Gonzalez and Morneau

Here’s the danger in first reaching a conclusion and then searching for facts to support it: What do you do when they don’t? Well, I think you address that and then try to learn something.

My intent here was to follow up on an article I wrote last year that sought to answer the question, How Good Is Adrian Gonzalez? As part of that exercise, I examined his statistical line as a 24-year-old (not during his age 24 season, but literally from birthday to birthday). Using this method, Gonzalez (.316/.376/.543) compared very favorably to the likes of Mark Teixeira (.272/.358/.539), Carlos Beltran (.301/.359/.528), and others at the same age.

I watch Gonzalez on a daily basis, which gives me a pretty solid understanding of how good he is (hint: much better than he gets credit for). I also know, from looking at his numbers, that he’s elevated his game even further in 2008 at the ripe old age of 26.

So I decided to check out his age 25 stats (from 5/8/07 to 5/7/08) and see just how much he’d built on his success from the previous year. Using the same format from my earlier article, and with the help of David Pinto’s Day-by-Day Database, here’s what I found:

Adrian Gonzalez, Age 24-25
Age AB BA OBP SLG ISO XB/H AB/HR
24 598 .316 .376 .543 .227 .376 18.69
25 650 .282 .344 .498 .216 .432 22.41

Uh-oh. That wasn’t supposed to happen. I had it all figured out: Gonzalez was going to exhibit a slow but steady increase in skills, and the numbers would support what my eyes had led me to believe.

Unfortunately, reality had other ideas. No problem, I thought, I’ll just ask more questions. I checked to see how Gonzalez has done since his 26th birthday (through June 24):

Adrian Gonzalez, Age 24-26
Age AB BA OBP SLG ISO XB/H AB/HR
24 598 .316 .376 .543 .227 .376 18.69
25 650 .282 .344 .498 .216 .432 22.41
26 172 .297 .383 .570 .273 .412 13.23

That’s better, but what does it tell us? Acknowledging the small sample of that final line, two things jump out at me here:

  1. He’s getting on base more. Even though his batting average is lower at age 26 than it was at age 24, Gonzalez has seen his OBP rise. Part of this may be a result of the fact that opponents don’t have much incentive to pitch to him right now, but part may be real skill. We don’t know which is which, but it’s interesting to note.
  2. He’s hitting the ball with greater authority. The spikes in ISO and AB/HR are impressive, especially in light of the above-mentioned lack of incentive to pitch to Gonzalez. Even though he may not be seeing as many strikes as he used to (as suggested by the increased OBP), he is crushing the ones he does see with greater regularity.

Again, we’re dealing with 172 at-bats, so we’ll want to revisit this in May 2009 and see whether Gonzalez was able to maintain these current levels over a longer stretch. The early returns, though, indicate that we may be witnessing a new level of performance.

One of Gonzalez’s most comparable players at the same age according to Baseball-Reference is Minnesota’s Justin Morneau. Conveniently enough, Morneau is 51 weeks older than Gonzalez. Let’s take a look at how these two players have progressed:

Gonzalez and Morneau, Age 24-26
AB BA OBP SLG ISO XB/H AB/HR
Age 24
Gonzalez 598 .316 .376 .543 .227 .376 18.69
Morneau 530 .217 .287 .404 .187 .409 21.20
Age 25
Gonzalez 650 .282 .344 .498 .216 .432 22.41
Morneau 611 .326 .386 .566 .240 .387 17.97
Age 26
Gonzalez 172 .297 .383 .570 .273 .412 13.23
Morneau 594 .276 .341 .481 .205 .372 20.48

Looks to me like Morneau started out miserably, broke through, and then settled in at a lower but still productive level. Gonzalez put up numbers similar to those of Morneau’s breakthrough year (which resulted in an MVP award for the latter) at a younger age, slipped a bit (as did Morneau from age 25 to age 26), and then elevated his game again. Here’s a simpler way of illustrating the pattern (using OPS as a “good enough for government work” measure of performance):

Just the OPS, Ma’am
Age Gonzalez Morneau
24 919 691
25 842 952
26 953 822

Gonzalez starts out way ahead, Morneau pushes past as he develops, and then is passed again. This is an artificial construct, of course, but I hope you’re getting a sense of some ebb and flow here. Neither player has developed in a strictly linear fashion. (For those interested, Morneau is hitting .320/.376/.484 at age 27 as of this writing, so he may be back on the upswing.)

I haven’t achieved what I originally set out to do in this space, but I did learn some things from the exercise. First, I was reminded of something that I need to be reminded of more often than I care to admit: Don’t reach any conclusions before you conduct a study (or even a survey, which more properly applies here).

Second, the ebb-and-flow aspect of the development of these two players intrigues me. It doesn’t lead me to any answers per se, but it does lead me to more questions: Do other players exhibit similar growth cycles, and if so, are there any types that might be more or less susceptible to them?

Finally, it’s worth noting that when we look at something familiar in a different way, we might see stuff we hadn’t noticed earlier. In this case, a very superficial “analysis” of Gonzalez’s trends suggests a hitter who, after two years of similar production (127 OPS+ in 2006, 125 in 2007), took a big leap forward the following season (150 so far in 2008). When viewed from a slightly different angle, however, we see that maybe the progression hasn’t been quite as smooth as initially believed.

Of course, this is a limitation in age-based analysis. The beginning and end of a season are artificial boundaries, as are a person’s birthday. You could pick any 162-game period or 365-day period and probably achieve different results. What kinds of conclusions might we be tempted to reach based on those? What further questions might we ask?

References & Resources
Data courtesy of David Pinto’s Day-by-Day Database and Baseball-Reference.

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