Carlos Gonzalez: A Premature Decline, Perhaps

Yesterday, I noted that Carlos Gonzalez’s isolated power, as determined by my expected isolated power (xISO) equation, mirrored his current production. This would be great news if we were talking about CarGo circa 2013.

Unfortunately, we’re talking about the 2015 incarnation of CarGo, he of the .109 ISO, .188 batting average and .233 batting average on balls in play (BABIP). The latter-most statistic might be the first talking point a proponent of his brings up in his defense: CarGo’s BABIP is atrocious right now — it’s just a matter of time until his bad luck turns around. Indeed, there may be some truth to this sentiment.

In case you’re not familiar with Gonzalez: the man is a left-handed hitter. Left-handed hitters experience many a defensive shift. To attest: Gonzalez ranks in the top 30 in shifted hitters.

This is important because CarGo pulls the ball, as all man are wont to do. In his defense, he is pulling the ball at a career-low rate — only 30.6 percent of the time, fully 7.5 percentage points less than his previous low way back in 2010. One would think that fewer pull-side balls in play will bode well for BABIP, especially for a lefty. (Hold that thought.)

On the contrary, and unfortunately, fewer balls pulled does not bode well for slugging; Pull% correlates strongly with ISO, as I demonstrated here. His dip in Pull% really isn’t that alarming until you consider what happens when he does pull the ball:

Season Pull LD% GB% FB% Soft% Med% Hard%
2010 Pull 21.7 % 54.9 % 23.4 % 4.6 % 43.4 % 52.0 %
2011 Pull 18.7 % 60.0 % 21.3 % 24.7 % 40.5 % 34.8 %
2012 Pull 19.6 % 67.3 % 13.1 % 12.9 % 53.5 % 33.5 %
2013 Pull 25.7 % 43.1 % 31.2 % 11.0 % 44.0 % 45.0 %
2014 Pull 16.7 % 60.3 % 23.1 % 15.4 % 48.7 % 35.9 %
2015 Pull 13.6 % 81.8 % 4.5 % 18.2 % 68.2 % 13.6 %

The cells highlighted in blue seriously give me the sweats. (Not in a good way. Is there a good way?) You, the hitter, usually have to hit fly balls to hit home runs. Moreover, history tells us that those fly balls should be pulled — more than 72 percent of all home runs in the last 10 years were hit to the pull side — and they should be pulled hard. The hard hit rate, as you can see, is way, waaaaaay down from years past.

Reframing the argument: a batter ought to avoid hitting soft (or medium) ground balls. You especially don’t want to hit soft ground balls if you are lefty who faces an above-average number of defensive shifts. CarGo, with his microscopic 4.5-percent fly ball rate and massive 81.8-percent ground ball rate, is doing none of what could make, and has made, him effective. Nope. He’s not even close to a recipe for success, and it’s all likely contributing to his stifled power and batting average.

So that’s a possible explanation: he’s devoid of power because he’s not utilizing his pull side optimally. This helps us understand his poor outcomes, but it broaches another question about his approach.

Fortunately, there exist some nifty heat maps that demonstrate, with remarkable clarity, Gonzalez’s woes at the plate. Paul Swydan highlighted some of Gonzalez’s contact struggles in his Friday post.

You can see here that pitchers typically pitch Gonzalez down and away. This is a totally unsurprising plan of attack. There’s some extra noise in the 2015 heat map, given it depicts one-tenth the pitches the 2012-14 heat map shows, but each one tells largely the same story.

Here’s the beef: Gonzalez’s sweet spot, so to speak, has narrowed considerably (and, perhaps, moved ever-so-slightly inward). This could be the function of a prolonged slump. Still, a slump does not completely nullify his utter inability to do any kind of damage to pitches low and away, aka pitches located in the part of the zone where opposing pitchers live. PITCHf/x provides further validation, pointing to career-worst contact, zone-contact and swinging strike rates. If there’s a silver lining, it’s that he’s spraying the ball to all fields more than usual and has yet to hit an infield fly ball. But that’s where the praise stops and the dread, panic, what-have-you begin.

Unfortunately, visualizing Gonzalez’s woes creates yet more questions: Why is he struggling on pitches low and outside where he once thrived (or, at least, didn’t suck so badly)? Is it possible it’s still just a function of a prolonged slump? If I were Jeff Sullivan, I would find clips of Gonzalez’s swing in 2010 or 2011 or 2013 and compare it to his swing now. I would see how his mechanics have changed or I would do something crazy awesome like time his swing with a stopwatch and try to measure how much it has slowed down. It would help me reinforce my skepticism about his swing speed and general health.

But I’m not Jeff, so I won’t do that. What I will do, however, is make the unbold claim that CarGo is not OK. Honestly, I would hope he’s injured — not to wish ill on the man, but because what he’s doing right now is downright ugly. And sad. Maybe it’s more sad than anything else, given he’s still on the right side of 30.

As Paul noted Friday, the Rockies’ window to trade CarGo may have closed. Based on the evidence above, their window is not only closed but also locked and boarded. You, however, may still have time. I said it yesterday: it might be in your best interest to get as large a return as you can for him right now before it’s too late.

Currently investigating the relationship between pitcher effectiveness and beard density. Two-time FSWA award winner, including 2018 Baseball Writer of the Year, and 8-time award finalist. Previously featured in Lindy's Sports' Fantasy Baseball magazine (2018, 2019). Tout Wars competitor. Biased toward a nicely rolled baseball pant.

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Very helpful analysis on one of the most frustrating hitters to own! In my 12-team OBP league, CarGo has been riding the pine all season. I haven’t been able to find anyone interested in a trade (aside from waiver fodder)…how long of a leash would you give CarGo until dropping him for a guy like Souza (who’s been bouncing off and on waivers)? June?

Thanks a lot!