The Decline of Carlos Gonzalez: Star Player

It’s tough to admit that time has begun to pass you by. This is how we end up with middle-aged woman wearing Phat Farm sneakers at the mall or that 60-year-old dude who only shoots threes and never gets back on defense playing basketball at the rec with the college kids every day. And, hey, I’m not here to judge those folks. Matter of fact, I respect the hell out of them. The old dude can really splash and the mom just values her children’s opinion and wants their adoration. I’m sure she’s a wonderful parent, albeit one with a very questionable fashion sense. At the end of the day, it comes down to whatever makes you happy, and if wearing Phat Farm sneakers or being the local wellness center’s version of Mike Miller is what makes you happy, then do it up!

Take the Rockies, for example. Following Tuesday’s acquisition of Gerardo Parra, it’s a near-certainty that the Rockies will be trading an outfielder. The most probable outfielder to be moved is Carlos Gonzalez, at least if the rumors we’ve heard over the last year-plus are any indication. And so if they want to ask for two top-100 prospects in exchange for Gonzalez, then, sure, more power to ’em! If that’s what makes them happy. They’re never going to get two top-100 prospects for Carlos Gonzalez, but there’s no harm in hoping.

There used to be a time when Gonzalez would have commanded two top-100 prospects or better. From 2010 to -13, Gonzalez was a top-25 hitter and a top-25 overall position player, according to WAR. He was a legitimate star. He hit both lefties and righties, he ran the bases well, he was a lock for 20 homers as well as for 20 steals, and the defense graded out fine in the corners. The only thing that ever kept from CarGo from elevating himself from star to superstar status was that he had trouble staying on the field. When he wasn’t hurt, though, there weren’t many better than CarGo.

Thing about injuries, though, is that they’ll take a toll on you quick. Gonzalaz fractured his right wrist way back in the minors, and in 2011, it started hurting again, sending him to the disabled list. The next year it was a hamstring. Then it was a finger sprain in his right hand, then a tumor on his left hand the following year that required surgical removal. The big one came later in 2014 — left knee surgery to repair a torn patellar tendon. Gonzalez remained mostly healthy in 2015, aside from the occasional day off due to “tired legs,” “right knee discomfort,” “sprained left hand,” or the ever-present “flu-like symptoms.” But these last couple years, after the hand surgery and the knee surgery, Gonzalez hasn’t looked like himself.

Two Versions of Carlos Gonzalez
Years PA AVG OBP SLG wRC+ HR* SB* BsR* Def* WAR*
2010-13 2193 .311 .370 .556 134 30 24 4.7 -4.9 4.4
2014-15 889 .260 .314 .505 104 34 3 0.2 -9.7 1.3
*HR, SB, BsR, Def and WAR figures prorated to 600 PA season

The power is still there, but at the expense of more than 50 points of average and on-base percentage. Even with 51 homers over his last 889 plate appearances, Gonzalez has barely been a league-average hitter, due his home park inflating home run totals. Gonzalez is striking out more, and walking less. There’s an argument to be made for BABIP influencing some of the on-base decline — it was .358 from 2010-13 and just .284 the last two years. But there’s also an argument to be made for Gonzalez’s true-talent BABIP having declined — we know that BABIP doesn’t age well, and there’s evidence that Gonzalez has been compromised physically in his rapidly declining stolen base, baserunning and defense numbers. Where Gonzalez used to run a speed score between six (“great”) and seven (“excellent”), it’s been between three (“poor”) and four-and-a-half (“average”) the last two years.

The Gonzalez who gets on base, runs and plays just slightly below-average defense, along with the power, is a four-win player. A star. The Gonzalez who no longer gets on base, and can’t run, and has become an actual liability in the field is just a guy with power. One who’s expensive and now on the wrong side of 30, and who still represents an injury risk.

