Utility players don’t get a lot of love most times. They’re rarely flashy, don’t usually have a huge hand in winning, and when you’re seeing them play it usually means your favorite player is taking the day off. And sometimes they bat at literally the team’s biggest moment in twenty years and hit like, well, a utility infielder. Some are better at it than others. Some are Ben Zobrist. The Indians have Erik Gonzalez. He’s no Zobrist, but he’s about as good as you can expect.
Is that damning with faint praise? He’s a bit player that people barely remember and whose jersey nobody owns, so maybe. That’s part of the point of the utility guy though, is the anonymity. I don’t actually want to know who Michael Martinez is. I liked Ben Francisco well enough, but on that same team was a man named Mike Rouse, who for the life of me I cannot remember a thing about. Same thing with Jason Donald - he’s more the idea of a baseball player than one I actually remember concretely. Two of those three were 25, Gonzalez’s age, and Donald was 27 but had that youthful face. That youth is vital for the utility guy to not be a hated scapegoat. It allows for a little bit of dreaming.
Like, Gonzalez probably won’t be much better than we’ve seen. Sure, he’s only played 81 games in the majors with 132 plate appearances. Maybe a bit more consistent playtime would help. But he still has a K/BB ratio in excess of 10/1. He’s never had an OPS higher than .779 throughout his minor league career, and has only cracked .300 twice and one of those times was a 17 at-bat span in 2016. Outside of being a wiry mess of limbs and having a certain finesse for fielding, he hasn’t shown anyone much of anything at any level.
But I still saw him hit a ball 433 feet in Baltimore last year. Yeah, Baltimore is bad at pitching. And yeah, Camden Yards is a bandbox. But that was a bomb he hit, and it was right in my direction. Seeing something like that in person is how irrational hopes bloom and fan clubs are founded that celebrate the exploits of a player nobody outside of their home city has heard of. He only hit four home runs last year, but that small sample does place Gonzalez fourth on the team in average home run exit velocity. Overall he’s only 11th, but when you see a bit player clobber one, it makes you think, “hey, what if he could figure it out?” What if he started hitting more fly balls (ground ball rate is 57.5 percent), or what if he suddenly got better plate discipline? Why can’t he be the diamond in the rough?
Gonzalez plays baseball the way I probably would - unbound recklessness at the plate and enthusiasm in the field. He’s like a Golden Retriever. That strikeout rate, the 44.4 percent swing rate on balls out of the zone (league average is 29.9 percent), the 66.1 percent contact rate (77.5 league average), his effort is so evident even if the talent lacks. Plus he took the extra base 56 percent of the time. Only Greg Allen was ahead of him among position players. Is that eagerness, that irrational exhuberance not something to be valued?
It’s honestly amazing that guys like him make it to the majors and stick around to make a few hundred thousand dollars each season. He was never good in the minors, and yet here he is. That versatility goes so far though, and by a couple different metrics he’s pretty good defensively. Baseball Reference gives him .5 dWAR, and by UZR/150 he’s a +20.26 at third, +9 at second and.... -20.6 at shortstop. So it evens out. Utility players are hard to judge by advanced metrics, but he seems pretty competent out there at least. They just need to get a Lindor clone, too.
Gonzalez is going to have another obscure season this summer, show up late in games to give Lindor or Ramirez or Kipnis a rest, basically be a human victory cigar. Nobody is going to care. But without guys like Gonzalez, the men doing the real lifting would have less energy, less verve, and bring us less joy. He’s the shadow to Lindor and Ramirez’s bright light, and that needs recognition. Even if it does happen in February.