Last season, Adrian Gonzalez had the sixth best wOBA (.406) in baseball. He was 53% better than the average major league hitter by WRC+. He won silver slugger award as the best hitting first baseman in the American League and finished seventh in the MVP vote. This season, he is struggling horribly. With a paltry .315 wOBA, he is a below average hitter so far this season. He is just 30 years old so this precipitous drop in production is hardly something anyone would anticipate. He is in the first year of his seven year, $154M contract, so the Boston Red Sox desperately need Gonzo to straighten things out and return to being one of the best hitters in the game.
While it was undoubtedly awesome, Adrian Gonzalez’s 2011 season did give more statistically minded fans reason for some concern. His .380 BABIP was not likely to be repeated this year and despite moving to the more offensive-oriented environment of Fenway Park, Gonzo had just a 16.4% HR/FB rate, the same rate he had posted in the cavernous Petco Park in 2010 and a far worse rate than he had shown in his 2008-2009 season, when 21.5% of his fly balls found the seats. Even so, regression in his BABIP and less than expected power were not exactly harbingers of this type of collapse. This decline in production is as unexpected as it gets.
The cause of Gonzalez’s struggles is almost as surprising as the decline itself. Gonzalez has been making significantly more contact and it has hurt him. Normally, making more contact would be a good thing, but in this case it is a serious problem. Prior to 2011, Gonzalez’ best season was 2009, when he posted .402 wOBA, a wRC+ of 156 and hit 40 home runs while playing home games in the least home run friendly park in the game. That year is even more impressive when you consider that his BABIP was a mere .278, .043 lower than his career rate. With fewer balls in play going hits than ever before, Gonzalez rode a ridiculous 17.5% walk rate to a .277/.407/.551 batting line. This year, despite a better than average BABIP of .308, Gonzalez is hitting just .267/.318/.414. The patience and the power are both gone.
Gonzalez’ current walk rate of just 6.5% immediately jumps out at you. Players with career 11% walk rates don’t just suddenly start walking that little over 277 plate appearances. Though he will likely get the rate up some before the year ends, it is extremely unlikely that 2012 will not end up being the third straight season of declining walks for Gonzo and the second straight year in which he is below his career average.
Obviously, he is swinging more. His swing percentage has gone up each year from his low mark in 2009 of 42.9% to this season’s new high of 51.2%. Though his strike out rate is relatively stable, he is actually swinging and missing quite a bit less at 8.9% for the season down from 9.6% in 2009 and a high of 12.2% in 2007. That extra contact has been a bad thing in large part because it is happening on balls out of the strike zone. His contact on balls out of the zone has gone up every year since 2009 and now it sits at a well above average 76.2%. He is swinging at these pitches more. This season he is swinging at 37% of pitches out of the zone, a far cry from the 23.1% rate of 2009, but also well above his 35.5% of last season.
Except for the dramatic loss of power, Gonzalez is not hitting the ball much differently. His ground ball, line drive and fly ball rates are all fairly close to his career norms. The major difference for Gonzalez is the lack of opposite field power. Consider these spray charts from www.texasleaguers.com-
That is a pretty dramatic change. It is impossible to determine if the extra contact is related to the loss of opposite field power, but the combination of the two is extremely problematic.
Gonzalez may not have control over how far his hits travel, but he should be able to control the pitches he chooses to swing at. It is rare for a player to increase his contact rates as he ages and in this case it has been a negative. To say that Gonzalez needs to walk more is an oversimplification. He needs to swing at fewer tough pitches. Right now, he is swinging too much and because he is a great hitter, he is making contact with those swings. He needs to be more selective and wait for the pitches he can drive. If he does that, I believe the power and the walks will return.