So, there’s all that, and then there’s this other thing that could really scare teams away from Gonzalez. There’s been another change in CarGo’s game the last couple years, a sudden and drastic change, and it’s the kind of change that turns someone in from a useful, everyday player to a strictly-platoon guy:

Largest Platoon Splits, 2014-15
Name wRC+ v sR wRC+ v sL DIF
Darin Ruf 23 183 160
Adam Lind 146 32 114
Alejandro De Aza 116 15 101
Carlos Gonzalez 133 33 100
Ryan Raburn 28 127 99
Enrique Hernandez 89 187 98
Jake Smolinski 61 154 93
Chris Johnson 56 148 92
Emilio Bonifacio 43 132 89
David Peralta 143 62 81
Minimum 100 PA vs. both lefties and righties

These last couple years, Gonzalez has been one of the very worst hitters against same-handed pitching in all of baseball. You’ll notice the names on that list are entirely underwhelming, because it’s almost strictly bench/platoon guys, and then Carlos Gonzalez. Now, granted, it’s a sample of 258 plate appearances against lefties the last two years, so the 33 wRC+ needs to be regressed to the mean a bit. But the point here is that it needs to be regressed from 33. If you’re wondering what a 33 wRC+ looks like, it looks like a .211 batting average, a .233 on-base percentage, and a .333 slugging percentage with eight walks to 69 strikeouts.

Based on BaseballSavant’s strike zone,  lefties have thrown nearly two-thirds of all pitches to Gonzalez since 2013 outside of the strike zone, a Josh Hamilton-esque rate that ranks among the highest in baseball for same-handed batters. Gonzalez has chased 48% of those outside-the-zone pitches, the very highest rate in baseball and yes, that includes Hamilton. Gonzalez has become overaggressive to a fault against southpaws, flailing at breaking pitches away and looking completely overmatched.

It’s one thing for a player with Gonzalez’s stat line of the last two seasons to run a normal platoon split and be a useful, everyday player. When you do it the way Gonzalez has done it, though, you start wondering when he needs a platoon partner, and that’s the kind of thing that diminishes a player’s value immensely. Gonzalez used to be a legitimate star player, but that just can’t be the perception of him anymore. He doesn’t have the same speed he once had, and, as a result of that, he’s become something of a liability in the field. What’s more, though, is that he’s not getting on base enough, and he’s developed a terrifying problem against same-handed pitchers that drastically reduce his role on a roster. He still has his value — great power, he can still mash righties, and the it was just two years ago he was one of the best hitters in baseball. But Gonzalez is owed nearly $40 million over the next two seasons, and that’s a hefty price tag for what, in a worst-case scenario, could amount to a bat-only platoon player. There are reasons why Gonzalez rumors have persisted for more than a year and a trade has yet to be finalized. Perception is key.



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August used to cover the Indians for MLB and ohio.com, but now he's here and thinks writing these in the third person is weird. So you can reach me on Twitter @AugustFG_ or e-mail at august.fagerstrom@fangraphs.com.


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kevinthecomic
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kevinthecomic
4 months 12 days ago

I bet the D-backs would give up 2 top-100 prospects for him.

jruby
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jruby
4 months 12 days ago

Probably. From Dave Stewart’s point of view, he’d be giving up two guys he probably signed for $2 mil combined for a guy who’s gonna get $40 mil next year. It’s a $38 million dollar net gain for Arizona!

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4 months 12 days ago

All jokes aside, somebody will give up a package of good prospects for CarGo. And I could see them getting the top 100 prospects they’re looking for if they pay down a large chunk of the contract. He’s 30 years old coming off of a 40 HR season. Nelson Cruz is essentially an older version of the same guy – awful defender, injury prone, mediocre on base skills – and he got a fat multiyear deal to play the outfield, no less. At least CarGo, unlike Cruz, is pretty young and provides value with his legs when healthy even though he’s not base stealing threat anymore. And he only has two years left on his deal. Cruz was a free agent and didn’t require assets being traded to get him so the dynamics are obviously a little different. But still, it shows that at least some teams value bat-only sluggers.

Personally, if I was a GM I’d go nowhere near him. But I could see a team that’s desperate for a big bat but unwilling to go five or six years for Cespedes or Upton being interested enough to ignore the red flags.

