discipline having a 6% BB rate, and a O-Swing% that went from 30.6 to 37% (2009 to 2010). I think he is a very good player that got very lucky…

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    • AustinRHL says:

      I similarly did a double-take when I saw the title of the post. The data about how often he’s ahead and behind in the count, and how he’s steadily improved, looks a heck of a lot to me like a straight-up function of Zone%, which has gone from 51.9% to 47.4% to 45.0% over the last three years as his O-Swing% has ballooned and his Z-Swing% also increased. That’s the EXACT OPPOSITE of improved plate discipline – pitchers have simply been throwing him fewer strikes as his O-Contact% and power have increased.

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      • qudjy1 says:

        I agree with you – and you said it better. I would expect pitchers to throw him even less strikes if he continues to walk at a 6% rate, and that BABIP will come crashing down.

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  3. CircleChange11 says:

    As a pitching coach, here’s what I notice …

    [1] He seems to swing a lot, regardless.
    [2] He is increasingly swinging at changeups. My experience is that hitters are not “looking for changups”, and when they do swing at them, it’s because they think thay are something else.

    I’m not talking about the hanging change that drifts down the middle of the plate and looks like a beach ball.

    I would be interested to see what his results are on changeups, namely the percentage of pulled ground balls, and the BA on those.

    Increasingly swinging at changeups is not likely a good batting strategy. But, I’ll hold off any more conclusions until I know more.

    His swing % is up across the board, including contact % on 0-zone pitches (that’s not good).

    I like me some CarGo, but what I see in the swing % is “hacking”, and I think the comparison’s to Soriano are probably closer than what i prefer them to be.

    Going forward, the difference between 6 WAR and 3 WAR seasons for CarGo could be simply BABIP, some of it luck, some of it batter influenced, but not much of it predictable from one season to the next.

    Having a .380 BABIP season and getting a lot of attention for it, may be the exact wrong thing to happen to a player of his type. He may very well be thinking that the more he swings/hacks, the better he does, not understand the fluctuations in BABIP.

    Still even if he is hacktastic, his BABIP through MiLB and MLB has been .330+ … which is likely going to produce a 4 WAR seasons (all other things remaining stable).

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    • blackout says:

      “[1] He seems to swing a lot, regardless.”

      I got to see him at the end of the year when the Reds played the Rox, and I saw a lot of bad swings as well, within ABs. He ultimately won the battle more often than not as he crushed mistakes and hit pitches he had no business swinging at, but I didn’t see much in the way of anecdotal discipline. I wouldn’t be surprised if the Soriano remarks are coming from people who’ve actually seen him hit, because there are some similarities there.

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  4. discogerbil says:

    His wCH (runs above avg vs changeups) was 9.3, but he also showed HUGE improvements vs cutters and sliders

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  5. DonCoburleone says:

    Not a bad argument for CarGo maybe maintaining this level of production going forward, but personally I echo what alot of people on this message board are saying.. Very good hitter, very good fielder and a very good baserunner who had a lucky year in 2010 on balls in play. Going forward I see something like a .300/.350/.530 type player which again is VERY good especially combined with solid defense and good baserunning. But I don’t see a guy who is going to be in the top 5 of MVP voting year in and year out…

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    • DonCoburleone says:

      Or since this is Fangraphs, going forward I don’t see him being a 6 WAR player year in and year out. I’d say he hit his peak last year and over the next 7 seasons he’ll be somewhere between 3.5 and 6 WAR a year.. And given that the contract Colorado gave him is indeed a good one.

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  6. dcs says:

    Looking at his ‘plate discipline’ data on this site, and his ‘pitches’ batting data on B-Ref, I don’t get any sense that his ‘plate discipline’ has changed at all. It has been, and is still, below avg. Maybe it looks that way because the pitchers may be throwing him more OOZ pitches (Z%).

    The author of this piece should have taken the time to defines what he means by using the term ‘plate discipline’ in the title…

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  7. Wally says:

    I’m pretty pessimistic on CarGo.

    How many power hitters can actually maintain 60% O-contact rates while combining that with such terrible walk rates and high swing percentages? Doesn’t seem like many to me, but I’ve never seen anything one way or another. Its a lot of speculation, but it seems like a rare skill, thus that probably means its a very difficult thing to maintain.

    I know guys like Vlad and Soriano have proven it is possible to maintain it, but with only a couple years of data, seems risky position to bet on CarGo coming even particularly close to maintaining his 2010 levels.

