The Adrian Gonzalez that Isn’t Anymore

The Dodgers are still alive in large part thanks to Adrian Gonzalez, and for Gonzalez, it’s been a series somewhat defined by the inside pitch. The crucial double he hit off Adam Wainwright — the double that would eventually lead to the manufactured, insufferable Mickey Mouse racket — was hit against an inside cutter off the plate, by the hands. In Wednesday’s Game 5, Gonzalez yanked a pair of solo home runs, the first giving the Dodgers a lead. In the bottom of the third, Gonzalez pulled an inside Joe Kelly fastball for his longest home run since 2009. In the bottom of the eighth, Gonzalez again went deep, getting in front of a high, inside John Axford curve. With Andre Ethier hurt, Matt Kemp genuinely out, and Hanley Ramirez effectively out, Gonzalez is feeling more pressure to deliver than usual, and he’s been a big part of what success the Dodgers have had.

The Dodgers, of course, expect Gonzalez to be a rock in the middle of their lineup, which is one of the big reasons they made that insane trade in the first place. And Gonzalez has the track record of being an underrated offensive superstar, and he’s still just 31 years old. He’s coming off a 124 wRC+, which isn’t fantastic, but which is good, and which is an improvement from the year before. But while Gonzalez can still hit and while he can still make a difference in a critical series, it’s interesting to observe how things have changed in the process. What Adrian Gonzalez was, he appears to no longer be.

My prime baseball-watching years in San Diego overlapped with Gonzalez’s turning into a star. He got good in 2006, he got great in 2009, and eventually he was part of a blockbuster deal across the country. What made Gonzalez stand out wasn’t unique to him, but it was always impressive how he managed to drive the ball to the opposite field. Gonzalez was a left-handed hitter who hit the ball out to left and left-center, and the numbers bear out how outstanding he was.

Between 2008-2010, Gonzalez slugged 48 dingers to the opposite field, and his isolated slugging percentage was .466, sandwiched between Ryan Howard and Joey Votto in second place. Granted, it wasn’t the easiest thing in Petco Park to hit a homer to right, but the other side wasn’t exactly a launching pad, so Gonzalez did what few could do. He started getting walked, more and more often, because he was the guy to fear in the Padres’ lineup, and he had power to all fields. As a hitter, Gonzalez was complete.

Then, between 2010 and 2011, Gonzalez had fairly significant shoulder surgery. Whenever a player gets a shoulder operated on, people speculate on how it’s going to affect the on-field performance. With Gonzalez, we don’t have to speculate anymore — we have a record of three years of on-field performance since. Gonzalez has changed, no longer in possession of what was his most distinguishing feature.

Between 2011 and 2013, Gonzalez still ranks ninth in baseball in isolated slugging the other way. But it’s gone down exactly 200 points, and he’s gone from hitting 48 dingers to left and left-center to hitting 18. He hit ten three years ago, he hit six two years ago, and he hit just two this most recent year. He’s also gone from hitting 22 homers to center to 11. To right field, however, he’s gone from 37 to 38 over consecutive three-year periods. The pull power is still there for Adrian Gonzalez. The rest of the power is not. Over those last three years in San Diego, 12% of balls hit the other way left the yard. Gonzalez has come in at 4% since.

What do we have? Howard Megdal caught up with Gonzalez just the other day:

“There’s some things that I was able to do when I had a healthy shoulder that I can’t do now,” Gonzalez told me on the field prior to Tuesday’s NLCS Game 4 against the Cardinals. “I mean, my shoulder is healthy, but I’m talking about before surgery.”
[…]
“As far as driving the ball to leftfield, letting it get deep, whenever I do that now, it gets caught at the warning track,” Gonzalez said. “So something’s gotta switch. Now, I’ve got to go to a more up-the-middle approach.”

These spray charts from Brooks Baseball are helpful. On the left, 2008-2010 Adrian Gonzalez; on the right, 2011-2013 Adrian Gonzalez. We’re most concerned with balls hit to left and left-center, and we should of course note that Gonzalez spent a lot of recent time hitting in front of the Green Monster.

gonzalez0813spray

If you’d like to eliminate the Green Monster variable, here’s 2009 Gonzalez and 2013 Gonzalez.

gonzalez0913

The balls hit to left and left-center are just shorter. Gonzalez understands what’s going on — he just doesn’t have his old strength the other way. Maybe it’s because of the surgery. Maybe it’s just aging, and the surgery isn’t it at all. It’s probably the surgery. But while Gonzalez is strong and healthy enough to play and produce, he can’t do what he used to. And now, especially since he’s out of Boston, he’s having to change, to deal with the changes.

In 2010, Gonzalez pulled 35% of his balls in play, and he hit 29% to the opposite field. These rates stayed more or less the same the next two years, because there was a big forgiving wall in Fenway that allowed even shorter drives to do damage. Maybe at that point it was more difficult for Gonzalez to notice his reduced power. His first full year in Los Angeles, though, he pulled 42% of his balls in play, and hit 24% to the opposite field. Gonzalez knows where his power is now, for the most part, and we can look at the pitches he’s hit out. This is a chart of Gonzalez’s 2008-2013 home runs, split up before and after the surgery.

gonzalezdingers0813

Maybe some things aren’t immediately apparent. Of the 37 most outside pitches Gonzalez has hit out, just nine have been hit since 2011. Of the 41 most inside pitches Gonzalez has hit out, 26 have been hit since 2011. Gonzalez is less able to drive those pitches over the outer half, at least in terms of getting them over a fence, so he’s adjusted by turning on more baseballs, doing a better job of pulling his hands close and maiming pitches in. We saw him drill an undrillable pitch when he hit the double off Wainwright. The two homers Wednesday were inside, and Gonzalez hit one of them 450 feet. Gonzalez is in the process of figuring out how much he can do with his new body. It’s said that CC Sabathia is going to have to figure out how to pitch with less of a fastball. Gonzalez is working on how to hit with less strength in his shoulder, and it seems the solution is to focus more on going to right and right-center.