Westside guy
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Westside guy
4 months 12 days ago

Did Jack Zduriencik get a new GM job?

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4 months 12 days ago

Give me a break. Dave Dombrowski gave Prince Fielder $200M+. Billy Beane gave Billy Butler, a bat only player, hit hits like a middle infielder and runs like a Molina an eight figure AAV. Chris Davis supposedly has $150M+ on the table. David Ortiz hasn’t had any issues getting paid. Edwin Encarnacion would get big money if he was on the market. Teams would be falling over themselves to offer Jose Abreu nine figures if he hit the market tomorrow.

Powder Blues
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Powder Blues
4 months 12 days ago

This was a ruthless, but accurate, take down of CarGo’s skills. Is it fair to say that at $40m over 2, he represents a Howard-bad investment?

vivalajeter
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vivalajeter
4 months 12 days ago

Ryan Howard? Not even close.

CarGo was dreadful in 2014, but he’s been worth at least 2 WAR every other season since he became a full-time starter. He also put up a 142 wRC+ in the 2nd half last year, although that was weighted heavily by his absurd July. He’s probably overpaid, but he’s still a useful player with potential to be solid.

Howard hasn’t had a 2 WAR season since 2009, and he’s been below replacement for the last 4 years. He might not be worth a roster spot at this point, unless a team can extract a little value by using him as a spot starter or PH against righties.

kevinthecomic
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kevinthecomic
4 months 12 days ago

Yeesh, not THAT bad. CarGo can still be a useful platoon bat for two more years. Howard was, what, below replacement level for 3 years?

Colin Charles
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4 months 12 days ago

In 74 ABs at home versus lefties last year CarGo had a wRC+ of 3. I thought that was pretty bad, but then I checked Ryan Howard’s splits for the same period and his wRC+ at home vs lefties over 50 ABs was -35.

devo1d
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devo1d
4 months 11 days ago

Don’t know about Howard bad. I think he is still making more and is an absolute minus. Cargo could rebound a bit in the field and on the bases (younger, more athletic) with a full year past the knee woes. Maybe a 3-win guy, best case.

The splits are terrifying though. Nobody wants to pay even 15m to a guy who can’t hit same-side pitching.

MoreCowbell
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MoreCowbell
4 months 12 days ago

If the Rockies had any sense, and there’s no evidence that they do, the guy to trade is Charlie Blackmon. He’s already 29, and with a sensible contract (might even be under team control for another couple of seasons, not sure). No one in MLB will give them anything near a prospect for CarGo, his obscene contract, and his medical history. They might be able to poach something decent for a guy like Blackmon.

Atreyu Jones
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Atreyu Jones
4 months 12 days ago

Good article and I think it overall paints the picture accurately.

But it is somewhat odd to talk about the “decline” of a player who just had a second half like Gonzalez did. I’m guessing his raw numbers of 30 homers and .640ish slugging in the most recent 3 numbers were tops in the majors.

coreyjro
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coreyjro
4 months 12 days ago

To me it looks like the majority of the decline is BABIP related. Many of the indicators early last year were saying he was hitting the crap out of the ball, just getting unlucky. The second half he got the opposite of unlucky. If you disregard 2014 his 2015 looks to be pretty much in line with his career numbers aside from the BABIP.

vivalajeter
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vivalajeter
4 months 12 days ago

This was discussed in the article, by the way.

Slappytheclown
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Slappytheclown
4 months 12 days ago

He was atrocious against Lefties last year, yes. However, in his career he hasn’t exhibited nearly the same split differences so I’m not ready to write him off yet as a platoon only bat. 2014 was a bad year overall but the splits were equally bad, 2013 the splits were very similar, etc.

If his knee is healthier this year, I could see the D and BSR improve though his days of stealing 20 or even 10 are over.