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  8. will says:

    can you do a spit about dexter fowler?

    i did my remedial research but im curious as to what you all think with the advanced metrics going into 2011

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  9. puffy says:

    I guess we’re still pretending we don’t notice his ridiculous home/road splits. I’ll play along. Cargo is awesome.

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    • BlackOps says:

      Josh Hamilton’s were similar in 2010. Very, very similar.

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      • opisgod says:

        Except Hamilton wasn’t barely scraping by as a league average hitter outside his home ballpark.

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      • qudjy1 says:

        Hamilton is probably due for regression as well… Home Splits or not – 390 BABIP for a 20% LD rate is pretty lucky.

        Either way – buying high during a year like this doesnt make a lot of sense to me – and thats exactly what COL did, when they didnt have to.

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      • Mr wOBAto says:

        So if a guy is the second coming of Willie Mays 81 games a year and Alex Rios 81 games a year why is buying out his Arbitration for 1/6/9 then giving giving him 18 mil for three years such an awful idea.

        Matt Holliday is the only power hitter to leave Denver in his prime his Age 24 Season was pretty similar to Cargo’s
        Home .338/.406/.603 1.009
        Road .240/.287/.367 .654
        Troy Tulowitzki age 22 his first full year in Coors
        Home .326/.392/.568 .960
        Away .256/.327/.393 .719
        Todd Helton Age 24
        Home .354/.417/.585 1.002
        Away .273/.340/.470 .811
        even Larry Walker had an issue and he was a mature hitter age 28
        1994 Expos
        Home .331/.401/.604 1.005
        Away .314/.388/.575 .964
        1995 Rockies
        Home .343/.401/.730 1.131
        Away .268/.361..484 .845

        It seems a little early to condemn the Rockies as it seems they have been down this road before, and have reason to believe they know where it goes

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      • Danmay says:

        @Mr wOBAto

        The difference between Carlos Gonzalez and all of the other players you listed is that Carlos has terrible plate discipline/pitch recognition and I beleive that he is benefitting from the reduced movement on pitches more in Coors than the other players you listed. I certainly am not sure of this, but the research that I linked at the top of the comments leads me to believe that it may be true. Then again, I’m an A’s fan, and it’s paining me to see him play so well.

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      • Mr wOBAto says:

        While he does have his issues I really don’t think it as bad as you think. He will likely never have the plate discipline of say Todd Helton he doesn’t really need to in order to be a dominant OF. His slash line last year fits right into that group watch over the next few seasons as he learns to adjust. Cargo reminds me most similarly to Carlos Beltran who didn’t post a 10% BB% until his third full season, he may never be that good but how many are?
        Carlos Gonzalez Age 24
        Home .380/.425/.737 1.161
        Away .289/.322/.453 .775

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  10. WMHGANG says:

    CarGo’s plate discipline needs work no doubt. And he’ll probably lose 30 points off his BABIP next season, but the erosion of his BB% from 8.8 in his partial 2009 season to 6.3 in 2010, was largely due to his approach according to where he hit in the batting order.

    193 Abs in lead off position: 6 Walks and 47 K. 3.1 BB%, 24.4 K%

    390 AB’s all other spots in lineup: 34 BB and 87K. 8.5 BB%, 22.3 K%

    Early in the season Cargo was pressing while hitting lead off and pressing on the road, which isn’t that uncommon for a young player. But he settled as the year went on, which is indicated in his monthly walk numbers.

    For those of you who haven’t watched him extensively, he might be the most physically gifted player in the game and it’s readily apparent as soon as you see him play. Watch this kid everyday and you’ll see why the Rockies are giving him that contract with such little major league time. He’s fully capable of putting up overall numbers superior to last season, though he probably won’t be hitting .330 anytime soon.

    If he can make substantial improvements in his plate discipline in a few years he can wrest the title away from Pujols as the premiere player in the game.

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  11. Dan says:

    I don’t get it! Do the sabermetrics paint a positive or negative outlook for CarGo? So many conflicting statistics!

    Really a unique, but puzzling player. He was my breakout steal last year in the 10th round of my draft, but this year I don’t think there’s any way I touch him in the top 10 overall.

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    • Mr wOBAto says:

      I would consider him too much of a risk in the top 10 I would look to grab Dexter Fowler or Ian Stewart late if you get a chance

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