It’s not the approach that allowed Gonzalez to become a star, but there’s no benefit to his being stubborn and still trying to be the same player. That player can’t exist anymore, if the shoulder is indeed weaker than it was. So the Adrian Gonzalez who can hit now looks meaningfully different from the Adrian Gonzalez of the later Padres days. By stance, he’s the same, and by swing, he’s similar. Watch him for just a few minutes and you might not pick up on the changes, because they’re overall pretty subtle. But Gonzalez is trying to maximize the strength he has left. To a cynic, maybe this means the beginning of the end, but try telling that to the Cardinals.




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Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.


17 Responses to “The Adrian Gonzalez that Isn’t Anymore”

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  1. Richie says:

    Very interesting stuff. Thank you.

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  2. jj says:

    wasnt there just an article on Wacha not pitching inside ever? hopefully he continues that trend tomorrow night and keeps this Mickey Mouse lover in left field.

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    • AK7007 says:

      Well, fandom aside – the guy can’t go deep on the pitches Wacha throws. He can still punch line drives to left, but in his mind, that’s probably “not doing his job.” Wacha is probably the best option vs. Gonzalez, but he’s not the only guy in the lineup. Just remember that these teams are unreal in terms of how even they are matched, and coin flips are really what determines who goes forward.

      Despite the hatred I have for the Dodgers (Giants fan, but fuck the Cards too, I wish they both could lose), I hope for the sake of reading Jeff’s “baseball!” chat quote that Gonzalez goes yard off Wacha for the entertainment value.

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  3. Table says:

    I wonder how much of this was anticipated by Dodger management prior to the trade.

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  4. Emmett Noah Rosenbaum says:

    Very cool article. Glad to see he adjusted his approach instead of becoming a complete shell of his former self. The fact that he can adapt and is willing to adjust his approach if it isn’t working probably adds a couple of years to his shelf life too.

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  5. lesmash says:

    I frequently hear former players-turned-commentators that baseball is a game of adjustments. Gonzalez’s comments certainly bear that out, and I found the article interesting to read and effectively communicated. Nice work.

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  6. AJP says:

    I did a similar piece about AGon back when this deal was made found here: http://saberanalysis.blogspot.com/2012/08/adrian-gonzalez-past-present-and-future.html The lack of driving the ball the other way concerned me then and still concerns me now. As I said in the piece, he’ll still probably be above average but the days of him being great are probably over.

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  7. RSquared says:

    His HR’s left of CF have decreased over the last few years from 13 to 8 to 4. So his first year in Fenway he could drive the ball to left, but not his second year. Did he re-damage the shoulder but chose not to have it surgically repaired, and lost strength? Ellsbury lost most of his HR power after his shoulder injury, but surgery would have caused a loss of time heading to FA. He went back to his legs for most of his game. Is it like a pitcher losing velocity after shoulder surgery?

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  8. pft says:

    I believe Agon reinjured the shoulder in the 2011 HR Derby. The first half of 2011 after the surgery he killed the ball. After the HR Derby his power dropped.

    He is still an RBI machine though.

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  9. pft says:

    Lets not forget the fact that a number of players recently who sign big long contracts seem to lose their power and in some cases speed. One wonders if players simply stop working out as hard, or in some cases simply give up PED’s since the money is guaranteed and no point in risking health and suspension anymore.

    Not saying Agon used PED’s but maybe he slacked off on his gym time. If his shoulder is weak then he should strengthen it or have surgery to correct the problem.

    Of course, age plays a part in the decline, but then you look at Papi who has pretty much been Y2Y on contracts and his numbers increasing from 34-37 yo.

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    • DodgersKingsoftheGalaxy says:

      The first part of what you said is what i wonder about David Ortiz….but i don’t want to say anything because people will get pissy.

      A-Gon should have been about the same until 32.

      Bittersweet, I always wanted A-Gon as a Dodger and never thought it would happen with him playing in the same division and now we finally got um…………and he lost his dingers :(

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  10. tz says:

    If Gonzalez had remained in Boston, he probably would have tattooed the Green Monster and challenged regularly for the batting title. Unfortunately, his home/road splits would be so severe that he would be viewed as overrated instead of very talented.

    Great article BTW.

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  11. luis says:

    A Gon is my favorite player since 2010 hes the reason i like baseball but what im here to say is that i know hes lost his power and last season was kind off a disapointment but when the season started i was hoping for the old A Gon to come back but now i know that hes probably not gonna be the old A Gon ” that made me love baseball but i have a feeling next year wil be a great year for him ” i think that his power will come back hopefully”” but i think part of the reason why hes so popular is because hes mexican and theres not allot of Mexican power hitters like him these day” so for that im proud of him”” great article by the way”

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