A WAR of 3 or 3.5 wouldn’t surprise me if healthy, which is a big if. If a team assumes 5 WAR over two years that about pays his contract, and you get some benefit from only have a 2 year commitment vs. 4 or 5 on Upton/Cespedes plus you don’t have to give up a first round pick. So yes, his value is not two top 100 prospects that’s ridiculous, but maybe a decent pitcher like a Zach Wheeler if the Rockies throw in some $$ or a prospect and cargo back? Or maybe Bundy for Cargo straight up?

bampton
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bampton
4 months 11 days ago

If he does get to 5 WAR, which is a bit of a gamble, then it does pay off his contract at market rates. The question is, why would a team give up anything of any value (Bundy, Wheeler -salary) to have a guy that might break even value-wise. You can just sign guys for only the money without having to give up any prospects or players.

formerly matt w
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formerly matt w
4 months 12 days ago

This part seems wrong to me:

“It’s one thing for a player with Gonzalez’s stat line of the last two seasons to run a normal platoon split and be a useful, everyday player. When you do it the way Gonzalez has done it, though, you start wondering when he needs a platoon partner, and that’s the kind of thing that diminishes a player’s value immensely.”

The thing is, it shouldn’t be too hard to find a platoon partner for Gonzalez, a right-handed corner outfielder who can hit lefties at say a 100 wRC+ clip. Those guys should be a dime a dozen. (I say this as a fan of a team, the Pirates, that has been running out first basemen with huge platoon splits for the whole decade and has had about one year of being able to find a decent RH platoon partner for them.)

And if you get him a platoon partner, instead of running out a guy with a 104 wRC+ all the time, most of the time you’re running out a guy with a 133 wRC+ against lefties and a guy with a 100 wRC+ against righties. That’s much better! Sometimes you’ll get a platoon mismatch, but overall your production will be much higher than if you had a guy with a 104 wRC+ and no platoon split. Yes, you’re burning a bench spot, but you need a fourth outfielder anyway; and maybe platooning Gonzalez gives him more rest and helps him stay healthier.

I wondered if huge platoon splits might presage a total decline of skills so I did a search for players age 28-33 with splits like CarGo’s:

http://bbref.com/pi/shareit/b9moh

but I didn’t see an unusual number of imminent collapses in the bunch. (You might exclude guys like Nixon and Thome whose splits came from mashing righties unusually well instead of hitting lefties unusually poorly.) Even Adam Dunn had a dead cat bounce in him. What’s with these lumbering lefty first basemen named Adam, though?

phoenix2042
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phoenix2042
4 months 12 days ago

I was going to say the exact same thing.

If he was 104 wRC+ all the time, you can’t do much to improve that. But a 133 wRC+ against righties with someone like Chris Young (I know he has signed already) to play against lefties… That outfield spot could produce 4 wins.

Plus, as you say, the extra rest may be able to keep him healthy.

stuck in a slump
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stuck in a slump
4 months 12 days ago

Yeah, Ryan Raburn just had his $3m option declined. Would probably earn $2-2.5m as a free agent and would be a perfect platoon option for CarGo.

devo1d
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devo1d
4 months 11 days ago

Great point about the rest. I’m guessing the Rockies would have to eat some salary to even things out.

I’m really interested to see where he goes and the return.

redsoxu571
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redsoxu571
4 months 12 days ago

Headline correction – The Decline of Carlos Gonzalez: Ostensible Star Player

Gonzalez was never actually a star player, but rather a raw, talented player who benefited greatly from Colorado. Now, some people actually put down those who point this out, as if it’s wrong to properly account for reality. Others think we have a proper handle on the “Coors effect”. Wrong on both counts. It is an absolute necessity to account for Colorado with players on the Rockies, and (this is the part most people don’t realize) SOME players benefit from the park more than others. I have long argued that it’s players on the extremes of the plate discipline spectrum who see the largest gains. Elite eyes (Helton) become absolute Ted-Williams-style monsters, and players who have trouble making contact with breaking ball strikes and/or breaking balls in the dirt make more contact and find it easier to lay off.

Gonzalez has always been a rather poor BB/SO hitter. He doesn’t work the count well, and he strikes out plenty. But take away the breaking ball for opposing pitchers, and his physical skills would take over.

