Wednesday, October 14, 2009
Player Profile: Carlos GonzalezPosted by Mike Silver at 3:30am
Carlos Gonzalez is starting to look more like a peace pipe than a major league ball player. Though scouts love his tools and his ability to play all three outfield positions, it took Gonzalez a few years to find his approach at the plate. When he did, however, the results were tremendous, as shown by his 2009 season in Colorado. But, as always, there's more to a player than meets the eye, so let's take a look at his minor league stats to see what we can find.
Gonzalez's story begins way back in 2003 as a 17-year-old playing Rookie ball for the Missoula Osprey. The young outfielder flashed some good potential, hitting four homers in 275 at-bats, but walked just 16 times against 71 strikeouts. Still, the batter was young, so he had time to hammer out his approach as he moved along. With a .258/.308/.404 line under his belt, the powers that be in Arizona thought it was time for a different test, promoting him to Low-A in 2004.
The 2004 season was a little better for Gonzalez. Still just 18 years old, he was able to post a .273/.327/.427 line in 300 at-bats before being promoted to A-ball in the Midwest League. Through 377 plate appearances, Gonzalez hit 10 home runs though, again, he struggled with his plate approach, posting just 23 walks against 83 strikeouts. Much like in 2003, the line wasn't the best, especially the K:BB ratio, but he was a young, toolsy player with a lot of potential. Players make careers from those credentials, so Arizona was content letting Gonzalez slug his way out by letting him repeat A-ball in 2005.
Finally, after two years of frustration, Gonzalez showed some real signs of growth during a repeat performance in A-ball in 2005. As a 19-year-old, the Venezuelan finally showed some semblance of a workable plate approach, while hitting for more power. With 18 home runs in 568 plate appearances, Gonzalez put together a .307/.371/.489 line on the shoulders of a much improved K:BB ratio (48 BB, 86 K). This was quite the season for Gonzalez, as his improved walk totals gave hope for him to become more than a free-swinging slugger, while his strikeout totals gave even greater reason for optimism, as he struck out in just 15.1 percent of his plate appearances. With burgeoning power and improving plate discipline, Gonzalez seemed close to realizing his full potential. Only time would tell. The pundits certainly agreed, ranking him the 32nd-best prospect in MLB.
The 2006 season, initially filled with great optimism, was very much a mixed bag for Carlos. After earning a promotion to High-A, (with an appearance in Double-A to conclude the year) Gonzalez's plate discipline regressed quite dramatically, as he would go on to post a combined 37 walks against 116 strikeouts in 512 plate appearances between the two levels. Still, the California League aided his power numbers, as he launched 21 homers in 404 at-bats en route to a .300/.355/.562 line in High-A. Still, his poor plate discipline (30 BB, 104 K) made the appearance bittersweet. He flopped at Double-A later that year to the tune of .213/.294/.410, which tempered even the most optimistic of his supporters. Still, Gonzalez's hitting abilities, with or without the plate discipline, were too much to deny, as Arizona punched his ticket to Double-A for 2007. Still brimming with potential, Gonzalez was ranked No. 3 in the Arizona system and No. 18 in MLB.
2007 was definitely a downturn in Gozalez's career path. Already a full season removed from his 2005 breakout, 2007 was definitely a forgettable year in many ways. Though still a very young player at age 21, Gonzalez's performance at Double-A left much to be desired. Despite again hitting for good power (16 HR in 458 at-bats), he did not fulfill expectations of becoming a great slugger, while also failing again to improve his plate discipline, posting a weak K:BB ratio (32 BB, 103 K). Though he was able to cut down on the strikeouts slightly, his walks took a hit. With a .286/.330/.476 line in Double-A, followed by a nice, quick stint in Triple-A (.310/.396/.500 in 42 at-bats, 6BB, 6K), Arizona leveraged Gonzalez's great, but fading potential into a blockbuster trade with the Oakland Athletics, including him as part of the Dan Haren deal. As a result, Gonzalez became the No. 1 prospect in Oakland, while still ranking 22nd in MLB.
2008 was, again, a lackluster season for Gonzalez. Playing for Oakland's Triple-A affiliate in Sacramento, Gonzalez's season was perhaps his worst since becoming a professional. Though he finished with a respectable .283/.344/.416 line in Triple-A, he hit just four home runs in 173 at-bats, while walking 16 times against 35 Ks. The plate discipline was a moderate improvement, though nothing to write home about. Later that year, though he was not ready for the bigs, Oakland decided to call him up. The results were ugly, as his power all but left him and he looked completely lost against major league pitching. In 302 at-bats, he was able to post just 13 walks against 81 strikeouts, hitting only four home runs. His .242/.273/.361 line was quite the debacle.
With the shine fading fast off Gonzalez's star, the outfielder was moved to the Colorado organization as a key piece in the Matt Holliday trade. Though many left him for dead or the scrap-heap home of former prospects, Gonzalez began to put together a quality season in Colorado Springs, the Rockies' Triple-A affiliate. Through 192 at-bats, Gonzalez was finally able to produce the kind of year many expected of him, slugging 10 home runs with a 22:32 BB:K rate. His .339/.418/.630 line seemed to be partially the product of playing at a high altitude, though, when the major league club plays there too, who really cares?
In early June, Gonzalez was promoted to the big leagues, where he would stay for good. After accruing 278 at-bats, the 23-year-old was finally able to prove that he could hit major league hitting, posting a .284/.353/.525 line in 278 at-bats. Gonzalez had arrived. However, while there was much to be thankful for, there were also many reasons to temper the praise showered upon him by his supporters.
