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Pittsburgh Pirates Hot Stove Target Profile: Marwin Gonzalez

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Like 2014 Josh Harrison, but better!

MLB: ALCS-Boston Red Sox at Houston Astros Thomas B. Shea-USA TODAY Sports

The Pittsburgh Pirates enjoyed Josh Harrison’s super utility ways when he broke out in 2014. Can they repeat that magic with a better version of that type of player?

The Pittsburgh Pirates need help at a few different spots around the field, right-field and shortstop chief among them. Why not get someone that can do both and then some?

Enter Marwin Gonzalez, the most recent iteration of a “super utility” player. The 30 year old switch-hitting Gonzalez will instead enter free agency for the first time in his career. Could Pittsburgh conceivably be in the mix for “Swiss G” as he is referred to be by his agent, Scott Boras?

Profile and Performance

At 30 years old, Gonzalez broke into the league as a part-timer in 2012. Spending the entirety of his career thus far with Houston, he has posted a wRC+ of at least 104 or better in four of the past five seasons in which he has posted at least 300 plate appearances. Highlighted by a breakout 144 wRC+/ 4.0 fWAR campaign in 2017, Gonzalez has been a positive-win player in each of his five “full time” seasons.

Gonzalez came back down to earth a bit in 2018 — the 104 wRC+ season mentioned above — but this fact in and of itself is not very telling.

For one, Gonzalez had a merely league-average or so BABIP of .301, despite making hard contact 38.7 percent of the time. His average exit velocity of 87.4 mph in 2018 was just 0.1 mph less than in 2017, and he actually had 17 more “Barrels/Solid Contact” as per Statcast year over year in a similar amount of plate appearances.

Contact skills were clearly not the impetus for Gonzalez to “regress” back to a mere above average hitter. For that, maybe we can point to an increased strikeout rate (22.8 percent, up from 19.2 the year before (an even 20 percent for his career)), but he tempered that with a 9.6 percent walk rate.

Ok, so if that’s a mixed bag, surely there must be something to explain away his .247/.324/.409 triple-slash. Let’s try soft contact. Perhaps he is eschewing the middle ground, leaving an all or nothing philosophy in his contact? Well not exactly; Gonzalez’s soft hit rate actually dropped 1.3 percentage points, down to 17.3 percent. Groundball, line drive or fly ball rates? 41.6/22.6/35.8 percent, respectively, all improvements save for FB%, which fell 0.4 percentage points.

We could point to a diminished HR/FB rate of 12.5 percent — nearly six percent less than the year previous — as an agent of change. With just seven home runs less than 2017, this seems flimsy.

The answer might just lie in good old fashioned splits. As mentioned above, Gonzalez is a switch hitter, yet his left/right splits were a little out of whack this year compared to his career.

Marwin Gonzalez left/right splits - 2018

Split AVG OBP SLG
Split AVG OBP SLG
vs RHP - 2018 .235 .327 .395
vs RHP - Career .266 .322 .418
vs LHP - 2018 .273 .316 .436
vs LHP - Career .258 .308 .422

Okay, I think we’ve found our culprit. Let’s dig more into what happened between Gonzalez and right-handed pitching in 2018.

First, we see a 2.6 percent increase in whiffs per swing against RHPs (17.4 vs. 14.8 percent), this amounts to 36 more whiffs, though this was across 75 more total swings. Righties did challenge Gonzalez with about four percent more fastballs year-over-year, and his whiff rates on the heat rose as well, up to 15 percent from a sparkling 9.8 in years before. With a higher swing rate than 2017, elevated whiff rates are not a surprise.

So there we have it. It took us 500+ words, but we found an answer. Some wacky L/R splits that were out of character for Gonzalez led to a “down” year. With a still-great walk rate and solid contact skills, we can reasonably assume this might be an aberration of some degree.

Career-To-Date

The case for

  • So, yeah, last season might have been just a down year, or at least one that is easily correctable with a slight tweak in approach. Is Gonzalez the 144 wRC+ hitter we saw in 2017? Probably not. is he every bit of the 110-120 wRC+ he has put up in previous years? Absolutely.
  • Gonzalez played everywhere other than catcher and pitcher last season. While he wasn’t a particular standout at any position, he was only a -1 defender at SS/+1 DRS defender in right-field, the positions at which the Pittsburgh Pirates might need him the most.
  • Though 30 years old, Gonzalez only became a “full time” big leaguer in 2016; Over the previous four seasons he averaged 280 PAs/94 games, which may mitigate his age a bit.

The case against

  • From this view, the main point against Gonzalez is going to be the price. A Boras client on his first shot through free agency, Gonzalez is likely to demand a contract of at least three years, but four-plus is much more likely. Though FanGraphs and other sources have him projected at about $14 million average annual value, his versatility should play into being able to get some team to offer a little more. As is the case with many things in life, it only takes one. Yet, a four-year contract would force the Pittsburgh Pirates into making some hurried decisions about the pipeline.
  • For a team that was so bad defensively, is Gonzalez’s decidedly meh fielding really addressing one of its biggest needs? There is an argument to be made that the club would be better served going after a defensive-first style shortstop such as Jose Iglesias.

What it might take

Expect Gonzalez to take no less than four years at $13 million per year, minimum. This will be his one big contract, and he will look to take advantage.

Conclusions

Though many are down on Marwin Gonzalez, there are a myriad of reasons to look in the opposite direction of his final 2018 stat lines. The Pittsburgh Pirates could afford him, but will more likely deem other avenues more worthy of investment.