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Searching for the True Upside in Erik Gonzalez

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A study in contradictions

MLB: Pittsburgh Pirates-Media Day Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

The Pittsburgh Pirates have named Erik Gonzalez as the club’s everyday starting shortstop. General Manager Neal Huntington has repeatedly pointed to the upside inherent in the 27-year old infielder. A closer look shows that upside should be accompanied by some pretty significant asterisks.

“We feel like we got a young Freddy Galvis. His name is Erik Gonzalez,” Huntington said.

The above quote, as told to media at Piratesfest 2019, indicates just how highly the Pittsburgh Pirates think of their newly minted 2019 starting shortstop. If you need more convincing, how about a quote from manager Clint Hurdle?

Hurdle said Pirates scouts were “beating the table” to acquire Gonzalez, who has a .263 average and .681 OPS with five home runs in 162 major league games between 2016-18. “The kid can play,” Hurdle said. “The kid hasn’t had a chance to play because of the people he’s playing behind.

So a consensus has apparently been reached wherein the entirety of Federal Street — from the general manager through baseball ops to the field manager — agrees that Gonzalez has some upside to him.

A closer look shows that there are some rather large caveats to that potential.

Contact skills, but...

Gonzalez’s contact skills are confounding.

On the one hand, he posted a hard-hit rate of 39.2 percent last season across 143 plate appearances, four full percentage points higher than the 2018 MLB rate of 35.2 percent. However, his xwOBA clocked at just .280 despite a healthy-enough average exit velocity of 89.6 mph.

xwOBA takes exit velocity and launch angle, assigning it a value compared to other batted balls across the league with similar EV and LA.

Indeed, Gonzalez could stand to lift a few more balls. Last season, he had a fly-ball rate of 22.8 percent, well below the 35.4 percent MLB rate. Average launch angle shows the same story — Gonzalez’s batted balls had a 3.4 degree average LA; MLB hitters carried a 11.4 degree average.

Launch angle isn’t everything, of course, but hitters can hit the ball as a hard as they want without seeing any tangible results if they cannot lift a few balls into the air.

Will new hitting coaches Rick Eckstein and Jacob Cruz help Gonzalez to better utilize his seemingly natural ability to make hard contact?

A quality glove that doesn’t translate to runs saved

Hurdle also raved about Gonzalez’s defense:

“But we’ve had people that’ve seen this man play defense and said, ‘This guy can be dynamic.’ He didn’t say he was going to be OK. ‘OK’ wasn’t a word that came out of anybody’s mouth. ‘Above average. Dynamic. Very good. More range than anybody you’ve had at short maybe some you have managed.’ ”

If we limit our view to shortstop, the picture painted of Gonzalez — statistically, at least — is that of an average fielder.

For his career, Gonzalez carries an even zero rating in Defensive Runs Saved. With a sample size of 127 innings, it’s fair to point out that he may in fact not yet have been given the chance to show what type of fielder he will be at a crucial position. He has, after all, been a +3 defender at his most-manned position of second base, where he has seen 369.2 innings.

The thing about DRS is that a rating of zero isn’t as derisive as you may think. Of the 40 major league shortstops who logged at least 250 innings in 2018, 22 were at a 0 rating or better, and only seven saved 10 runs or more.

UZR (Ultimate Zone Rating) may be more descriptive in Gonzalez’s case, as scouts specifically point to his range as being plus. Overall, he carries a UZR of 0.2 across those 127 innings at short, right on the MLB rate for last season. If we normalize that over 150 games (projected) using UZR/150, his rate increases to 1.8.

The “gotcha” here is mainly due to sample size. Again, Gonzalez has only logged 127 innings at the position, with only two errors. He has improved in these advanced fielding metrics with each year in which he has logged more innings, but one wonders if he can hold up to the rigors of manning mostly one position. If we use his time at second base as a rough barometer, we can see how he may be a bit suspect with more time.

In 2017, Gonzalez was at the keystone for 201 innings, putting up a DRS of +3 and a UZR/150 of 8.3. In 2018 he logged 157.2 innings at second, but his DRS fell to -1 and his UZR/150 plummeting to -22.7.

Each season is different, and it would not be fair to judge Gonzalez’s “progress” at fielding the position across each campaign. However, what we can fairly state is that Gonzalez struggled defensively at the position he played the most in 2018. Would he repeat that arc at shortstop in 2019?

Gonzalez will be given every chance to succeed, and he may even have the upside to warrant the faith that the Pittsburgh Pirates are placing in him. You just might have to squint to see it clearly.