That’s why his home/away slash lines were .299/.355/.617 vs .243/.294/.464 last season. That’s why his career split slashes are .324/.382/.604 vs .255/.310/.441. One is a SUPERstar player, and the other is a useful player who was still far from star level. And yet they are actually the same player, one true, one the smoke-and-mirrors result of playing baseball where it should not be played.

So yes, Gonzalez is indeed a player on the clear decline. However, this is a former solid player who likely is becoming a bad one, not a former star turning into a solid/mediocre player.

thetoddfather
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thetoddfather
4 months 11 days ago

Before using the blanket explanation of “the smoke and mirrors result of playing baseball where it should not be played” you should realize the actual effect the Coors Field has on a player’s numbers.

Every player suffers from home/road splits…it’s why home field advantage is a thing. Bryce Harper slashed .345/.488/.682 at home last year and .316/.433/.617 on the road. Obviously not quite as pronounced, but not insignificant. Andrew McCutchen had splits that were just as pronounced as Cargo’s (.327/.423/.535 at home and .255/.381/.440 on the road). These are MVP-type players, but they don’t carry the burden of having their numbers devalued because of the so-called “Coors Effect”

Some further analysis on this topic:

http://m.mlb.com/news/article/159753498/carlos-gonzalez-is-not-a-coors-field-creation

AltitudeSchmaltitude
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AltitudeSchmaltitude
4 months 12 days ago

Not that CarGo is still a top player, but this analysis ignores the fact CarGo was hurt for 2014 and early 2015 before going scorching hot and looking very much more like his old self:
http://www.fangraphs.com/blogs/the-winding-road-to-a-normal-carlos-gonzalez-season/

Angelsjunky
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Angelsjunky
4 months 12 days ago

So the long and short of it is that he’s the perfect Arte Moreno acquisition.

devo1d
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devo1d
4 months 11 days ago

Nailed it!

Stoppage in Udders
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Stoppage in Udders
4 months 12 days ago

CarGo would be absolutely fine if he still played in 2013. His power is intact, his k rates are stable, and his hard hit percentage is still out of this world. The problem is that teams have figured him out. The culprit is the shift. He hits a lot of grounders and he hits a lot of grounders to the pull side. His babip the last two years would be even lower if he wasn’t getting some help from playing in Coors. Think Davis in 2014, instead of .280. You can tell CarGo’s trying to adjust, but so far his attempts to elevate the ball more have boosted his power numbers at the expense of his line drive rate.

Until he adjusts by going oppo more often (if he can), his babips won’t be returning to the .350-.370 range any time soon. However, despite that he can still be a very good player. A guy with an average walk rate, average k rate, ridiculous power, above average speed, and average defense is still a very good player.

devo1d
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devo1d
4 months 11 days ago

I’m sure the shifts played a part, but I have to think the speed going was just as culpable. He could hit for raw power, but he also beat out a fair number of ground balls. When you walk and K as much as he did/does, that hurts.

thetoddfather
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thetoddfather
4 months 12 days ago
DocNo1
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DocNo1
4 months 11 days ago

Interesting discussion about CarGo, but what does it say about Tulo? Still a fine hitting environment in Toronto, but is his shine entirely dulled by leaving COL and injuries? Another star career indebted to thin air?

rockymountainhigh
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rockymountainhigh
4 months 11 days ago

Injuries, yes. Career indebted to thin air, no.

Anyone watching in Colorado could see that Tulo at the beginning of 2015 was not the same old Tulo. His hip surgery really took a ton of pop out of his bat. Not only that, but he seems to approach the game differently. He isn’t as care free in the field (since breaking his rib diving for a grounder) so his defensive value has dropped. He is more timid on the bases, so he has turned into a base running nightmare. He seems to be trying to compensate for all of this with pure power at the plate…but it has really translateed into a ton of strike outs.

Tulo’s decline started well before he left Denver. He is not a product of the thin air. He happened to be in his prime while he played for the Rockies and they happened to get rid of him at the right time.

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