When analyzing Gonzalez's sudden ascension to the ranks of very good outfielders, the first thoughts go to how much of this was a Coors Field/altitude affect. On the one hand, there are those who say, rightfully, "who cares," since, as fantasy owners, it doesn't matter how good he is as long as he can put up his stats. The other thought is to determine whether this improvement can be sustained and whether or not the Coors affect in reference to Gonzalez is real—or even important.
Let's start with the Coors affect.
First, there is every reason to believe that Coors Field and Colorado Springs had a good deal to do with Gonzalez's turnaround. Coors Field is one of the best hitting environments in MLB or any level. Any hitter will experience a jump in his power numbers and hitting indicators when switching to the cool environs of Coors. While the stadium is usually credited for its ability to awaken sleeping bats, there may be more to the process than balls flying out of the park at a greater frequency. Of particular importance is the amount that breaking pitches move in Colorado versus other stadium. In the thinner air, there are fewer particles with which a baseball can create friction, air pressure differences, and, thus, break. This has a profound affect on the ability of pitchers to throw breaking pitches. Judging by Gonzalez's pitch-type numbers, this could have been part of the reason why he was able to break out in Colorado.
Approaching this with the disclaimer that the sample size involved is small, and thus vulnerable to random fluctuations, it must be noted that Gonzalez saw some serious improvement in his ability to hit curve balls in 2009 when compared to 2008. While he was just above average against benders in 2008 (-0.22 wCB/C), he destroyed them in '09 (1.66 wCB/C). While this change could reflect an overall improvement in his ability to hit major league pitching, Coors certainly didn't hurt.
On the other hand, giving credit to the theory that Gonzalez merely became a better hitter was his improved success against fastballs and change-ups (-1.66 wFB/C in 2008, 1.86 wFB/C in 2009; -1.74 wCH/C in 2008, -0.28 wCH/C in 2009). This showed an improved ability to adjust to changes in speeds, which may mean that he's either waiting longer before making decisions on pitches, he's getting better at reading the break of pitches, or both. Either way, while the Coors air probably had something to do with his ability to hit curves, there is significant evidence that he became better at diagnosing pitch types.
Of concern, however, are Gonalez's struggles against sliders. While sliders were the only pitch he could hit with any regularity in 2008 (0.19 wSL/C), he was absolutely awful against them in 2009 (-1.84 wSL/C). Given that Gonzalez is a lefty, this may be one of the biggest challenges facing the young hitter, as lefties who struggle against sliders often end up having terrible platoon splits. This may or may not become a problem for Gonzalez, who posted a respectable line against lefties in '09 (.276/.343/.466) but was terrible against them in '08 (.188/.207/.247). However, much of Gonzalez's plate discipline struggles resurfaced when he faced left-handed pitching, as he had a 5:19 BB:K ratio, albeit in 65 plate appearances. Though he hit for good power, his BABIP was through the roof at .378. As a result, expect a hard regression next season, albeit with two caveats—there are some sample size issues involved and he could still learn to hit same-handed hurlers.
As for his overall 2009 and outlook, Gonzalez was quite the hitter. He cut down his K rate to 25.2 percent, while walking in 9.2 percent of his plate appearances. Given his plate discipline characteristics, he seems to be a bit better than his numbers indicate, as he could up his walk percentage over the 10 percent mark this year, while dropping his K rate into the low 20s. Should he do this, there would be some nice implications for his overall numbers, particularly his batting average and OPS. In addition, his Zone percentage, at 47.4 percent, is low, so if he can somehow learn to lay off pitches outside the zone (30.6 percent O-Swing), it will put serious pressure on pitchers to adjust their approach, forcing them to throw him more strikes and more hittable pitches. Either way, the Rockies would be excited at just an improvement in his walk rate to 11 percent and his strikeout rate to 22 percent. These improvements should be enough to hold his batting average in the .275-.285 range even if his BABIP (.338) drops.
And then there's the speed. Gonzalez's stolen base numbers were quite the welcome surprise to his owners this season. It is difficult to make sense of this, as he has been noted in the past as having an intriguing power/speed combination, as he stole 12 bases in 2003 and 16 bases in 2006. As the old adage goes: "Once it's part of your skill set, you own it." Therefore, maybe Gonzalez could steal 30 bases some day. Still, it would be prudent to exercise some skepticism when reviewing his stolen base numbers, though there are definite indicators as to his speed: He managed 1.1 RangeRuns above average in center field in 2009, while being caught only four times in his 20 stolen base tries. In the end, he is probably more of a 15 -base stealer than a 30-steal guy. But, if he decides to run at a high frequency, maybe he can pull it off.
With an excellent line drive rate (23.4 percent line drives), flyball tendencies, and good power, Gonzalez looks like a good outfielder for fantasy leagues in the 2010 season. He'll be just 24 next season, so there is still some considerable development left in him. As he is expected to stay in Colorado, fantasy owners should expect only good things going forward. As a result, a 27 home run, 15 stolen base, .275-.285 season in 2010 seems about right. Keep your eye on the strikeouts and his platoon splits, but have confidence that the power will be there. Since he should also toss a few swipes into the mix, he looks like an above-average major league outfielder in 12-team mixed leagues. If he makes the requisite improvements to his K and walk rate, he could turn in quite the year. Grab him next year if he's available.
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Returning from a brief hiatus, Mike is excited to be back at THT.
Mike's former writing homes include FireBrandAL.com and StatSpeak.net, while his content has appeared on Fangraphs.com, ESPN.com, and others. A lifelong Red Sox fan native to New York, Mike loves to blend baseball and statistical analysis.
Feel free to email him at mjasilver AT gmail DOT com.