When I was first introduced to Oscar Gonzalez — as a player, I’ve never met the kid, though he seems nice — I didn’t think much of him. He wasn’t a prospect that had gotten much of any chatter, and looking at his numbers in the minors I just figured he was cut from the same cloth as Bobby Bradley or Franmil Reyes. Yet another in a line of big, hulking dudes who hit the ball hard and just love to swing the bat.
He never walked more than about 5% of the time in the minors and even being 6-foot-4, 240, he never evinced much power either. So when he broke out early and hit .303/.336/.450 in his first month in the majors, I wasn’t really bought in much about him being any kind of real fixture long-term, especially with what’s starting to knock on the door from the minors. And maybe that’s still the case, maybe he’s just a brief blip before the big guns start showing up. But there’s something about Gonzalez that is just unavoidably interesting, that I can’t help but start wondering just what he could be.
In retrospect, it was rude to just lump him in with the Bradleys and Reyeses of the world, if only for the simple fact that Gonzalez actually makes a decent amount of contact. Where Bradley and Reyes lived in the low to mid-60s in contact rate and hopefully made up for that with a massive dinger now and again, Gonzalez through 150 plate appearances is at 76.7%. It’s not dazzling, but it sandwiches him between Josh Naylor and Andrés Giménez on the Guardians, and right there with Xander Boegarts and Trea Turner across the majors. It’s just one data point of course, but it’s certainly important when you have a guy who swings as much as Gonzalez does.
And boy does he like to swing the bat. His 12.2% called strike rate is comfortably the lowest on the team, his 58.4% swing rate is six points higher than the next closest Guardian, and now that Reyes is gone he holds the crown for the highest swinging strike rate at 14.2% (that’s still nearly four points lower than Reyes, who is 19th highest in baseball, as well). In short, he wants to make things happen, and he’s getting the ability to get the bat on the ball to give himself the chance.
This recklessness hyper-aggression is not always a good thing. In fact, it’s usually bad and leads to a short career. To get around that, you need to be able to cover the plate well, and hit the ball hard, too. Luckily for Gonzalez, he’s great at hitting the ball hard! He officially holds the crown in hard-hit rate for Cleveland at 44.6% with Reyes leaving and is first in average exit velocity at 90.2 mph. For comparisons’ sake, both those metrics are a shade behind Pete Alonso and basically equal with Mookie Betts. On top of that, it doesn’t really matter where you pitch him, since he can clobber the ball all over the zone. Here are all the batted balls he has over 95 mph, the threshold for a “hard hit ball”:
I figured he’d be a bit caught up on pitches inside since he has those long arms, but his stance and quick hands have basically mitigated that. There’s not really a lot of space for pitchers if they put it in the zone.
All these positive data points are pretty positive to think about, Here we have a guy who doesn’t have the patience you normally love, but otherwise, he’s got the raw tools — and some of the evidence of process — that can lead to a really great player. He’ll never be Joey Votto, but he profiles similar to Salvador Perez or Tim Anderson. Those are two guys, among others, who like to swing the bat, do damage, and keep the assembly line moving, so to speak.
It’s not a profile that lends itself to easy success. Pitchers are hard to hit, simple as that, and they’re going to find ways to keep him swinging but chasing air. He already sees fewer pitches in the zone than the league average, and he chases out of the zone 43.7% of the time compared to just 28.6% for the league average while making basically the same contact on those swings (58.8%) as your average hitter. So yes, he’s not doing himself any favors, and certainly playing it on hard mode but that doesn’t mean it’s time to just quickly cut bait.
Looking at some of his teammates and how they’ve adjusted their approach and swing is why Gonzalez is so intriguing to me. When he gets into a ball with the right launch angle, it’s just a total frozen rope to the bleachers:
The issue being, this man just hates the ground so damn much. His 4.9% launch angle is the 22nd lowest in baseball, and when you’re just drilling it into the ground you’re making outs needlessly. Steven Kwan he is not, whether in contact, plate discipline, or speed. But looking at Gonzalez’s teammates, you see Gimenez pushing his launch angle four points to 13.5% from last year to this, Naylor getting into the double digits for the first time this year at 11.3, and even Owen Miller bumping from six degrees to 9.1, and all are having career offensive years. Miller is still bad, but at least he’s making the effort, to some small improvement.
That’s what I think Gonzalez can do. He’s got the ability to clobber the ball, he’s just not helping himself with all the grounders he’s hitting. If he can find those tweaks — and seeing what other players have done of late, there’s obviously a move to help shape swings in a positive direction — he can be a violent offensive threat. The flaws and worries still abound (that .363 BABIP cannot be ignored) but that doesn’t mean he’ll fall prey to it reverting to the .290ish league average. Those who hit it hard can naturally be high BABIP guys, he can be that too.
I know it’s wish casting, but looking at the Braves’ Austin Riley gives me some hope. He walks alright (7% this year which is still below average) but lives off the “mash the ball” approach and it’s resulted in a wonderful couple of years. There are a lot of players in this makeup that can find success, and that’s what I’ve been drawn to with Gonzalez. I have every expectation of it not working, since baseball itself is a game of failure for hitters.
For better or worse though, I’m a believer and would love to see him get the chance to prove himself. Who knows where that could lead?